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At Home in Wisconsin

By Amy Lifson | HUMANITIES, March/April 1999 | Volume 20, Number 2

Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne became stars of New York’s stages but returned each summer to Wisconsin and a place they called Ten Chimneys. In the 1930s, their private life became part of a publicity campaign that idealized the domestic bliss of this glamorous couple.

Thirty years of photographs taken by Warren O’Brien of the couple and contemporary images of the elaborately decorated house by Zane Williams are featured in the traveling exhibition “Ten Chimneys: The Lunts on Stage in Wisconsin,” which will tour the state through March 1, 2000.

Long before he even met Lynn Fontanne, Lunt purchased the land in Genesee Depot, Wisconsin, and began building Ten Chimneys. Lunt had been born and bred in Milwaukee and had attended Carroll College. In the early 1900s, Lunt’s and Fontanne’s rising careers crisscrossed Broadway until they finally met on the set of Made of Money in 1919. That same year, Lunt introduced Fontanne to Ten Chimneys. In 1926 they married. They acted exclusively on stage together from 1928 until Lunt’s death in 1977.

It was their long-lasting, peaceful relationship that appealed to the public’s imagination. Nowhere more than Ten Chimneys offered a window onto the relaxed moments of their lives. Pictures of Alfred baking bread or of Lynn sewing dresses gave a sense of normality to their glamorous reputations. The house itself was a loved pet project of the couple’s. Lynn would send knick knacks back from her travels with explicit instructions on how and where they should be placed in the house. She once said, “Offering us a room without furniture and bare walls is like offering a dog a bone. Decorating, cutting out a new dress, arranging our flowers -- they can be as stimulating as a new play.”

The Lunts became household names in an age of movie stars. Well known for their interpretations of Noel Coward’s drawing-room farces, the Lunts perfected the technique of overlapping dialog in which the actors speak their lines simultaneously, but by keeping separate tempos and pitches are able to keep the dialog moving forward. So, too, were they able to blend their tastes in making Ten Chimneys a showcase of design -- from their rococo Belasco Room to their hand-painted folksy cottage kitchen.

After Lynn Fontanne’s death in 1983, the estate was in limbo for some years. Finally in 1996, Ten Chimneys was bought by a private individual and subsequently acquired by the Ten Chimneys Foundation, Inc. in 1998. The show supported by the Wisconsin Humanities Council appears at the Waukesha County Museum from April 8 through June 28, at Northern Lakes Center for the Arts in Amery from July 7 through 31, at the University of Wisconsin in Madison from August 13 through September 5, at the University of Wisconsin in Green Bay from September 15 through November 20, and at Carroll College in Waukesha from December 1 through March 1, 2000. The exhibition is a preview to when the house opens its doors to the public in 2001.