Santa brought a lump of coal -- the technical term is foreclosure -- to the owner of what long-time Racinians know as the Christmas House.
The former Benstead Hall, once owned by All Saints Healthcare System Inc. and beautifully decorated for many years as a holiday house to raise funds for cancer, was sold in 1997 and converted into a Bed and Breakfast called the Christmas House. In 2007 the name was changed to the East Park Inn.
Now the 19th century mansion is poised for another ownership change. Circuit Court Judge Richard J. Kreul entered a default judgment against innkeeper/owner Laurie Novak-Simmons on Oct. 15. Racine County Sheriff Bob Carlson is scheduled to hold a foreclosure sale of the property on Jan. 27 at 1:30 p.m. at the Law Enforcement Center. (The B&B's garden nymph, right, doesn't seem too happy at the prospect.)
Plaintiff in the suit against Novak-Simmons was the Central States Mortgage Company, which is owed $939,707.21: principal of $888,999, interest of $46,845, late charges of $1,814, attorney fees of $1,100 and disbursement of $947. Judge Kreul's order did not specify -- as many default judgments do -- any time period during which Novak-Simmons could satisfy the default and retain the property. Efforts to reach her, and plaintiff's attorney Steven Zablocki, were unsuccessful.
The beautiful, three-story Victorian mansion -- located at 116 10th St., a block from Lake Michigan, across the street from Gateway Technical College and catty-corner across Main Street from the Masonic Temple -- was sold to Novak-Simmons by the trustees of St. Luke's Hospital, which used the house for visitors, for $425,000 in 1997. She did extensive renovations, creating five guest rooms, each with their own bath. The building has eight fireplaces, many stained glass and beveled windows, magnificent woodwork and hardwood floors.
The Racine County Registrar of Deeds shows the property -- which includes a carriage house and garden -- was assessed for $705,000 in 2007, with fair-market value listed as $720,196. Property taxes are $16,221. The computer records in Registrar Jim Ladwig's office appear to show that last year's taxes haven't been paid.
In 2000, Novak-Simmons put the building up for sale, saying, ""I have another project that I'd like to commit to and I can't do them both." The asking price was $895,000 -- but it didn't sell.
The listing says it is a 10,000 sq. ft. single-family home built in 1883: "There are 5 guest rooms, all with en suite baths, plus 3 other bedrooms. Both the library and office have paneled cherry wood ceilings and built in bookcases. The living room, library and dining room all have wood burning fireplaces. There are 5 additional fireplaces in this charming three-story home, with leaded glass and hardwood floors throughout. The separate carriage house has 3 bedrooms, kitchen, living room and 2 full baths. Heated garage space for 5 cars with pad parking for an additional 5 cars."
Novak-Simmons has had some financial difficulties, according to court records and other evidence. Earlier this month she was cited by the Racine County Convention and Visitors Bureau as the city's "biggest transgressor," owing some $5,000 in room taxes, according to RCCVB executive director Dave Blank. Novak-Simmons disputed his amount. Wisconsin's Circuit Court Access System shows almost two dozen cases in which Novak-Simmons was a defendant (and five in which she was the plaintiff). They range from small claims cases -- Sander Paint and Wallpaper sued for $921 in November -- to larger amounts: the State Department of Revenue sued for and received $13,805 in September 2005, and $49,797 in August 2006 to a $220,332.37 judgment in June 1998 against Kenosha Manor House, another B&B, in which Novak-Simmons was one of three defendants. All of the above-mentioned cases were closed, according to the WCCA system.