No home sweet home settlement for Blair House dispute in Waukesha

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The historic Blair House has sparked controversy between the city of Waukesha and the Waukesha Masonic Lodge 37. The city wants to turn over the site to a Waukesha couple who wants to transform the property into a Bed & Breakfast. Meanwhile, the Masonic Lodge filed a lawsuit against the city and says the house should be turned over to them.
Published on: 8/11/2014

Gene Johnson said he sweetened the deal.

The city of Waukesha said no thanks.

Johnson, the attorney representing the Waukesha Masonic Lodge 37, a group that is suing the city over the historic Blair House, issued a settlement offer to the city for $2,000.

However, the Waukesha Common Council rejected the settlement in closed session last week, meaning the two sides will now go to court. A scheduling conference will be held on Monday, Aug. 18, at the Waukesha County Courthouse.

"They chose to play hard ball," Johnson said. "They had their chance."

The building, which is on the state and national historical registries, was built by William Blair, a Scotland native, who was a prominent banker and manufacturer. Henry, his son, was the last Blair to live in the home and one-time mayor of Waukesha.

Johnson and the Freemasons have said that the city has violated the terms of Henry Blair's will, which said the property should not be used for commercial purposes, storage, a tool shed or warehouses.

Blair's will also said the property could be sold but the proceeds had to be devoted "to some specific civic purpose, such as playgrounds, parks, schools or hospital work.

Not revealing plans

In its lawsuit, the Masonic Lodge said that the city has materially violated the terms of the will by leasing the property to Waukesha Memorial Hospital Inc. and Safe Babies Healthy Families Inc. over the years. ProHealth Care was the most recent user of the building, before its lease expired early last year.

If a judge finds that the city violated the will of the former mayor of Waukesha, the ownership of the property would be turned over to the Masonic Lodge.

City Attorney Brian Running said the city disputes all of Johnson's claims.

Johnson hasn't said what the Masonic Lodge has planned for the site. But if the city, which said last year that it didn't have the funds to support the property, wins the court battle, it already has an interested buyer.

B&B proposal

Bob and Lisa Salb, a Waukesha couple, put in a $1,000 offer to buy the Blair House, which was built in 1876 and sits on a hill overlooking the city at 434 Madison St. Prior to the lawsuit, the Salbs had sent in a proposal to the city, describing their plan and interest in the house. Their proposal was the only one submitted to the city.

The couple wants to turn the 6,500-square-foot house into a bed & breakfast inn, something the city of Waukesha is currently without. But the plan has been halted since the lawsuit was filed this summer.

"I have dreamed of owning a bed-and-breakfast since the 1990s," Lisa Salb said at the Aug. 5 common council meeting. "People seem to love the idea of a bed-and-breakfast (at that location)."

Lisa is an architectural designer with a degree in architectural drafting/construction technology and a certificate degree in interior decorating. Bob, who called the location "an ideal site for a bed-and-breakfast," is the director of operations at a local printer/publisher. He previously managed a Dumpster Roll-off business for the remodeling industry.

The Salbs, who are both board members for the Waukesha Preservation Alliance, have extensive experience with similar renovation projects. In their proposal to the city, they note that they conducted a major renovation of their 1914 home, now used by the Waukesha Housing Rehabilitation Assistance Program as a model for their program, including weatherization and lead abatement.

The dollars involved

In the 14-page proposal, the Salbs, who have been in the Blair House twice, outlined in detail the rehabilitation that would be needed to restore the home. The Salbs, who would be required to live at the inn, said they estimate spending $50,000 for materials over the five-year span that it would take them to rehab the building, which the city has said is in need of substantial repair.

They said by doing the work themselves, the labor cost savings could likely be double their material costs or roughly $100,000 over five years.

"We imagine the Blair House restored to its former glory and splendor, inside and out," the Salbs said in the proposal. "It is our desire for this property to reclaim its position as a notable icon for visitors to Waukesha, and for the current residents as well."

The couple would call the bed-and-breakfast inn "Spring City Bed & Breakfast," honoring the company Henry Blair named "Spring City Foundry." They said they estimate to charge between $150 and $200 for each of the three proposed upscale rooms. The taxes on the income, along with the expected property taxes, is estimated to be approximately $7,500 to $10,000 per year.

Dual-sided optimism

Johnson is more than optimistic the home will be turned over to the Masonic Lodge.

"Of course," said Johnson, who added he will file an amended complaint against the city regarding the damages that he says the city has caused to the property.

"They treated this like their own little City Hall," Johnson said. "We were forced to start this lawsuit. I had no choice."

Meanwhile, the Salbs want to remain optimistic that they will one day own the property.

"We've followed all of the rules," Lisa said. "I envision growing old with Bob in this house."