John and Jody Wittnebel have always been avid supporters of the arts in Beloit. Their support is so great that The Wittnebel’s took a leap of faith and purchased a historical downtown building with the vision of reviving this icon to give the arts in Beloit a place to thrive and be enjoyed by the entire community. Today, that building is the home of The Castle at 501 Prospect.
In 2012, the Wittnebels purchased the former First Presbyterian church building, located at 501 Prospect Street, which was built in 1906 and has achieved national landmark status. Since then, this family and community friends have rolled up their sleeves to creatively transform the space into a beautiful performing arts center. The Castle, colossal as it may seem, began with an idea sparked by a similar project in Minnesota where a worn-down church was brought alive when it was converted into a performing arts center. “We can do that here,” thought Jody. “Where there’s a will there’s a way!” They consulted with Beloit College, the Beloit International Film Festival, and the City of Beloit. All three of these organizations gave the Wittnebels ample encouragement.
When John and Jody Wittnebel bought the building they immediately began the painstaking process of refurbishing The Castle. John and Jody have personally done most of the work. John is frequently seen on scaffolding, renovating the decrepit innards of this old building, while Jody is surrounded by little ones playing music or using the space for educational programs. The Wittnebel’s three sons have pitched in with painting walls and replacing flooring, among other things. The focus of this renovation has not been to restructure the building, but to enhance its true beauty and restore it to its original glory. The main room, the Sanctuary, still has the original, beautifully-curved oak pews and stained glass windows. Jody emphasized that “My husband loves history; this was the perfect building for us.”
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It’s a family affair! Jody owns a marketing agency called Hourglass Media, a photography and videography studio, and John is a pilot for American Airlines. Brittnay, their daughter, handles the marketing, and Johnny, their son, is a music teacher at The Castle. In addition, the Wittnebels recruited Greg Gerard, a Grammy-Nominated Beloit musician, and Director of Operations for the Beloit International Film Festival, to help manage programming at the facility.
This picturesque venue is available for use by all! Organizations that range from large non-profits, such as the Beloit International Film Festival and the Rock Philharmonic Symphony, to local educators, such as Beloit College, Doodles, and Miss Andrea’s Dance Factory, have enjoyed this creative space to learn, teach, and perform. Additionally, the Castle is available for special events such as weddings, corporate events, parties, and presentations. The walls of the Castle are constantly filled with good smells from the kitchen and beautiful sounds from the never-ending musical performances.
The Castle is also home to The Youth Unite (TYU), a local non-profit organization that provides wellness education and guidance to the community. The Wittnebel’s daughter, Brittnay, a Beloit College graduate, founded TYU in collaboration with Beloit College. Today, TYU hosts concerts and events for youth, produces DVDs to spread the message of anti-bullying, runs a 24-hour help-line website, and sends role models into the schools to present their Character Education Assembly to students who struggle with bullying. “Kids are excited about coming here,” says Jody Wittnebel. “We give them a safe, welcoming, and fun place to go.”
“Our goal was to save the church from demolition and offer both commercial and philanthropic events,” says Jody. “We want to help various community groups while providing Beloit with a cultural centerpiece that will draw visitors and patrons from the Stateline area and beyond.” Jody says there will be a focus on family friendly events at The Castle, with concerts for teenagers as well as special events and educational activities for parents and younger children. The Castle gives young artists the chance to perform and share their talent with art aficionados or novice art appreciators. The hidden talent of the Stateline area has a lot to offer and The Castle hopes to revive the art community in Beloit. The Castle’s programs are designed to attract visitors to Beloit and characterize Beloit as a unique, and interesting place to stop when driving down I-90.
“We’re giving the community what they want in terms of music and art,” says Jody. “Our goal is to give people the royal treatment. This can be a country club for the arts. We want to take the artistic experience to another level.”