Sunday, August 19, 2012

On Vacation - Ten Chimneys (Alfred Lunt & Lynn Fontanne Estate)

Alfred Lunt, Lynn Fontanne, and Noel Coward walk the
grounds of Ten Chimneys. (c) TCF

My wife and I recently returned from a two week trip to Wisconsin to visit family. It was our first time traveling with a baby, something I was a little anxious about. I was preparing myself to be "that guy with the crying baby," but fortunately, I had nothing to worry about. Hazel was probably the happiest baby to go through an airport and fly on an airplane. She was all smiles until she fell asleep. She did well enough that we will likely take her on another family trip. Although the primary reason for our trip was to visit family, we did venture out on occaision to check out some local attractions. Over the next two or three weeks I'll share some snapshots of our trip.

One of the first places we visited was "Ten Chimneys," the estate of husband and wife Broadway stars, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. During the 1920s, 30s, 40s and into the 50s Lunt and Fontanne, or simply, "The Lunts," were the toast of Broadway. Alfred and Lynn were considered two of the finest actors ever to grace the stage and had played a large part in developing what is considered modern acting. The Lunts popularized "realism" in acting. For example, The Lunts were known for talking over each others lines as opposed to waiting for the other to finish speaking (just like in real life we don't always wait for the other person to finish speaking before we ourselves start speaking). The couple had many offers from Hollywood to appear in the movies and they did appear in one major motion picture, The Guardsmen (1931), but The Lunts preferred the stage to the screen. When asked why they wouldn't do more movies, Lynn famously responded, "We can be bought, but we can't be bored." The Lunts desired the energy of being on the stage and the reaction of a live audience. When The Lunts were not appearing on the stage they were spending time at their estate, Ten Chimneys, in rural Genesee Depot, Wisconsin. Eventually when they retired from acting the couple would live out the rest of their lives at the estate.

Note: Click any of the pictures to see the images larger.

Wifey, Robby, Hazel at the Ten Chimneys Program Center

Ten Chimneys is now open as a museum. To begin a tour you first have to check in at what they call the Program Center. This is a separate building across from the estate where the tour starts. In the Program Center there is an art exhibit space, an excellent gift shop filled with all kinds of fun stuff, photographs, a seating area, and some interactive exhibits. 

Listening about The Lunts inside the Program Center.

Zinnia and Hazel take to the stage inside the Program Center.

Hazel waits for Mommy & Daddy to return.

Unfortunately, we could not take Hazel with us on the tour. Kids 12 and under have to hang out in the Program Center, so we left Hazel with Grandma. This is because on the tour you actually walk into each room, as opposed to standing in a hallway on some estate tours and only being able to look into a room. Also, there are a lot of steps around the property, so not very stroller friendly. From the Program Center a shuttle picked up my wife, Dad and myself and drove us to the entrance of the main house.

The entrance to the main house.

The Lunts ride bikes in front of the main house. (c) TCF

The estate gets its name from ten chimneys that are on the property. The estate consist of several buildings: the main house, a cottage, a pool house, green house, creamery, a chicken coop, a log cabin studio, stables and a few other buildings. The main house was always a work in progress. The Lunts were always adding on rooms and decorating the house with antiques and adding murals to the walls.

The entrance hallway. (c) TCF

There is no photography allowed inside the buildings, only outside photography is allowed, so I purchased some postcards from the gift shop. There are so many charming rooms but I only have a few to show off. One of my favorite interior rooms was the entrance hallway. On each of the walls is a mural showing characters offering up items to make your stay with The Lunts as comfortable as possible. The murals are both pretty and playful and are indeed a welcoming touch.

To be invited to Ten Chimneys and be a guest of The Lunts was quite an honor. Regular guest, broadway star, Carol Channing said, "If you get to go to Ten Chimneys, you must have done something right." Other regular guests included their close friend, writer/actor Noel Coward, who also wrote several plays starring The Lunts, including Design For Living, Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, and Helen Hayes. Coward, Olivier and Hayes in fact each have rooms in the home named after them because of their frequent visits. Some other guests have included Katharine Hepburn, Eleanor Roosevelt, Julie Harris and John Gielgud.

The dining room. (c) TCF

Alfred and Lynn in the dining room. (c) TCF

The above images show the dining room how it looks now and when The Lunts were living there. As you can see it is almost exactly the way it was left. The Ten Chimneys Foundation even leaves the candles all slightly crooked because in every photo of The Lunts in their living room the candles are never straight.

