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The Company and Its Founders
As Oshkosh continued to grow, business leaders worked to diversify the local economy. In 1908, a group of local businessmen led by George M. Paine, President of the Paine Lumber Company and the Oshkosh Chamber of Commerce, founded Wisconsin National Life Insurance Company. Wisconsin National Life was the second insurance company founded in Wisconsin, and the first legal reserve stock life insurance company in the state. It started with $125,000, $3.4 million in today's dollars, in assets.
George Paine served as the company’s first president. George Nevitt, Paine's grandson, bought the first policy.
Since its founding, prominent community members and businessmen led the company. When George Paine retired in 1916, General Charles R. Boardman succeeded him as president, and his son Robert P. Boardman took the reins in 1946.
By 1991, Wisconsin National Life Insurance Company had more than $3 billion worth of insurance in force and had agents working in 48 states. After operating in Oshkosh during World War I, the influenza epidemic of 1918-1919, the Great Depression, and World War II, in 1993, the company was sold, and its local offices closed. Winnebago County Department of Human Services currently occupies the building.
Wisconsin National Life had offices in several locations along Main Street before moving to Washington Avenue in 1911, where it remained until plans were drawn up for a new building in 1927 (two years before the stock market crash). The structure was designed by Auler, Jensen and Brown, and built by Fluor Bros. Construction Co. It cost $265,000, nearly $3.8 million in today's dollars. When it opened on March 17, 1927, The Daily Northwestern devoted extensive coverage to the event, noting the structure’s “stateliness and sturdy beauty” which “added to [the] city’s rapidly growing list of attractive and modern business structures."
Built in the neoclassical Greek style, the impressive structure features an elaborate and colorful terra cotta frieze running along the top of the building. The frieze displays griffins, scrolls, and lions’ heads, images found in classical Greek art and architecture and used to symbolize strength, power and leadership. If you look up towards the third floor you'll see several owls lining the windows along the front and sides of the building. The owl is associated with the Greek Goddess of wisdom, Athena. Classically, the owl symbolized both wisdom and knowledge.
The ornate Corinthian capitals topping the exterior columns represent the third, and most decorative, of the three classical Greek architectural styles. If you stand across the street from Roe Park and look slightly to the west along Washington Avenue, you can see all three styles of classical Greek columns: Ionic, featured at Oshkosh Public Library; Doric, at the Masonic Center; and, finally, the Corinthian columns of the Wisconsin National Life Building. Do you have a favorite?
The building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982.
The interior is closed to the general public. However, some of the original design work is still present.