L ate Monday morning, I watched them tear down a great Madison landmark.
"It's tragic," Carol Kolb said, when I reached her in New York City. Kolb had already received the sad news via a text message from a friend.
Kolb is currently the head writer for the Onion News Network, a daily Web video broadcast launched by the Onion in March 2007.
But for much of the 1990s, Kolb lived in Madison and was curator of an unusual museum that received national attention, including a 1997 write-up in Time magazine.
The Madison Museum of Bathroom Tissue was located in Kolb's apartment at 305 N. Hamilton St.
On Monday, a demolition crew was taking down the building, which was adjacent to the Pinkus McBride Market & Deli, not far from the Lake Mendota shore. A four-story, 70-unit apartment will be built on the block. The grocery is not affected and will remain open.
Inside Pinkus McBride, a clerk was asked if he knew the famous history of the building next door.
He grinned. "The toilet paper museum," he said. "People would come by and ask about it. They still do, but not as much."
The good news, for fans of history and toilet paper, is that while the building that housed the museum is gone, the museum's contents are safe, and may yet be available for perusal by a grateful public. More on that momentarily.
Some readers may first appreciate a bit of background about the toilet paper museum, which Kolb has said debuted when she and a friend liberated a roll from the Trophy Room tavern in Lodi on Aug. 30, 1992.
The legend is that things just naturally rolled on from there, with toilet paper stacking up in the North Hamilton Street apartment, and special attention paid to rolls from famous or exotic locales.
But later on Monday, I think I may have found the real inspiration for the toilet paper museum. I didn't call Kolb back to ask, operating on the theory that it is OK to make a long-distance call about toilet paper once during a working day, but not twice.
My theory comes from an episode of "Seinfeld," the wildly popular 1990s sitcom. During "The Pitch," an episode that aired Sept. 16, 1992 - less than a month after Kolb and company obtained their first out-of-town roll of toilet paper - Jerry Seinfeld said the following: "Maybe they should have a toilet paper museum. Would you like that? So we could see all the toilet paper advancements down through the ages. Toilet paper of the Crusades, the development of the perforation. The first six-pack."
Whatever its true inspiration, the Madison Museum of Bathroom Tissue's first real publicity came in 1996 when it was featured in a State Journal article.
At the time, there were 1,500 rolls in the collection, with rolls from Lambeau Field, Graceland, the Alamo, Ellis Island, the Washington Monument and Madison Area Technical College.
"We are not stealing the rolls, we are borrowing them," Kolb told the reporter. "If someone gets mad, they can have their roll back, but we would explain to them the importance of preserving the roll in the museum."
Kolb then waxed philosophical on the place of toilet paper in society: "We all need it, so it actually celebrates the unity of all people."
The toilet paper museum went national in March 1997 when Time magazine included it in a feature on "everyday museums."
By that time, the collection had expanded to 3,000 rolls. There was toilet paper from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Mount Rushmore.
A reporter asked: "Is this museum a joke?"
Kolb replied: "It's kind of a tribute to the common man."
That year, 1997, the museum was featured in a book, "Offbeat Museums," by Saul Rubin. Four pages were devoted to the Madison Museum of Bathroom Tissue and people were encouraged to send in rolls.
Kolb had been a nurse's aide at Badger Prairie Health Care in Verona when she started the museum. By the end of the decade, she was working as a writer and editor for the Onion. When the humor weekly moved a large part of its operation from Madison to New York City in early 2001, Kolb went along.
So what became of the Madison Museum of Bathroom Tissue?
In a review of a 2003 reissue of "Offbeat Museums," a Vancouver newspaper reported that "the museum went down the tubes when its proprietors left town and took their supplies with them."
But that's not what happened, Kolb said Monday.
When she moved to New York, the toilet paper collection ended up in a garage in Elgin, Ill., belonging to the brother of Todd Hanson, another Onion writer.
"The thinking was they might someday open a coffee shop or something," Kolb said, "and be able to put it back on display."
That hasn't happened, and it's still in the garage. "Life gets in the way," Kolb said. "You can't always put the toilet paper first."