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Businessman offers to save historic cupola

County says OK, with conditions

Mike Heine/The Week

(Published May 8, 2007, 2:40 p.m.)

A Walworth County icon sits nearly in shambles on a trailer behind the public works department.

The cupola that inspired the logo donning county trucks, letterhead and business cards is in a state of disrepair.

Gary Wallem, an Elkhorn property developer who also happens to br newly elected Sugar Creek town chairman, has decided that piece of history can’t go to waste.

For nearly 90 years it sat atop county hospital, which has now been demolished.

“It’s not a piece of county property as it is a piece of artwork,” Wallem said. “It was built in 1923. They have the original blueprints from when it was put on the hospital.”

Ginny Hall, a member of the county and state historical societies, asked the county to save the cupola in 2005, when it was decided the old hospital, built on County NN in 1917, was to be torn down once county offices were moved out of it.

“I am a firm believer that we are loosing so much history, the symbols of our past, that anything we can do to save what we have left is very important,” Hall said. “In Europe, the idea is to preserve. There, buildings are 500, 600, 700 or 800 years old and they’re still being maintained. We have buildings that reach 50 years old and people say, ‘It’s too old. Let’s tear it down and build something new.’ I think we’re losing something in that process.”

The county has no budget to restore the cupola, which was dropped and damaged last fall when the demolition contractor took it off the three-story roof of the annex complex, said Public Works Director Shane Crawford.

“It’s in such a condition right now that the county has different priorities than spending dollars on something like that,” Crawford said.

Instead of paying to repair the damage, the demolition company did extra demolition work that was needed for free, Crawford said.

The county’s historical groups didn’t have the money to restore the 16-foot tall cupola, either.

Wallem stepped forward with a plan to save the cupola at no cost to the county that would keep the artifact in Elkhorn.

He wants to put it atop a new building he is planning to erect next to his Uncle Hunk’s Junk antique and gift store on Lincoln Street. And he offered to do the restoration on his nickel.

Wallem balked at a proposed contract the county put forward before turning over the cupola. It required him to restore the cupola as close to the original form as possible and have it atop his new building within two years. If he ever sold the building, the cupola would revert back to county property.

If Wallem is going to put the money and effort into seeing the property restored, he wants to have it with few strings attached. He guaranteed that it would be restored to its original form and stay in Elkhorn forever.

“Right now it’s more of a burden than it is an asset,” for the county, Wallem said. “It’s on a trailer in the back of their (public works) yard and it looks awful.

“Where the bell top was once round, it looks like a watermelon now. The substructure is busted.

“Nobody is going to make that effort but me. If I’m going to put the effort in, I’m going to call the shots on it. If not, someone else can have it.”

Wallem expects the county board to agree to his terms when it looks at the issue this Tuesday. If the board doesn’t give him the cupola, life moves on, he said.

“If someone else comes up with another idea or a better idea, more power to them,” Wallem said. “I don’t have to have it. I’m just the only tool that said he wanted it.”


Want to help?

If the county gives the cupola to Wallem, he could use some help in the restoration project. The wood and tin structure is too intricate for his own abilities so he is looking for skilled craftsmen to work on saving the piece of history, particularly metal workers.

“I’m going to have a hard time finding someone with the kind of abilities that theses guys had back then,” he said.

If interested, call Wallem at (262) 723-7000.


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