Actors' Historic Summer House Resembles Stage Set

Isthmus | June 9, 2004
I’ve been taking tours of old houses for years. Seriously, I was probably the only nine-year-old in history who begged her parents to take her to the Octagon House, in Watertown, but never expressed the slightest interest in going to Disney World. (The lines at the Octagon House, by the way, are much shorter.) I'm not sure I should be admitting this in print.

So it was with anticipation that I read about the opening just last year of Ten Chimneys, the summer home of the great American stage icons Alfred Lunt and Lynne Fontanne, in Genesee Depot, Wisconsin.

This is different stuff for Wisconsin. A little glam for us. Our historic homes tend to be mainly just old, and then old only for the Midwest. Villa Louis, the State Historical Society’s flagship restoration in Prairie Du Chien, is the 1870 mansion of a wealthy fur trader, but without the house, no one would remember the family of Hercules Dousman. Then there’s the Pabst Mansion, in Milwaukee, probably toured for its relative opulence -- we like to see how the other half lived. And then there are various Frank Lloyd Wright sites, notable for who designed them, not who owned them.

But Ten Chimneys is notable not so much for the house it is, but for whose house it was. (It has just been declared a National Historic Landmark.) Though the Lunts were famous actors, you won’t find much in the way of opulence, though they did have some nice things. It’s clear that the Lunts were, first and foremost, theater people, and their summer house a bit of a stage set.

“The Lunts are improbable people -- and, strangely, they are improbable in exactly the same way,” wrote Robert Sherwood, a playwright who associated with the famous couple. They are particularly improbable Wisconsin summer residents, just as Ten Chimneys is an improbable Wisconsin tourist attraction. But at Ten Chimneys, I came to wonder if theater folk are so very different from us. After all, they loved southern Wisconsin, too.

The trip to tiny Genesee Depot, Wisconsin (despite the encroaching Milwaukee suburbs, still very rural) is more scenic if you hit the back roads rather than stick to I-94 to Milwaukee. Highway 18 (in Madison, just get on the Beltline and keep heading east) will take you within a couple of miles of Ten Chimneys. On it, you’ll pass through Cambridge, Jefferson, the tiny cottage community of Golden Lake and rustic Waterville. Once you pass over the Waukesha County line, you’re in the Kettle Moraine and will start to see old rock walls lining the roads in a very New Englandy way; some houses are made from glacial stone.

The orders on your advance ticket will tell you to arrive at Ten Chimneys 15 minutes ahead of your scheduled tour time. They aren’t kidding. If you want to familiarize yourself with The Lunts before the tour, plan on arriving at the visitor’s center well in advance of your scheduled time. There, you can watch excerpts from the Lunt’s one feature film together (The Guardsman) and learn more about their theater triumphs in an intimate audio-visual exhibit.

This could be useful, because one of the first things that occurred to me as I trooped onto the mini-bus that takes visitors from the center to the house tour itself is that I knew nothing about Lunt and Fontanne except that they were actors, and that they were married. I couldn't have named one play that they were in, and certainly not how they ended up in Genesee Depot.

In fact the Lunts, with their devotion to the stage over screen acting, have condemned themselves to virtual obscurity in terms of securing their posterity. While Hepburn and Tracy will live forever on Turner Classic Movies, Lunt and Fontanne's obsessive line rehearsals are now gone for good. And Ten Chimneys is as much about preserving their theater legacy as it is a house tour.

One of the first things that you’ll glean is that it’s pronounced Fon-TAN, not Foun-TAINE, and that while Lynn Fontanne was originally from England, Alfred Lunt was born in Milwaukee. After the death of his father when he was only three, his mother remarried to a doctor who moved the family to Genesee Depot. After considerable globetrotting, Lunt as a young man purchased land for his mother and half sisters in Genesee Depot. When he married Fontanne in 1922, the two adopted Genesee Depot as a summer home, and they began adding on to the small structure, originally a tiny lodge. Eventually they constructed a new main house, with the original structure serving as a guest house. After their retirement, they lived at Ten Chimneys full-time. (No one structure at Ten Chimneys has ten chimneys. Among all the buildings, including a rustic studio outbuilding where the couple was fond of learning lines and rehearsing blocking, as well as watching television, the total chimneys add up to ten.)

