Waukesha County Museum will temporarily close as part of new plan

Chris Kuhagen
One of the eight chapters of Les Paul in the exhibit at the Waukesha County Museum features his love story with his wife Mary Ford. The exhibit will soon be dismantled and reconfigured as the museum downsizes its operations.
Published on: 3/31/2015

A lot of uncertainty has surrounded the Waukesha County Museum in the last few years, and its future, particularly in the old courthouse building in downtown Waukesha, has been questioned.

But through it all, interim Executive Director Tom Constable has maintained that the museum will emerge stronger and have a vibrant future.

"Sometimes you have to take a step back to take two steps forward," Constable said.

Constable has unveiled changes to the museum's operations — it will soon temporarily close — and in its direction, all in the hope that it will set the museum up for long-term financial stability.

The first development came last month when Constable announced that a local developer, Historic Prairieville Limited Partnership, was willing to buy the museum's three-building complex at 101 W. Main St. from the Waukesha County Historical Society and Waukesha County Museum.

Added value of contract

The two organizations signed a contract to work together, and the developer is allowing the museum to continue its operations for just $1 per year.

Constable said six potential developers, including those experienced in restoring historic buildings, presented proposals. They include developers with national and statewide experience, he added.

Four of the six developers toured the facility but backed out and the two remaining developers submitted proposals, Constable said. The Waukesha County Museum Board selected the proposal that "provided the best approach for the museum while preserving the original 1893 courthouse."

"We took this serious and conducted this search in a thorough manner," Constable said.

The sale, Constable said, will help the museum get out from under the financial burden of the aging building's expenses — especially important given that the museum no longer receives financial support from the county.

"These buildings have been a financial drain on the museum," said Constable, noting that just the heating system and its repairs cost the museum $148,000 in 2014. "We had serious financial problems, and the aging building cost us a fortune to maintain."

Editorial: Editor-in-chief Scott Peterson weighs in on the latest developments surrounding the Waukesha County Museum.

Saving the jail

Besides the developer taking ownership of the buildings and renovating the old 1893 courthouse building, which may be used for commercial banquets, an apartment complex is part of the plan.

Originally, the developer's plan was to tear down the old 1885 jail building, which is connected to the old courthouse, as well as a connector building built in 1938. In their place, a 42-unit market-rate apartments was envisioned.

However, after some angst from the community, Constable said the developer has now given a commitment that the 1885 structure, a registered historic landmark, will be preserved.

"The developer is working hard with people on the Landmarks Commission," Constable said.

While the apartment plan has not officially been presented to the city and will need to get approval from multiple city bodies, Constable has also announced the developer is moving forward with other renovations to the complex.

Suspending operations

Given the construction and the fact that the museum has lost its education staff, the museum will soon suspend its operations.

Any programming after mid-April will be stopped. That means its four-week summer camp has also been canceled

"If you're a parent and counted on us it's a disappointment and inconvenient," Constable said. "It's a choice that we had to make."

Constable said the two educators who would have helped in those programs have decided to leave the organization.

"When the county support stopped and donations stopped, employees realized it was a serious problem," Constable said. "So they made decisions about their careers."

Downsizing operations

During the transition, Constable said the museum will downsize to just the first and second floors of the former courthouse building.

That means the museum exhibits — including the Les Paul exhibit — will be moved into the remaining consolidated space. The third floor, which includes the original 1893 courtroom, will be historically restored for banquet/wedding use, as a civic meeting space and for the museum's educational programs. Renovations to the building's heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems will also take place.

Constable, however, said the museum will open its doors on June 9 for the 100th anniversary of Les Paul's birthday and the 101st year of museum operations.

"That night will be the last opportunity to see the Les Paul exhibit as it was originally designed," Constable said.

He said the event will also serve as a fundraiser for the museum.