Richard Dunbar went to Waukesha to die. Instead, he breathed new life into the city. Told by doctors he was fatally a icted with diabetes, he set off to Waukesha in 1868 to visit family and settle his affairs, only to be revived by gulping gallons of groundwater bubbling up from one of the city’s 60 or so natural springs.
So convinced was Dunbar that Waukesha’s water restored his health, he returned from New York a year later to bottle and sell the miracle elixir. Overnight, a new industry sprang forth, and it wasn’t long before others decided they would lure customers to the source rather than ship bottles across the country. Tiny Waukesha gained fame as the “Saratoga of the West,” and much like the New York resort town, the registers of Waukesha’s health spas over owed with names belonging to the tony of the times.
“For what Waukesha was, and what it was known as, people [now] don’t know about it,” says local historian John Schoenknecht, author of The Great Waukesha Springs Era: 1868-1918.
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The Grand View Health Resort, also known as the Moor Mud Baths, opened in 1911 as that Springs Era was drying up, succumbing to World War I, the automobile and a new law requiring merchants to supply evidence for medicinal claims. Realtor John Weber wasn’t looking to enter the hotel business when he acquired a large plot of land at the summit of Prospect Avenue Hill. But when the vast pit of black “Moorish” mud kept him from flipping his investment, he turned the bug into a feature and built a set of therapeutic mud baths.
In time, the Grand View grew to an H-shaped complex that held up to 200 visitors who could partake in a leisurely, curative slop in the mudrooms – or play golf, or gamble at its tables. Ever the innovator, Weber designed a special terracotta couch to lie on during mud treatments. “You sat in that couch. The mud was heated. They covered you in mud except for your chest – they wanted you to be able to breathe,” Schoenknecht says.
From 1925 to 1947 – the year after Weber sold the property – more than 130,000 people visited. Grand View operated for another decade following the sale before closing its doors in 1959. The building was refashioned briefly as both a seminary and a college, before settling into a long period as government offices.
Empty since 2013, the building now stands at the center of a long-running dispute between preservationists and those looking to find a new use for the land. Waukesha County, which is footing maintenance costs, hopes to raze and redevelop the property, while Grand View advocates aligned with the city of Waukesha push to repurpose the existing structure. The ght has spilled into a courtroom.
“We don’t sue the city every day,” says Waukesha County Corporation Counsel Erik Weidig.
A final decision is still months away, when a judge is slated to decide if the former Grand View can pull off one more rejuvenation trick and extend its own life a bit longer.