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Fate of Mary Nohl House unclear after neighborhood meeting in Fox Point

Museum to return with updated plan

Sculptures by late Fox Point artist Mary Nohl still stand in the yard. The sculptures draw viewers from outside the neighborhood.

Sculptures by late Fox Point artist Mary Nohl still stand in the yard. The sculptures draw viewers from outside the neighborhood. Photo By Michael Meidenbauer

Oct. 23, 2013

Fox Point — Owners of the renowned Mary Nohl House — or "Witch's House," depending on who you're talking to — are headed back to the drawing board after receiving mixed feedback from neighbors on their plan to reopen the property.

Representatives from John Michael Kohler Arts Center, the Sheboygan-based not-for-profit art museum which took ownership of the property in 2012, held an informal neighborhood meeting last week to unveil tentative plans and get a sense on how the neighbors along Beach Drive feel about the prospect.

Legends and lawsuits

The Mary Nohl House, named after its late owner, is a state and national historic landmark. Famous for its lookout over Lake Michigan and the collection of eye-popping concrete statues throughout the yard, the home gained a reputation as the "Witch's House" as a number of false urban legends sprang up concerning the statues and their owner, a kindly artist and teacher who lived by herself.

Mary Nohl transferred the property to the Kohler Foundation in 1996.

The village of Fox Point took the Kohler Foundation to court in 2005 after the organization held fundraisers, tours, bus tours and operated the house like a museum. The village won on the grounds that a museum does not comply with the residential zoning of the area.

Also in 2005, 85 percent of households on the same street as the Mary Nohl House signed a statement in opposition to a museum.

The property has been vacant since the basement flooded in 2010.

The basic idea

According to their presentation, the KAC's early plans include limited, appointment-only access to small groups and changes to the property to accommodate visitors.

The groups would be shuttled by van, though the proposal also calls for the addition of several parking spaces to accommodate "no more than a few cars."

The house would also be restored, at the same time making it compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. A new fence and security system would screen the property and "discourage casual onlookers."

Also, the art center would agree to make payments in lieu of property taxes. KAC representatives said the organization pays about $17,000 in taxes annually for the property.

Mixed reactions

Feedback from neighbors was mixed.

Some were receptive to the idea of the KAC restoring the Mary Nohl House, citing the property's rich historical significance. Others were more moderate, suggesting that the neighbors could work with the arts center to find a compromise.

But others — in fact, a majority of those who spoke — pointed to the nuisance of frequent onlookers and residential character of Beach Drive as reasons to oppose the KAC's plan.

Regardless of what happens to the historic house, Beach Drive residents agreed that the "weekend gawkers" who come down to admire Lake Michigan will be an ever-present problem.

Resident feedback and input cards from the meeting will be taken back to the KAC board of directors, said representative Lynn Lucius, after which the museum will return to Fox Point with an updated plan.

"It's too early to know where anything is headed," Lucius said after the meeting.

Special 'overlay' zoning

The preliminary plan also includes a change from residential zoning to a "cultural overlay district," a zoning classification which allows residential properties to be used as art galleries, museums, or libraries.

Among other requirements, such a district requires that the new use does not cause a decrease in nearby property values, "adversely affect the use and enjoyment of the property in the immediate neighborhood," and create traffic "beyond the capacity of the street system to reasonably serve it."

The change would require review by the Plan Commission and a public hearing before the Village Board could take action. Village Manager Melissa Bohse said Tuesday that the KAC has not submitted paperwork requesting the zoning change.

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