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'S Marvelous to Find a Bit of Broadway in Wisconsin

Sunday, July 8, 2007

WHAT: Ten Chimneys, an estate once owned by Broadway luminaries Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne.

WHERE: Genesee Depot, Wis., between Madison and Milwaukee.

WHY GO: The Lunts are long gone, but at Ten Chimneys the show must go on.

The fabulous Lunts reigned over Broadway from the 1920s through the 1950s, and during summers and on long weekends away from the stage, they had their own Broadway salon in the Wisconsin woods.

Today, visiting Ten Chimneys is like examining someone's personal diaries. Handwritten notes and memorabilia from frequent guests -- including such fellow actors as Katharine Hepburn, Helen Hayes and Lawrence Olivier -- are found throughout the house.

Cloistered deep in a forest, Ten Chimneys was opened to the public for the first time in 2003 after extensive restoration. Now a National Historic Landmark, there isn't a nook (or a cranny, come to think of it) on the 60-acre estate that doesn't reflect the couple's love for theater and art. Indeed, in 2005 the Ten Chimneys Foundation -- the nonprofit organization that runs the estate -- received an award for "Excellence in Theatre History Preservation" from New York's Theatre Museum.

Among the estate's highlights are the upstairs bedrooms named for the stars who stayed months at a time; in the Helen Hayes Bedroom, for instance, there's a backdrop from "Taming of the Shrew." Some of the most whimsical uses of staging are in the guest cottage: The walls are painted to look like wallpaper, with the pencil lines left intact. (They reminded the Lunts of stage sets.) In the sitting room, the walls are adorned with bright Swedish-designed canvases.

One of the more interesting areas of Ten Chimneys is its permanent exhibition space off the gift shop. The facade mirrors the nearly 50-year-old Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in New York; inside, the room houses some of the toy theaters Lunt collected.

"The most frequent comment I hear about Ten Chimneys is how relevant it is to today," says foundation executive director Sean Malone. Many of the "people who visit the grounds have never heard of the Lunts -- it isn't hero worship that draws them here. What's meaningful for them is to see how the Lunts designed a life that balances theater and the arts with country living."

Lunt, who was born in the Genesee Depot area (Fontanne was born and raised in London), used money he had inherited to build the estate in 1915. Named for the retreat's 10 chimneys, the property was built around a main house with 18 rooms, a creamery, a greenhouse, stables, a Swedish log cabin, a pool and a 10-room cottage.

Married in 1922, Lunt and Fontanne were inseparable at home and on the stage. In 1960, they retired from the stage and took up full-time residence at Ten Chimneys. He died in Chicago at age 84 in 1977, and she died at Ten Chimneys in 1983 at 96.

Ninety-nine percent of the Lunts' personal collection, furniture, art and accessories was found intact at Ten Chimneys. Volunteers even discovered bank statements and Lunt's galoshes. In the kitchen, the couple's address book still sits on the counter. After the local telephone number for C & C Plumbing is Carol Channing's number.

The centerpiece of the living room is its intriguing piano. Noel Coward, a frequent guest at Ten Chimneys, was obviously held in high regard, because when he put his foot down about playing on a black piano, the Lunts had theirs painted white and decorated with murals.

"It's a wonderful place for inspiration," Malone says. "People leave with new ideas on how to incorporate more of the things they love into their own lives."

-- Sharyn Alden

Ten Chimneys is open May through Nov. 10. Two-hour full estate tours are $35; the 90-minute house-only tour is $28. Ten Chimneys is off Interstate 94, between Madison and Milwaukee. For directions and other information, call 262-968-4161 or visit http://www.tenchimneys.org.

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