Elkhorn resident shows off his collector vehicles in vintage space called Elkhorn Garage
ELKHORN — Gary Wallem proudly calls himself a hoarder.
He collects old pictures of cars, signs, trinkets and, most importantly, cars.
But the cars aren't your average hop-in-and-go vehicles.
One is a 1961 Nash Metropolitan, a gift for his wife.
Another is a 1956 Chrysler New Yorker St. Regis purchased in Arkansas.
And quite possibly his favorite: a 1965 Buick Skylark Gran Sport.
He stores the collector vehicles and six others at the Elkhorn Garage, 119 East Walworth St.
The building, white with red accents, is a mystery to anyone who doesn't know the story of Wallem and his love for cars, hoarding and transforming buildings.
“I buy old, ugly buildings, and I like to make them pretty,” Wallem said.
In 1999, Wallem purchased the now Elkhorn Area Chamber of Commerce building, 203 East Walworth St., with the intention of fixing it up. The former owners left a gaping hole in the ceiling, probably thinking anyone who bought it would tear it down and start from fresh.
He renovated the building he called “butt ugly” and opened Uncle Hunk's Junk, an antique store. The antique store was there for six or seven years before he began renting the space to the Chamber of Commerce, Wallem said.
In 2008, Wallem wanted to repeat history. He sat in the Chamber of Commerce building, staring at the for sale sign across the street in front of what was then Pete's Tire Service and is now Elkhorn Garage.
After he and his wife tossed around the idea of buying the building, his wife finally told him to stop festering and just buy it.
So he did.
He had a vision for the space, much like he had for the Chamber of Commerce building.
At first, it was going to be a burger joint called the Elkhorn Filling Station.
But Wallem changed his mind.
“I realized I was too old and too smart to go into the restaurant business,” Wallem, 64, said.
Now it's what he calls his man cave with nine of his 20 cars, larger-than-life signs and a tire used in Mario Andretti's 1969 Indianapolis 500 winning race. It was a gift from the race car driver himself.
Wallem renovated the inside of the Elkhorn Garage using recycled building materials. He hired local artists to paint outside murals that now are popular backdrops for prom photos, he said.
“I never thought it would turn out this great,” Wallem said. “I consider this my Mona Lisa.”
Before Wallem came to Elkhorn when he was 40, he lived in Chicago, where he built restaurants and clubs for Walter Payton. He decided he was done with the hectic lifestyle and needed to retire to a quieter, simpler place. A place he calls his Mayberry.
In Elkhorn, Wallem is a landlord and “puts faces” on other buildings in the area. He designs the concepts and hires out the labor.
He doesn't know how much longer he'll be doing it. But for now he is enjoying adding to the Elkhorn Garage one car, trinket, or poster at a time.