Joseph Garton, Who Saved Lunt Estate Ten Chimneys, Is Dead at 56

Obituaries   Joseph Garton, Who Saved Lunt Estate Ten Chimneys, Is Dead at 56 Joseph Garton, the tenacious Wisconsin restauranteur and theatre enthusiast who single-handedly saved from destruction Ten Chimneys, the estate of the late great acting couple Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, died Aug. 2 at his Madison home, 15 days short of his 57th birthday. He had been battling cancer.
Joseph Garton celebrating at Ten Chimneys' Grand Opening Gala on May 17.
Joseph Garton celebrating at Ten Chimneys' Grand Opening Gala on May 17.

Ten Chimneys—a fanciful, opulently appointed and eminently theatrical set of buildings nestled in the hilly southeastern Wisconsin hamlet of Genesee Depot—was Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne's home from the mid-1920s until their deaths. The stage couple filled each room with antiques, collectibles, hand-painted murals, paintings and ornaments of every description. The overall decorative flavor was Scandinavian, but the effect was pure theatre. Many of their visitors—which included Alexander Woollcott, Helen Hayes, Laurence Olivier and Noel Coward—remarked that every room was a stage set.

When Mr. Garton first encountered Ten Chimneys, the place was still intact, if in a state of neglect. Lunt died in 1977 and Fontanne in 1982. The land and buildings had been left to Alfred's brother-in-law George Bugbee. Joseph Garton first met the aged Bugbee in 1994, prior to a private tour of Ten Chimneys.

The estate haunted Mr. Garton for months, so he wrote Bugbee asking if he could come back. There was no reply to that or a follow-up letter. Alarmed, Mr. Garton asked a friend the Wisconsin Historical Society to look in on Bugbee—immediately. Bugbee had died and his daughter Suzanne Knapp had put Ten Chimneys on the market. Mr. Garton was outbid by a local developer who wanted to break up and sell the land, buildings and contents.

Mr Garton didn't give up easily. He launched a one-man campaign to save the Lunts' home, contacting newspapers and politicians. When the developer let his option on the property pass, Mr. Garton told Mrs. Knapp, "Give me a week." He took out a million dollar loan and bought the property. Three months later, Ten Chimneys Foundation was formed, which eventually purchased the estate back from Mr. Garton. Then began a seven year journey of fundraising and restoration. On May 26, the Lunts' 81st anniversary, Ten Chimneys opened as a public museum and cultural center.

"Design for Living," the upcoming Knopf biography of the Lunts by Margot Peters, is dedicated to Mr. Garton. Joseph Garton was born on Aug. 17, 1946, in Sheboygan, WI. He graduated from Amherst College in Massachusetts and then earned a Masters Degree in education at the University of Massachusetts. He married Deirdre Wilson in 1970 and the two of them opened an art gallery in Amherst, before moving to New York City, where Mr. Garton earned a masters and doctorate in cinema studies at New York University. After returning to Wisconsin, he taught film history at Wisconsin museums and universities.

Ten Chimneys was not his first effort at restoration. His Madison restaurant, Quivey's Grove, is housed in a reclaimed 1850s farm house in the town of Fitchburg. He and his wife also restored their Elkhart Lake home, a building that is on the National Historic Register.

For his work on Ten Chimneys, Mr. Garton received the Governor's Award in Support of the Arts. Involved in many theatrical enterprises, he was president of Madison Repertory Theatre and Madison Civic Center Foundation, and was chairperson of the Wisconsin Arts Board.

Mr. Garton is survived by his wife four children: Caitlin of Portland, OR; Josie of Anchorage, AK; Elenore of Ithaca, NY; and Nicholas of Sturdevant, WI.

Mr. Garton shared something else with Alfred Lunt beside a passion for theatre and for Ten Chimneys. Lunt, who was renowned for his cooking, studied French cooking at the Cordon Blue in 1958. During 1987 and 1988, Mr. Garton also took his family to Paris to study cooking, at La Varenne. He was known for his sauces.

A memorial service is planned for 11 AM Aug. 11, at Ten Chimneys. Because of limited parking visitors should arrive early and park in Genesee Depot. In lieu of flowers, Mr. Garton's relatives ask that a contribution be made to the Ten Chimneys Foundation or another favorite arts organization.