For years I have wanted to visit Ten Chimneys – Alfred Lundt and Lynn Fontanne’s country house in Genesee Depot, WI. (Excuse me? You don’t know where that is? It is near Waukesha, WI. What? You’ve never heard of Waukesha? Okay. Ever heard of Milwaukee? Yes? It’s about a half hour west of Milwaukee.)
If you know theater history, these names will be familiar to you, even if you never saw one of their plays. Perhaps you have been in the Lundt –Fontanne Theater on Broadway – right across the street from the Helen Hayes (a BF) Theater. Their list of intimates also includes Noel Coward, Carol Channing, Lawrence Olivier and many others you will certainly have heard of. I must confess that I am pretty ignorant beyond the names, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying the tour.
There are several buildings on the grounds. There is the main house that Alfred Lundt originally bought for his mother and half sisters. There is the cottage, where Lundt and Fontanne came to live when they were married, but at some point became home to Mom and sisses, when the Lundts moved into the main house. There is a greenhouse with a creamery attached; a studio or “play room” (both senses of the word “play” I think). There is a pig barn … used only for a short, abortive season. There is Wisconsin’s first in-ground pool!
The fun in this tour comes from appreciating the theatricality of the house! Each room is like a stage set. So like a stage set in fact, that once it is determined where the furniture goes, it can never be moved, and so why would you paint the walls behind the furniture if no one was ever going to see them? Many of the treatments are “faux,” like faux marble painted on an alcove and a trompe d’oeil vase of flowers. There is even gold Scotch tape used to look like gilding on the woodwork!
Each room has a character all its own. In the main house, you see touches of the Swedish influences of Lundt’s stepfather’s heritage, but in the cottage, the Swedish motif takes over. And everywhere there is personality! Alfred Lundt was “thrifty” and wasted no effort on the unseen parts of his stages. Both he and Fontanne were creative and crafty: She sewed all the window treatments and bed spreads and slip covers. He designed and created the chandeliers and even painted some of the decoration on the walls. Both were very particular that each set be perfectly arranged and conceived.
Magnificent rooms like the dining room and the drawing room are only more elaborate stages than are the bedrooms and the studio. Each one is interesting and full of history.
The docents’ stories bring both the protagonists to life. It is easy to imagine them in this “theater” of their lives. Is it all true? I don’t know, but my guess is (based on other experiences with docents) that a good portion is invented. But who cares? It is fun and alive! It’s imaginative and unique, and very definitely worth a visit.
So some practical information, in case you would like to go. Tours are restricted to about 10 people. Many of the rooms are small (and the spaces for visitors to stand even smaller), hallways and stair cases are narrow. We had 8 in our group, and I would have said that was enough. Again, because of how cramped everything is, there are no self-guided tours of the buildings. Docent led tours vary in frequency depending on the season and the demand. Your best bet is to call ahead and reserve a space, especially if you are traveling to Genesee Depot for this. (Why else would you go there? I guess this means everyone should call and make a reservation. Avoid the disappointment of getting there to find that a bus group is a head of you and yours will be at least a three hour wait!)
The tour is not cheap ($35) and would have none to very little interest to children, so plan for them to do something else that day. The tour takes about 2 hours and most of it is standing, walking, going up and down stairs, and some of it is outside…There are accommodations for people who have mobility issues, but those people will miss a few things. You can ask all the questions you want! Our docents even admitted when there was a question they couldn’t answer. The house has been open as a museum for just 10 years. Restoration and improvements in the tour are going on all the time, though there were none visible to detract from the experience of the house and the Lundts’ life on my tour.
Unfortunately, no photography is allowed inside any of the buildings, but you can purchase postcards (as did I) at the museum store.