If you were a guest at Ten Chimneys Alfred would probably have prepared some very gourmet meals. Alfred was known to be quite the chef. He was even certified by the Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and in the kitchen hangs his diploma. Alfred's cooking was very European, rich in butter and cream that was prepared on the estate, and with vegetables and fruits grown on the property. Alfred was encouraged to make a cookbook, which he never completed during his lifetime, but you can now buy in the Ten Chimneys gift shop a beautiful hardcover book that includes many of Alfred's recipes and photos of the estate. Noel Coward wrote in his diaries that The Lunts "are deeply concerned with only three things: themselves, the theatre, and food - good hot food."

The Drawing Room in the main house. (c) TCF

Above is the drawing room which is another room filled with hand painted murals that wrap around the entire room. The murals were painted by artist Claggett Wilson. Wilson was a portraitist, decorator and a set designer. The Lunts first hired Wilson to design costumes for their 1935 production of The Taming of the Shrew. Then in 1938 they hired Wilson again for another project - to paint murals throughout their home, a project that lasted a few years.

Katharine Hepburn had said of Ten Chimneys, "Every time I was visiting with the Lunts in Genesee Depot, I was in a sort of daze of wonder; the dining room, the table, the china, the silver, the food, the extraordinary care and beauty and taste...a sort of dream, a vision."

Lynn and Alfred in the Belasco room. (c) TCF

Helen Hayes Bedroom in the main house. (c) TCF

A back view of the main house.

Above is a view of the back of the main house. Can you spot some of the chimneys?

One of the trails leading from the main house.

Genesee Depot was then and still is very much today a rural location. In the photo above you can see one of the woodsy trails leading away from the main house.

Looking at the cottage from the main house.

Alfred and Lynn in the cottage kitchen.

Alfred had a strong interest in Scandinavian arts and design and you can see the influence all over in the cottage. Some of the furnishings were picked up on trips through Scandinavian countries or were designed to look Scandinavian. The most impressive room in the cottage is probably the upstairs bedroom which I don't have an image for, but I do like the image of the kitchen because of the black stove. Apparently, Alfred imagined that black stove to have a top piece, which it did not have, so he painted the top part of the stove onto the wall so that it would blend into the stove, like an illusion or stage trick. The Lunts's were less concerned with what something cost and more concerned with how something looked. Extremely rare antiques would be mixed in with items that were inexpensive finds. If The Lunts liked the way something looked, that's all that mattered.

A view of the pool house and cottage.

A view of the pool house.

The Greenhouse and chicken coop.

The creamery I think? I can't remember.

Back at the Program Center.  In front of a wall of playbills.

At the end of the tour a shuttle picked us back up and returned us to the Program Center where we were able to continue looking at the exhibits there and browse the gift shop. I highly recommend the tour for anyone interested in the theater or Golden Era Hollywood. The estate is much more impressive in person and our tour guides were so informative. They had so many great stories about The Lunts and the property. If you are visiting Milwaukee, the state capital in Madison, or one of the other nearby cities in Wisconsin, it is worth the drive. I also highly recommend reading one of the biographies on The Lunts before your visit. I had read the biography, Design For Living: Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne by Margot Peters before my visit and I think it made me appreciate the estate even more.

The estate is also more than a museum. Every summer there is the "Lunt-Fontanne Fellowship Program" in which 8-10 actors are selected from around the country to "participate in a weeklong master class and retreat with a world-renowned and respected Master Teacher." Acting classes and activities take place around the Ten Chimneys property and the Program Center. This years fellowship just ended when we arrived and featured musical theatre legend Joel Grey as the master teacher. Other Master Teachers have included Olympia Dukakis, Lynn Redgrave, Barry Edelstein and next year it was recently announced that Alan Alda will be the Master Teacher.

Ten Chimneys also hosts "conversations" or lectures with luminaries that have a connection to the theater, Ten Chimneys or the Lunts. Some of these special guests have included Robert Osborne, Dick Cavett and Michael York. Actress Laura Linney will be appearing at Ten Chimneys on August 24 for one of the Conversations at Ten Chimneys.

More to check out:

Have you ever visited Ten Chimneys or heard about this fanciful estate before?


Mama Rose said...

The tour was excellent and informative and a must see! The tour guides were excellent.

Connie said...

Wow, that was great! Thanks for sharing.

Ginny said...

Thanks for sharing this Robby! I had never heard of Ten Chimneys before, and I only live two hours away. I'm always looking for classic movie related places to visit so this is perfect! Looks like it would be a beautiful trip to take in the fall.

Robby Cress said...


I hope you can make it to Ten Chimneys! During the Fall I imagine the estate will look quite beautiful with the leaves on the surrounding trees all changing colors. If you are able to make the trip to the estate you will have to report back and share what you think.


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