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Faced with county red tape, business passes on cupola restoration

Mike Heine/The Week

(Published May 16, 2007, 9:47 a.m.)

The fate of the old Walworth County hospital's cupola, the 16-foot wood and tin structure from the early 1920s, is once again unknown.

Since being removed from the old county annex complex last fall before the building was torn down, there has been an effort to preserve the cupola and the history it represents.

Just who will do it, if anybody, remains in question.

Elkhorn property developer Gary Wallem had offered to restore the cupola on his own dime, if the county would give him ownership of it. He wanted to put it atop a new building he plans to build on Lincoln Street.

The county, however, wanted restrictions on the cupola to get it back should the building ownership change hands or if tenants in Wallem's proposed new building were something that didn't jive with the county's image.

"If you don't have controls over it, a handshake isn't going to cut it," County Administrator David Bretl said.

As the fate of the cupola became politicized, Wallem backed off and says he won't take it. He had promised to restore it to its original form and keep it in Elkhorn forever.

"I have a definite problem with signing an agreement that would allow me to restore the cupola, at my own considerable expense, and display it on top of my building, but would not allow me to physically own the cupola," Wallem wrote in a letter to Public Works Director Shane Crawford.

The cupola, already weathered over the years, had been accidentally tipped over when the demolition contractor was removing it from the roof of the three\-story annex building.

To make up for the estimated $3,500 in damage, the contractor offered to remove $12,500 in asbestos that was later found in the annex at no charge. The public works committee approved the deal Monday.

That leaves the county on the hook to restore the cupola at its own cost, should it choose, unless someone else volunteers to put in the time and effort.

Wallem estimated it would cost between $10,000 and $20,000 to refurbish the nearly 90-year-old wood and tin structure that has become an icon of Walworth County. It is the inspiration behind the icon on county business cards, letterhead and public works trucks.

The public works committee decided to use the next two months to find a contractor to estimate the repair costs.

"If we get a quote to fix it, at least we know what it's going to cost," Supervisor Jim Van Dreser said. "I think we deal with it and get it over with. Either fix it or get rid of it."

Bretl said the choices are restoring the cupola at county's expense, offering it to someone else with a contract similar to the one Wallem refused, or destroy it.

Supervisors did toss around the idea of having a marble engraving of the cupola that could be on permanent display. That will remain an option if no volunteers come forward to refurbish the cupola or if it becomes too expensive.

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