An excerpt of this column originally appeared as a special to the Kenosha News, Sunday Mornings With Basil Willis, December 11, 2011
It was the summer of 2007 and we were on our way out for martinis, driving downtown, when we passed the majestic building at dusk. There was a for sale sign in the yard. I slowed down. “Wow, she’s gorgeous.”
“Oh yeah, that’s the old Elk’s Club. I had my prom there.” Beth has a habit of hiding interesting Kenosha things from me, and then acting like I’m dumb for not knowing they existed. She told me about the weddings and other events she had attended there, and about the glorious ballroom.
We got out and walked up to the doors to peer in. The building was amazing. The first floor housed a restaurant on one end, a comfortable lobby and lounge area with a large fireplace in the middle, and a bar tucked away in the back on the other end. There was a circular drive on the north side of the building for dropping off the ladies. I pictured parties and laughter and music. I was instantly in love.
I had never even entertained the notion of being a business or commercial property owner, but I was helplessly enchanted. Walking around the building gave me a sense of community and vibrancy and I could see it all coming back to life.
When we got home I did research. It was assessed at a half million dollars and had been falling steadily for years. The property taxes had not been paid for the past two years. We might be able to get a great deal on the place.
Within one weekend we had the outline of a business plan. We knew nothing about running a restaurant, so we would partner with a local up and coming chef who wanted to start his or her own place. We would build out and provide the space for cheap for a piece of the revenue. The back bar would be turned into a speakeasy-themed hideaway, with a secret door from the lobby hidden behind bookshelves.
Above the restaurant was a 1,500 square foot chef’s quarters, which we would turn into our own apartment.
The second and third stories housed the magnificent ballroom with two story arched windows, hardwood floors and bars on either side. On one end of the ballroom was a balcony with another bar, which we would set up as a VIP and wheelchair accessible area for shows. Outside on the front of the building was a wonderful portico that spread out under massive columns. Mojitos and long, sheer linen curtains would flow in the summer breeze.
We could have done anything in that space, and we planned it all; concerts, weddings, theater in the round, dances, exhibits, chamber events, fish fries, yoga, bingo. We would keep it used and occupied.
The fourth floor, which was once hotel rooms, we would turn into an incubator for small service-based start-ups; a caterer, designer, web developer, perhaps an accountant or lawyer who wanted to hang their own shingle. There would be private offices, a shared conference room under the large sky light, and a shared phone system and Internet connection. It would be an attractive, professional place entrepreneurs could work and meet clients without a lot of overhead.
I worked with a contractor on the remodeling costs and totaled up everything we could think of, and then doubled it just to be safe.
We figured what we could make by selling our house (this was before the bottom fell out), cashing in our 401Ks and our savings. We also did some preliminary research on SBA loans and grants to restore historic buildings. One of us would keep our day job in the interim for income and insurance. The numbers were working.
We called the real estate agent and set up a tour the next day. He showed us the basement first, which housed an olympic-sized pool. Bonus. Then he showed us a room off to the side. “They had oil tanks for the furnace here, and there may have been leaking. You’ll probably have to get some testing done, get EPA clearance.”
My heart sank. As the tour continued, it was obvious that the whole place needed to be gutted, and was probably beyond even that. Broken windows had allowed birds to take up residence and there was mold everywhere. We should have been wearing masks. Worst of all, the owner was asking for close to a million dollars, which was twice the assessed value and half of what it would take to rehab the place. With every step, through every room of what was once a magnificent community anchor, the dream was slowly, methodically, strangled to death.
My heart sank again last week when I saw her on the cover of the Kenosha News with plans to raze. I know the recent background story on the building, and it is sad, but I can’t help wonder how this was allowed to happen. Designated an historic structure by Kenosha in 1979, the city has looked away over the last decade as this beautiful edifice was allowed to decay, taxes unpaid. It is a metaphor for much of what challenges Kenosha.
Sure, I‘ve dreamt of pulling the rip cord and setting up shop in a beach hut, but I’d never had a crazy idea for a sudden life change like that before, so clear and powerfully compelling, and haven’t since. The idea of restoring the building was all-consuming for a brief moment. There was something about that old place that spoke to me, and inspired me to dream. I never really knew her, but I miss her already.