CALEDONIA — No one denies that Fred Hermes’ basement is a spectacle.
The 91-year-old Caledonia man has received national attention for his Basement Bijou, a nostalgic nod to 1920s-era cinema featuring a massive 1926 Wurlitzer organ, the biggest ever built by the company, as its centerpiece.
The display has been featured on television shows, such as CBS’ “On the Road” and “CBS Sunday Morning.”
Everything from the basement’s high ceilings to its moldings taken from Racine’s former Venetian Theater transports visitors to another time, when cinema reigned supreme and silent movies were accompanied by booming organs.
But after safety concerns were raised by a retired fire chief from outside the area who went on a tour and filed a complaint, the Caledonia Fire Department was obligated to check out the Basement Bijou to ensure the safety of his basement tours.
“Until we got the complaint, I didn’t know he was running tours through there,” said Caledonia Fire Chief Richard Roeder. “The goal of this whole process is not to shut Fred down. The process is to make the venue safe for the public to be there, and to meet the fire and building codes that are in place by the State of Wisconsin.”
Complaints raised include the basement not having enough fire extinguishers and the distance between extinguishers, lack of up-to-code emergency lighting, number of exits, safety of the exits into and out of the basement and road access, as the Hermes’ residence lies at a dead end with the nearest fire hydrant more than 600 feet away, Caledonia Fire Department Battalion Chief Dale Roszina stated.
Hermes himself disputes the claims, stating that he has purchased extra fire extinguishers, invested in new emergency lighting and has people sit in the back row of theater, both because the organ sounds better and the audience is closer to exits. He also claims that he once had a fire drill with about 40 or 50 people, and everyone was able to exit the basement within 5 minutes.
“I’ve been holding tours for about 50 years, and I’ve never had a problem,” Hermes states.
And while Hermes is permitted to have friends and family over to show off his prized organ and awe-inspiring theater, it becomes an issue once the public is involved.
“The problem is that he was taking public tours, getting paid to conduct those tours and inviting people into his private residence, which was not up to the standards of the codes,” said Chief Roeder. “There lies the rub. It steps outside the boundary when you start taking money and bus tours. He’s inviting the paying public to come into his residence; therefore, he has to be up to safety codes.”
Public versus private
Hermes disagrees that the tours are public.
“I don’t invite the public in,” he said. “The tours are not public. I don’t care what they technically consider it.”
Hermes, who referred to Roeder’s staff as “minions,” states that tours happen on his private residence, and therefore, are not open to the public.
Tours had been arranged through Real Racine, the Racine County convention and visitors bureau. But Dave Blank, president and CEO of Real Racine, said the organization has halted all tours to Hermes’ basement.
“Basement Bijou has been one of the leading attractions for our group tour market for years,” Blank said. “It’s just unfortunate that we aren’t able to utilize it anymore. We understand the issues that are brought up about it, and when alerted to the infractions, the Caledonia Fire Department had to do what it had to do.”
Blank said that Basement Bijou was a popular destination on Real Racine’s mystery tours, in which a bus group books tours without knowing the destination. “Groups would complain as they were going down the path, but at the end, you couldn’t get them out,” Blank said. “They wanted to stay and hear more stories.”
And while no one is denying that what lies in Hermes’ basement is indeed special, Caledonia fire authorities feel an obligation to protect the public.
“We don’t want someone to have a fire, have 40 or 50 people killed in there and have someone say to us, ‘How come you didn’t do anything about that place?’ “ said Kirk Buchaklian, Caledonia’s building and development services inspector. “We’re looking out for safety, and that’s the bottom line.”