The main house (six chimneys) is traditional on the outside, quirky and theatrical inside. The impression is of a series of small, cozy rooms, each on a different level and each connected by another staircase. While this isn't literally true, it's noted on a sign in the visitor's center that the Lunts recognized the theatrical value of a staircase, and the great number of them at Ten Chimneys is no accident. However the fact of the glacial geography -- the estate land is full of kettles and moraines, and the house itself is built into a hillside -- calls for a number of different levels.

The house is more or less as Lunt and Fontanne left it, though with somewhat less cigarette smoke staining the walls. All of the furnishings, decorations, memorabilia and effects belonged to them and were used there. The restoration of the home was aimed at recreating a "lived-in" look, not a perfect period piece, and so while the walls were cleaned, the bedspreads and curtains look a little worn. The rooms are open (no velvet ropes), but the docents are firm about the "no touch" rule and themselves don white gloves for the tour.

The house is a repository for various collections and curiosities, and also boasts original murals painted by a scenic designer named Claggett Wilson in the main house, and by Alfred Lunt himself in the more rustic, but to me more interesting, guest house.

In fact, Lunt emerges as somewhat of a character during the tour. While the tales of the couple cavorting with such high-society guests as Noel Coward and the New Yorker's Alexander Woolcott are meant to evoke a kind of spirited and sometimes dotty frivolity, Lunt's eccentricities seem a bit more grim -- he carried with him always the dimensions of every nook and cranny in the house, the better for finding suitable antique furnishings, and kept a master chart of every light fixture and its called-for bulb wattage in a kitchen cupboard. When Ten Chimneys was a working farm, Lunt sold eggs at the end of the drive, and he used gold Christmas tape in decorating one of the cottage bedrooms. He's also, judging from vintage photos, the kind of guy who would wear an ascot while driving a tractor. Improbable, indeed.

In comparison, Fontanne's personality didn't come through as clearly. I learned she was devoted to the couple's pet dachshunds, and liked to call people "darling." But this could be the result of my particular docent's tour -- no two are exactly the same, they say.

The duo's famous play with Noel Coward, Design for Living, is taken as a motto here. The Lunts’ openness and hospitality to guests is underlined, though it's not clear how much of the time they were entertaining the famous (Coward, Katharine Hepburn, Lawrence Olivier, Helen Hayes) and how often they just hung out at Ten Chimneys, together, alone.

After the tour, and a visit to the gift shop, naturally, it's a very short drive back into the heart of tiny Genesee Depot. Snacking options are few. The Union House, a formal restaurant, is open only for dinner. Built in 1861, the Union House offers a bit of local history along with steak, game, and an extensive selection of Scotch.

For lunch, or less, try Albanese's Italian Market and Deli, right on Hwy 83 in the center of town. Like Madison's Fraboni's, a deli counter teams with an import grocery home, but there's also a fair size dining area where beer and wine are served. There's a "Ten Chimneys Special" (half a sandwich and a cup of soup) and specialty subs with imported deli meats, like the Calabreze (Volpi salami, mortadella, capicola and provolone) and the Barese (sopressata, Genoa salami, and provolone). Fridays, Albanese's holds an Italian fish fry from 11 am-8 pm. While a trip to Ten Chimneys will take up a good part of the day, anyone looking for extra walking or driving to round out the trip can head to the Kettle Moraine. The Kettle Moraine Scenic Drive is well marked off Hwy. 18, as is the road (Hwy. C) to the Lapham Peak Unit, where there are a number of pleasant day hikes. A segment of the Ice Age Trail can be accessed here, or off Waterville Road, also clearly marked as Rustic Road # 86. The Glacial Drumlin state bicycle trail, the one that starts in Cottage Grove, winds right by as well.


Getting there

Ten Chimneys

262-968-4161 (information line)

262-968-4110 (reservation line)

10 am-4 pm

Full estate tour (2 hours) $35

Main house tour (1 1/2 hours) $28

No children under 12

Closed Sundays and Mondays, tours through October 30.

Take I-94 or Hwy 18 to Hwy. 83 south to Genesee Depot. When 83 takes a sharp left, turn right onto Depot Road. While drop-ins may be accepted, they are not guaranteed. Advance reservations are recommended. You can also call the day you decide to go to check on availability (262-968-4161).

Albanese's Italian Market and Deli

S43 W31343 Hwy. 83, Genesee Depot


Closed Mondays


Isthmus is Madison, Wisconsin's alternative newspaper. Since 1976, Isthmus has built a foundation of fearless reporting, forthright opinion, excellent arts coverage, and innovative perspective. These efforts have been rewarded by numerous sources including the Milwaukee Press Club's statewide Excellence in...
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