Walworth County Annex turnes to shambles

(Published August 3, 2006, 11:45 a.m.)

By Mike Heine/The Week

Water seeps in through windowsills, paint peels off the walls, ceiling tiles fall to the floor and mold grows in the dank, dark corners.

This is what it's like now inside parts of the Walworth County Annex complex on County NN. The county has little use for much of the annex and has let some areas turn to shambles.

But it wasn't always that way.

Early days

Much has happened on the annex grounds since the county began buying the land in the mid 1800s.

According to past newspaper accounts and documents kept by the Walworth County Historical Society, the county first used the grounds as a "poor farm."

The county took care of the people who couldn't take care of themselves, including needy, poor, ill and insane. All were cared for at the county poor farm and insane asylum.

"One cannot walk through these rooms without feelings of sorrow at the spectacle of human misery, mind and body, crippled, sufferers from loathsome diseases, idiots, the insane, most of whom are in the condition from gratifying their appetites and passions, and now their possessors are wrecks of the worst description," A.O. Wright, then secretary of the state board of charities and reforms said in an 1881 Walworth County Independent newspaper article.

A working farm allowed residents and county employees to harvest the surrounding fields and raise cattle for food.

The grounds evolved over the years and several buildings were built, added onto and torn down.

Most of the first "poor farm" and "poor house" buildings are long gone today.

The County General Hospital, approved in 1917 and built within the next year, remains, albeit not for long.

At least one building from the poor farm, informally called the Smith Building by county employees, also stands at the eastern end of the row of buildings. Built in the early 1910s, it was used as an insane asylum, jail and Huber Dorm over the years before becoming a storage facility strewn with health hazards. County officials refused to even go into the building during a recent tour.

At its peak, the insane asylum probably housed 100 mentally ill people and county staffers in basement living quarters, said Harry Romie, facilities manager and building engineer.

"They used to pack them in pretty tight," Romie said.

They've lived long, interesting lives, but the historical buildings that make up the county County Annex will be torn down this fall or upcoming spring.

Long history

A lot of history happened inside the paint-chipped walls of the county's first hospital and its later additions, said Delavan's Franklin Stoneburner, a local historian and former county employee.

The first hospital served its purpose many times over, a sesquicentennial history of the county reads. It housed a number of patients during the 1920 influenza epidemic.

By the mid 1920s it was apparent that more space was needed. The addition was built and housed its first patients in 1929.

In its first year, 103 mothers gave birth there and there were 68 major surgical operations, according to the history books.

The hospital was in such demand that nurses' quarters were created on the third floor, Stoneburner said.

Occasionally, patients slept on cots in the lobby area and in hallways due to lack of room. Care was different then.

Stoneburner recalled an old newspaper clipping that quoted a nurse reminiscing, "How well I remember the car accidents and removing the broken glass from their faces."

First senior home

By 1938, a new 80-bed county hospital was built and the old hospital was turned into the county's insane asylum and nursing home. The 1938 building is still in use today by Aurora Lakeland Medical Center, as is the former Nurse's Home built next door about the same period.

Around the same time (views are mixed as to the exact year), another addition was put on the east side of the 1917 hospital building, likely in the early 1940s. The old hospital was primarily used for treating mentally ill and new addition housed county seniors.

The building was remodeled in 1967 and became the Walworth County Hospital and Home Annex.

As medical treatment practices improved, the asylum portion was converted into the county's social services department.

The first nursing home was utilized until 1976 when all of the senior residents were moved into Lakeland Nursing Home, an even more modern facility across the street constructed in 1962 and added onto in 1976.

The eastern additions to the 1917 hospital building once connected to the Smith Building. Some of those parts were torn down after Lakeland Health Care Center was built. The remaining areas, other than the Smith Building, are or were still in use until not long ago.

Recent uses

The county's land use and resource management department remains in converted offices just east of the 1917 building. The offices had been resident rooms, remnants of which still remain in some areas.

Area 4-H clubs used the nursing home recreation room as the Black Box Theater. The cafeteria was converted into the Annex Auditorium, used regularly for public zoning meetings.

Beginning in 1979 or 80, areas of the first hospital buildings were converted into a senior activity center, Stoneburner said. County residents could come in, play cards, shoot pool, do arts and crafts, talk, eat lunch and more, said Stoneburner, who helped create the senior center.

Later in the decade and through last year, the old hospital buildings housed the county's employee relations department, Romie said.

Only the sheriff's department SWAT Team uses the facility now for training purposes. Exploded paintballs are splattered on the doors and walls and spent shell casings litter the floor.

Stoneburner said the multiple uses of the annex buildings were incredible.

"I think it's great. It just shows that there was such versatility in these buildings," he said.

What's next

The county zoning department, the lone remaining department still in the annex, will move into the downtown Elkhorn government later this month.

The facilities at the annex, including garages and the water tower behind it, will be torn down in the coming months to the tune of about $1.4 million. What will happen with the annex lands remains undecided, Romie said.

"I think they're tearing down some magnificent buildings," Stoneburner said. "The best ones are probably those hospital buildings. Those were really built like the rock of Gibraltar."

Not all will be lost though. The copula on top of the 1929 hospital building will be saved and placed in front of the new Lakeland Health Care Center as reminder of the county's care for its citizens, Stoneburner said.

Demo start on October 1.

Way planning, ongoing throughout most of the fall.

Looks like will be early winter by time complete.

We're leaving as many trees as possible. Don't think any trees that'll come down.

Going ot restore it. not collapsing it in on itself. Will be filled in.

Filled and grassed over. Lot of the material will be crushed on site and leftin the hold. Leave good base behind.

We're taking out anything usable. Some mechanical. Pumps for spares. And anything that works that may be able to use.

That will be saved...

Don't think anything hard and fast. Want to make sure saved.

Drug unit on west end of the annex.

Smith 1910-12.

Smith just a slang term.

Just called the insane asylum.

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