The converted chicken coop where Norbert G. Blei worked needs a new home, and the search is turning out to be more complicated than first believed.
The board of directors of The Clearing, the retreat center and artists’ school founded by landscape architect Jens Jensen in Ellison Bay, earlier this month turned down an offer to have the coop moved onto the 130-acre property.
Blei, who died April 23 at age 77, played a pivotal role in The Clearing’s history: A 1985 article he wrote for the Chicago Tribune is credited with bringing new attention and life to the “school of the soil,” then struggling during its 50th year. For decades he was a frequent and popular teacher of writing at The Clearing.
The coop, nestled into the woods behind Blei’s rustic home on Europe Lake Road, served as his workplace for more than 40 years. Filled with books stacked in piles and shelves, since 1978 it was where most of his 17 books, blogs and publishing activity originated. The family decided not to include it in the sale of the property, which is listed for $169,000.
“As a historical building, it has to be preserved,” said Christopher Blei, the writer’s son. Although not listed on any formal historic register, the iconic structure was included in the 1996 “Cultural Map of Wisconsin: A Cartographic Portrait of the State” created by Woodward, Ostergren, Brouwer, Hoelscher and Hane.
Friend and Clearing board member Tim Stone championed the idea of moving the coop there. He formed a committee and developed plans and cost estimates for the move.
“It sounded like a perfect place,” Christopher Blei said this week. “The artists got involved, so we were very surprised; we hadn’t thought it would be turned down.”
Carolyn Kimbell, president of The Clearing board, said the group slowly came to the realization that the idea was not as good a fit as first believed.
“At first we were really excited, thinking ‘this is so cool,’” Kimbell said. “But then we started thinking about where we would put it.”
If the structure were moved onto the secluded Clearing campus, it would be closed to the public Monday through Friday, she said.
“We envisioned people driving up from Chicago and wanting to see it, only to be turned away,” Kimbell said. “If we put it up by the Jens Jensen Center, then it’s not as accessible to the students.”
Jude Genereaux, former Door County administrator and longtime partner of Blei, said the decision may turn out to be a blessing in disguise.
“The more I think about it, the more I think that wouldn’t be where he’d want it to go,” Genereaux said. “It shouldn’t be a museum piece … If anything, he’d probably approve it becoming a working ‘retreat’ cove where writers could spend a little time in contemplation. I think that would make Norb happiest.”
One promising alternative would be the new Write On, Door County writing center being developed on a 40-acre tract in Juddville and championed by Anne Emerson of Edgewood Orchard Galleries, where a reception was held after Blei’s memorial service June 29.
“Our focus at the time was on other things,” Genereaux said. “We’ve had no formal thoughts or discussion about it.”
Emerson said she did not want to be presumptuous and has not talked with the family since the Clearing board made its decision, but she added that “we’d be delighted” to serve as the coop’s home.
“Norb and I had talked about this whole project, and he was enthusiastic about it,” she said.
The nonprofit Write On, Door County’s dream of a writing center began taking shape after donors provided the land of woods and meadows, along with a four-bedroom house, just east of Wisconsin 42 on both sides of Juddville Road.
“We hope to have magical spots — places where people can write or read or just be quiet,” Emerson said. “There would be small structures, or they don’t even have to be structures. But the coop would be a perfect fit.”
Other possibilities that have been floated are to move the coop to a spot on Washington Island, where Blei was active in the arts community especially in his later years; to place it in a historical center like the Corner of the Past in Sister Bay or Crossroads at Big Creek in Sturgeon Bay; or even to find a way to leave the entire Blei property intact.
“It would be nice if they could just keep that little place as is,” Kimbell said. “That is SO Norb Blei. We loved Norb, we loved the idea of having it, and we really want to see it preserved.”
The Clearing’s decision caught the family off guard, so a “plan B” has not yet been formed. Christopher Blei reacted positively to all possible options.
“At this point we are open to anything,” he said. “Hopefully in the weeks ahead, a plan can be in place.”
Genereaux was also optimistic.
“I think we’ll come up with the right place,” she said.
by Warren Bluhm