Henry Blair left clear instructions.
Blair, a mayor of Waukesha in the 1920s, gave ownership of his Madison Street home to the city upon his death in 1957. But his will stipulated that the property should not be used for commercial purposes, storage, a tool shed or warehouses.
The Freemasons of the Waukesha Masonic Lodge 37 maintain that the city has violated the terms of Blair's will and filed a lawsuit against the city in Waukesha County Circuit Court on July 2.
"I don't believe their claim has merit," said City Attorney Brian Running when he informed the aldermen about the lawsuit at the July 1 common council meeting. "But we are going to have to fight with them over the fate of the Blair House."
A hearing before Lee S. Dreyfus is scheduled for Aug. 18 at the Waukesha County Courthouse.
If a judge finds that the city violated Blair's will, then ownership of the property and historic home at 434 Madison St. will revert to the Waukesha Masonic Lodge #37, an organization Blair was a part of, and that was also in his will.
Points of contention
The Masons say that the city of Waukesha 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.
"The city, of course, disputes all of that," Running said. "All of the uses of the property were put to charitable and nonprofit organizations doing civic activities serving the greater good of the community, and we do not think the city violated the terms of the will."
The building, which is on the state and national historical registries and overlooks the city, 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.
ProHealth Care was the most recent user of the building, and when its lease expired early last year, the city didn't have an immediate need for it.
City Administrator Ed Henschel said last year that the city didn't have the funds to support the property, while former Community Development Director Steve Crandell said there were mold and asbestos in the basement due to water damage.
Eugene Johnson, an attorney representing Waukesha Masonic Lodge 37, said the Masons don't know what the interior of the property looks like, but added "we would be willing to take it with the unknowns in there."
Until trustees with the Masonic Lodge go into the house, Johnson said it's unknown what the Freemasons want for the site. But he added that the site needs to return to the city's tax rolls.
"Most of us in the Waukesha Lodge are residents of the city and not one penny has been paid to the city for 56 years," Johnson said. "We're talking about a hell of a lot of money that the city desperately needs."
On the market
The city put the two-story Italianate-style home, built in 1877, on the market. Blair's will 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."
"Since it's an older building, it needs a lot of maintenance, and that costs the city more money than it's worth," Running said.
Running said just one bid came back after the city asked for proposals on the property. According to records filed with the court, a Waukesha couple bid $1,000 and intends to turn the parcel and house into a bed-and-breakfast called "Spring City Bed & Breakfast."
Running said the proceeds of a sale would be consistent with what Blair requested in his will. Running added that since no proceeds have been received for the bed-and-breakfast, that part of Blair's will was not violated, either.
"I don't blame the city for wanting to get rid of it, but we are next in line," Johnson said.
Not fair price
Johnson said in the lawsuit that the successful $1,000 bid was "far less" than the fair market value of the home and land, and that the bid "is inadequate to be used for a specific civic purpose set forth" in Blair's will.
"What's $1,000 going to do?" Johnson said. "It wouldn't even buy placements to place on slides or a swing (for a playground use)."
Running said many economic factors enter into the determination of fair value of the property.
The lawsuit also argues that the city should repair or agree to pay for the repairs to the home that "they negligently failed to do while custodians of the home." The lawsuit also asks that the city be required to pay for the Masonic Lodge's attorney fees.
Running denies that the city was negligent in its ownership of the property and said the city should not be entitled to the Masonic Lodge's attorney fees.
Johnson said it could take six months before any type of action is taken. He did say he would be willing to come to an agreement outside of court.
The city attorney, ultimately, just hopes this issue doesn't drag on in court, so the bed-and-breakfast idea can move forward.