Last Updated on January 6, 2018 by Janet Frost
Ten Chimneys, an estate tucked away in tiny Genesee Depot, Wisconsin, was the “love nest” of Alfred Lunt and Lynne Fontanne. Alfred Lunt and Lynne Fontanne were royalty of 20th century American Theater. With their close friend and playwright, Noel Coward, they directed, produced and/or acted in scores of Broadway shows from 1920-1960. The beautiful estate of Ten Chimneys was their summer retreat.
Hidden in Plain Sight
This gem remains hidden in the little unincorporated village of Genesee Depot, just 5 miles from my home. I was aware of the historic site, I had planned to visit for years, I even had a friend who worked there as a docent, and yet I never seemed to get out there. Like so many things too close to home it was easy to ignore. Last week, on literally their last day of the season I discovered Ten Chimneys.
Little Genesee Depot appears stuck in 1930, with its single, tiny main street and early 20th century buildings clustered around the depot. The depot served the Milwaukee & Mississippi Railroad that carried quarried stone out of the nearby Johnston Quarry. On this late November afternoon the trees were bare and Ten Chimneys was unusually visible from the quiet country road. Across the road was the contemporary Visitor Center.
Who Knew Wisconsisn Could Be a Muse for Broadway?
Alfred Lunt and Lynne Fonatanne started their theater careers in the early 1900’s, Alfred in New York and Lynne in London. They married in 1922 and never worked separately again, only performing in productions with a role for both of them. The inseparable couple worked mostly on Broadway and later in TV series. One of their most famous plays, Design for Living, created by Noel Coward, the famous playwright from London. The play was considered so risqué, with themes of bisexuality and ménage à trois, that it premiered in New York rather than the more censored London.
Alfred and Lynne truly shared a rare lifelong love affair. At Alfred’s death in 1977 they had enjoyed 55 years of marriage. They also shared a deep love for the rich, fertile land of Wisconsin. Ten Chimneys, named for its actual total of 10 chimneys spread across the estate, was their love project. Alfred and Lynne lovingly designed a home brimming with nuances of their passions and personalities. Lunt and Fontanne did much of the labor themselves.
The estate embraced sustainability decades before it would become trendy. Alfred delighted in growing and preparing his own fresh gourmet meals. Lynne loved sewing drapes, furniture coverings and couture clothing. They also opened their summer residence to wandering thespians. Many spectacular theater productions were born in these rooms.
Visitor and Performance Center
The Visitor Center serves as museum and gift shop. In addition it is the site for theater arts education and performances. This tradition carries on the mentoring spirit of Alfred and Lynne, who opened the estate to promising new talent every summer.
The Board of Trustees and Docents take their jobs of preserving this estate very seriously. Just like the original creators, Alfred and Lynne, they treat it with cherished tenderness. A shuttle takes visitors across the road to the home and out buildings. Photography is not allowed in the buildings. Guides watch visitors closely. The interiors are filled with original furnishings and invaluable heirlooms. None of the rooms are roped off. This gives the tour a nice intimate feeling and explains the close scrutiny of the guides.
Alfred had spent some childhood years in Sweden. Several of the buildings, decorating and artifacts reflect the Scandinavian influence. These are common styles to find in the upper Midwest states.
Mothers and Wives
Alfred originally built the small Main house for his mother and siblings on the estate. After their marriage, Alfred and Lynne built an adorable Cottage on the grounds and left the mother-in-law in the Main House. As years passed they eventually moved into the Main House and built on several floors and rooms. Each room is an interesting combination of comfort and theater.
Ten Chimneys Estate and Grounds
This tour was definitely worth the $35 and 2 hours for the Full Grounds Tour. I recommend the full tour as it gave a great overall insight into the couple and their lives. Just 30 miles directly west of downtown Milwaukee it should not be missed. Earlier this year I toured the home of William Randolph Hearst, Hearst Castle, in San Simeon, California. Hearst and his “Castle” were of the same glamorous era as Alfred Lunt and Lynne Fontanne. The difference between the ridiculous opulence of Hearst and the comfortable elegance of Ten Chimneys was striking. The Hearst Castle was chock-full of antiquities, purchased simply because he could. The artifacts at Ten Chimneys were wildly decorative but not necessarily priceless. Every piece represented memories of the extraordinary love and joy filled lives of Alfred Lunt and Lynne Fontanne.