Images from Milwaukee, Part II — A Trip to Ten Chimneys

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With apologies for being my usual busy for the last two weeks, I wanted to post some of the additional photos from my recent trip to Milwaukee to promote my book, Historic Photos of Broadway: New York Theater, 1850-1970. I was there specifically to visit Ten Chimneys, the Wisconsin estate of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, who I am convinced, though I never actually saw them act, were unquestionably the finest theater performers of the entire 20th century. The estate is located in Genesee Depot, WI, about 40 minutes outside of Milwaukee, and it has a population probably smaller than a three-block radius of my apartment in Astoria, Queens. Not only has much of the Lunts’ estate been painstakingly preserved and/or restored — including, most important, the main house in which the Lunts lived when not conquering Broadway or any city in which they toured — but there is a foundation now, too, that provides all sorts of public programs. It was for one of these public programs that I was invited to give a presentation, and so I did. It was a delightful, enriching experience on a scale I find hard to talk about, frankly, because the site really is so special. In addition to a spectacular welcome from Executive Director Sean Malone, I was given a private tour of the grounds by Kristine Weir-Martell, Ten Chimney’s Director of Programs; while the use of photography is not permitted inside the main house, Kristine was kind enough to offer to bend the rules just a little bit and take a few shots of me. Wow! I chose one inside the library, beside a beautiful portrait of Ms. Fontanne:

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Beside Miss Fontanne

And one in Mr. Lunt’s very famous kitchen:

Mr. Lunt's Kitchen

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And one in the front of the house itself:

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Front of House

Meantime, these are some images I took of the outside — notice the cool poolhouse with the bell tower that served, on the inside, as a shower using fresh rainwater!

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And yes, I missed the hog roast.

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Here, courtesy of Ten Chimneys, is boilerplate about the Lunts that proves they were anything but boilerplate:

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Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne are widely considered the greatest acting team in the history of American theatre. The Lunts’ passion for excellence and commitment to the art of live theatre was legendary, even at the beginning of their careers. Summer after summer, the Lunts came to Ten Chimneys to retreat, relax, and rejuvenate. Because the Lunts were so widely loved and respected, “anyone who was anyone” in theatre, arts, and literature wanted to come to Ten Chimneys to be with and work with the Lunts. The estate, almost inevitably, became an important place for artistic creation, discussion, and inspiration. More than just the Lunts’ home, Ten Chimneys was a home for the arts-literally and metaphorically.

Ten Chimneys is a landmark unique among our national treasures. Ten Chimneys’ diverse collections and enchanting décor are comprised of the original pieces hand-picked by the Lunts in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s. And the magic is undiminished. As guests are welcomed through the Lunts’ remarkable creation, they are surprised and then moved by countless details.

Created with the same humanizing wit and passion for perfection that distinguished their stage performances, Ten Chimneys is the Lunts’ most enduring and tangible artistic legacy. For decades, their idyllic retreat beguiled and inspired the country’s finest actors, writers, designers, directors, and artists. Now, an invitation to Ten Chimneys, once coveted by the nation’s greatest luminaries, is extended to the public.

Here is some information on the foundation:

Ten Chimneys Foundation was formed in 1996 to save Ten Chimneys, restore and preserve the estate, and open it to the public as a world-class museum and national resource for theatre and arts education.

In 1996, Ten Chimneys came perilously close to destruction through commercial development until Joseph W. Garton – a Madison-area restaurateur, theatre historian, and arts advocate – led a public opposition to this unthinkable fate. Mr. Garton spent the next two years connecting with community and civic leaders and national experts in various fields. A team of national preservation experts performed a Historic Site Analysis and Master Plan. The renowned Wingspread Conference Center of The Johnson Foundation in Racine, Wisconsin, hosted a conference of national leaders in theatre, the arts, and arts education – to help define the role a restored Ten Chimneys could play locally and nationally. In November of 1997, twenty-four prominent civic leaders came together to form the board of trustees of Ten Chimneys Foundation.

In January of 1998, Ten Chimneys Foundation purchased the estate from Mr. Garton at the original purchase price, allowing the Foundation to begin emergency repairs on several roofs. The Foundation then began extensive research and planning for restoration, preservation, and program development – continuing to collaborate with local, regional, and national experts and advisors.

In 1999, the United States Postal Service issued a commemorative Lunt-Fontanne postage stamp. Ten Chimneys was one of the first historic sites to be named an official project of Save America’s Treasures (External Link), a public-private partnership between the White House Millennium Council and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Dedicated volunteers, generous donors, and other Foundation leaders made extraordinary strides between the beginning of 2000 and May 26th, 2003 – when Ten Chimneys opened to the public for the first time (on what would have been the Lunts’ 81st wedding anniversary). These accomplishments include:

  • Completion of the “The Campaign for Ten Chimneys,” exceeding the ambitious $12.5 million goal by $300,000.
  • Completion of the $12.5 million restoration/construction project – on time and $500,000 under budget.
  • Comprehensive historic restoration and preservation of Ten Chimneys’ estate and grounds garnering many national and regional awards and kudos.
  • Design and construction of the Lunt-Fontanne Program Center to support public access and serve the needs of the regional and national theatre and arts communities.
  • Building an extraordinary corps of over 200 volunteers – whose ongoing dedication and passion are integral to the success of the organization.

Ten Chimneys has been carefully restored. Before opening to the public on May 26th, 2003, the Foundation updated the estate to current standards and committed to a particularly ambitious restoration. The goal was not a museum restoration “like new,” but the more challenging “lived in” feel of Ten Chimneys in the 1940s – when Lynn and Alfred led their staff in lavishing T.L.C. on their pride and joy.

The resulting restoration was a partnership between the country’s finest restoration professionals and dedicated volunteers. Conservators repaired 18th Century inlaid furniture, reproduced water-damaged wallpaper, restored the Claggett Wilson murals, replanted gardens, and re-laid flagstone paths. After being trained by professionals, volunteers disassembled, restored, and re-hung chandeliers, reframed pictures, polished brass, weeded gardens, and cleaned and cleaned and cleaned. A substantial amount of the restoration was completed by opening day. The work, however, is never truly completed and continues on.