Today was the last day to tour the Durkee Mansion here in Kenosha. It’s been decorated for the holiday season. We’ve talked for five of the last seven holiday seasons (two of them we were on active duty in Tampa) we need to go tour the historical structure in our town. However, holiday season happens and it’s never simple and by the time we looked up it was over and the house was closed.
We made the effort today, with more presents to wrap but the bulk of the holiday chores done we decided to take time to tour the home. We were justly rewarded for our small effort of getting off the couch and turning off football. Okay that wasn’t a small effort as the two games had Bears in one and the Pack in the other. Still my photography hobby was greatly pleased to see such lovely decorations in a restored Victorian home.
The entrance of the mansion has all the detail painting you’d expect on a Victorian home. Yet I thought the entrance somewhat stark for a Victorian home. Later with talking with a volunteer I learned what it was missing. The once elaborate and breathtakingly ornate wraparound porch with all the lattice work detail of the period is long gone. The plantation windows (the large kind that go to the floor where you walk through them when open) that we saw in the parlor and dining room once opened to this porch. Glimpses as to what the porch looked like can be seen in the early graduation pictures of the Kemper Center School for Girls. They posed on this ornate porch. Today the windows are just large windows with iron grates at the bottom on the outside
The home was said to be a stop on the Underground Railroad. The Durkees were abolitionist. Mr. Durkee’s brother was involved in finding railroad “stops” in the Kenosha area for escaping slaves. The Mansion has a root cellar that is accessible by a trap door in the floor of the pantry. Lore holds this is where the Durkees hid slaves they hosted as a train stop on the route to freedom. Currently the door is under a large pantry armoire and not visible to visitors.
The house isn’t furnished with original furniture. Instead it is furnished with period correct pieces donated by the community. The restoration and care of this lovely home is a community effort. It is so sad that we have missed out on seeing this treasure for so long. The holiday decorations are also donated and done by volunteers. Each room had a podium explaining the room function and listing the volunteers who had decorated it for the holiday. Much of the decoration was Victorian inspired with the heavy draping of many fabrics and the ornate nature of the decorations. It was set to be a feast for the eye. I did enjoy finding areas to highlight with my lens eye and appreciate the efforts of everyone who donated time and materials.
The main area of entertaining guests would have been the main floor were the parlors and dining room were located. Then the third floor where the ballroom was located. Unfortunately the ballroom is now closed off and houses the furnace and other mechanicals to service the home. I so would have loved to have seen a restored ballroom decorated to the nines for Christmas. Though it did seem odd to me that the two main entertaining areas were not adjoined but rather required passing through the family’s floor.
The other odd thing to me was the home faces away from the lovely view of Lake Michigan. They must of had a spectacular view sitting there in the middle of their ten acres. Only the bay window in his room can glimpse the lake. I would have highlighted that view from my home and ballroom much like the Vanderbilts did at the Breakers in Newport. Okay maybe not as ornately as the Vanderbilts but orientation wise like they did or the Ringling home in Florida does the Atlantic.
Back to the main floor. There were three parlors. The guest parlor that would have showcased the best the Durkees had to offer in furniture, decoration, and such. This was to the right of the foyer or entrance hall. The hall was where the guest would have given their cloaks, gloves, and gentlemen doffed their hats. Also calling cards would have been left there by each guest. Straight back from the foyer was the ladies parlor where Mrs. Durkee would have enterained lady vistors. Back and to the right was the gentlemen’s parlor where Mr. Durkee would have entertained male callers. I’m sure much political discussion went on in that room given Mr. Durkee’s career.
All of these parlors were accessible by the Butler’s Walk a hallway that ran through the core of the house and connected with the servant’s hall. I did find the ceiling in the servant’s hall lovely and today it’s where you can view photos of the early graduating classes from Kemper and get a glimpse of the house’s porch.
One of the striking features of the home’s main floor was the stained glass windows. They were glittering with the bright winter light streaming into the dimly lit home. One thing we take for granted now is good lighting. Early light bulbs weren’t as strong as we are used to today. Nor did one light a whole room, instead one lit the area where they were. One of the mad extravagances of George Vanderbilt at his Biltmore home was fully lighting rooms with electrical lights. Still the pleasant cozy dimness highlighted the lovely colors of the glass in the windows. Check out my flickr account for some shots of the other windows.
The second floor or family floor held five bedrooms. At the time they lived in the home the Durkees did not have children. Later when the Kemper Center operated the girls school this floor had classrooms, offices, and the Mother Superior’s bedroom. Today they all have been restored to bedrooms. They are lovely but in the interest of space I’ll only highlight two. The one that was the Mother Superior’s bedroom and one I just liked the furniture.
This is the bedroom the Mother Superior later chose as her bedroom. I can see why on two counts. First it had the largest fireplace so it would be a warm bedroom. Here in the late 1800s I can imagine the winters could be brutally cold and being next to the lake I’m sure the wind was brutal. Next it just outside it’s door was the sitting room for the family area I’m sure that was good place for the students to gather between classes and she would easily keep an eye on them. At least those were my imaginings as I stood in the bedroom doorway. It was also a good sized room but not large like the master bedroom so I’m sure it was a nice size to be her private area. There are more pictures of the room on my flickr feed so click on any image in this post and go over to look about.
The other bedroom I just thought the bed was lovely. It was decorated as a ladies room but there were men’s riding boots by the fireplace. **waggles eyebrows** What lovely horseman put his boots by her fire? **wink wink** Really who can’t see lovely decorated Victorian homes and not fall into a romance novel state of mind? Okay guys I get it you can do it but even I, the not really a romance reader gal, couldn’t help it.
Now back down the stairs to the servant’s areas. I didn’t get any pictures in the pantry where the root cellar hatch is because the room was very small and often crowded given the historical significance of it. I did get a shot of ceiling in the servant’s hall. The floor was also very attractive being striped by alternating light wood with dark wood in the hardwood floor. This was a wide hallway where the servants would gather outside the small kitchen where the dry sink was located.
What’s a dry sink you ask. Well ignore that pump handle and spout there it’s just decoration. A dry sink had no water and no drain. You went out to the pump and carried in the water. You washed the dishes in the water you heated on the stove there in the dry sink pans. When you were finished you carried the dirty water outside. Thus the sink was truly a dry sink just a place to hold the dishpans.
That concluded our tour of the home. On the way out I made a few pictures of the Kemper Center grounds including the Simmon’s gym built in 1910. The school was a very progressive one for women. The nuns taught chemistry, physics, horseback riding, pottery making, and many other things. The gym even included bowling alleys. The classes were small at the most 24 girls. The girls lived in dorms on the grounds. A woman who graduated from Kemper was well educated and knowledgeable about many things. They were finished ladies.
Just as we were getting in the truck to go home I spotted a red fox, yes a real wild red fox strolling down the sidewalk of this historic lake front community. We sat in the car and watched him for a bit. The lady walking on the other side of the street paused to watch him trot along occasionally stopping to sniff here or pee there (gotta mark territory ya know). It was an odd thing to see as we can’t recall any woods near there for him to live. I guess he was just like us enjoying a day out in the sun with no snow and temps that weren’t really cold by Wisconsin December’s standards.
As I’ve said multiple times in this post there are more photos on my flickr account. You can also view larger sizes of any of these by clicking on them and going to that account. Also as always I’d LOVE to hear from you. You can comment here, e-mail me at any of my e-mail accounts (marylouiseeklund at gmail or yahoo) or tweet me @marylouiseklund. I’m also on Google+ as myself but you won’t get me on Facebook. My old account there is there but it’s dead. Until next time – Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and hope life’s treating you well.