Before Brad & Angelina, before Liz & Dick, there was Lunt & Fontanne. Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne ruled the Broadway stage from the 1920s through the 1950s and are still considered the greatest acting team in the history of American theater. During their successful career they had two conditions: they only chose plays in which both of them had a role, and they took off every summer to stay at their home in Genesee Depot, Wisconsin – a place they called Ten Chimneys.
It was a brilliantly sunny spring day when I took the two-hour drive from Dodgeville, Wisconsin, to the Lunt’s home in Southeastern Wisconsin. Even though the property was experiencing the end of a long winter’s thaw, its beauty and tranquility were apparent. Randy Bryant, president and chief executive officer of the Ten Chimneys Foundation, offered that if there is only one takeaway he’d like visitors to get from visiting the property it would be the Lunts’ “art of living.” After touring the buildings and walking the grounds, I had no doubt that the Lunts had impeccable taste and lived their lives with integrity.
Alfred Lunt lived in Genesee Depot as a child, and when he came into an inheritance at age 21 he purchased the first three acres of what would eventually consist of the main house, a rustic studio, a cottage, gardens, an L-shaped pool, a pool house, a greenhouse and a gentleman’s farm.
Alfred and Lynn retreated to Wisconsin every summer to recharge, workshop, collaborate and socialize with many young actors that they mentored. An invitation to this Wisconsin haven was significant and was an indication that the theater artist had “arrived.” Guests to the compound included Sir Lawrence (“Larry”) Olivier, Vivian Leigh, Katharine Hepburn, Montgomery Clift, Helen Hayes, Carol Channing and the playwright and friend of the Lunts, Noël Coward. Visitors also included directors, designers, writers and artists. Ten Chimneys was a place of creation, discussion and inspiration, as well as a great meal. Alfred Lunt was famous for his cooking, and he eagerly shared with his guests and staff.
It was in this small Wisconsin town where the Lunts helped develop a radical shift in American theater. They helped transform it from an exaggerated style to a naturalism way of acting that attempts to recreate the impression of reality using overlapping dialogue, more truthful acting, and realistic set designs.
The estate takes its name from the total of ten chimneys present on the grounds. As a historic property the estate was exceptionally well preserved, since the Lunt’s original furnishings, decorations and personal items were barely touched from the time of Lynn’s death until the creation of the Ten Chimneys Foundation. However, wallpaper was peeling, garden walls were crumbling and pathways had to be cleared. Mr. Byrant and his staff of over 200 volunteers are challenged with maintaining the integrity of the property while assuring visitors are made to feel like just another guest of the legendary Lunts.
Upon entering the main house, you are at the foot of a grand spiral staircase in an entryway that is filled with murals created by Claggett Wilson. You are immediately immersed in the Lunts’ desire to set the stage for their visitors with elegant furnishings and decorating. As one weaves from room to room, you discover that each is decorated with a sense of drama and warmth. In the Drawing Room is the Noël Coward piano that is still kept in tune for cabaret nights that the Foundation holds. The third floor is where the bedrooms are located. Noël Coward, Sir Lawrence Olivier and Helen Hayes were such frequent guests that they each had a bedroom named after them. Katharine Hepburn, according to Mr. Bryant, would often arrive at the home uninvited, an inconvenience the Lunts would graciously work around.
“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.” Katharine Hepburn
The other buildings on the estate each have distinct personalities: the “cottage,” which is almost as large as the Main House, is decorated with Finnish designs, a nod to where Alfred Lunt lived as a child. The rustic cabin, a favorite stay of Montgomery Clift, also served as a place of rehearsals. The greenhouse and chicken coop were stone buildings that fit comfortably with living quarters. And, of course, the L- shaped swimming pool – once the deepest pool in the state of Wisconsin.
“The Lunts were my friends. They were my idols, my teachers, my mentors. I think of all the lucky things that happened to me in my life in the theatre, the Lunts were the luckiest.” Helen Hayes
When the Lunts lived at Ten Chimneys, it was a working farm, where they grew vegetables and raised poultry to be consumed in their home and to be shared with their staff and neighbors. In the summer of 2013, the estate’s farm will be restored, and the harvest will be donated to local food banks by the Foundation, following in the Lunt’s tradition of generosity.
As a National Historic Landmark estate, Ten Chimneys is open to the public as a historic residence and national resource for theater, arts and arts education. It hosts the Lunt-Fontanne Fellowship Master Class, honoring their history of mentoring. In the summer of 2013, Alan Alda will act as the Master Teacher instructing ten professional theater actors in an immersion experience on the grounds of Ten Chimneys. There will also be a one-night only program highlighting the actors chosen for this class and it will be open to the public.
If you are a fan of old Broadway or historic preservation, the two-hour tour of Ten Chimneys is for you. The tours are in small groups no larger than ten people. Nothing is roped off, nothing is under glass to feel as though you truly are a guest in the Lunts’ famous home.
Estate Tours of Ten Chimneys are offered May through November, Tuesday through Saturday. (262) 968-4110.
Includes photos by Ten Chimneys Staff © Ten Chimneys Foundation
Vintage photos by Warren O’Brien from the O’Brien Family Collection at WHS.
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