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.
Joseph Garton, a tenacious Wisconsin restauranteur and theatre enthusiast, single-handedly saved the estate from destruction. He died Aug. 2 at his Madison home, 15 days short of his 57th birthday. He had been battling cancer.
When 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, 2003, the Lunts' 81st anniversary, Ten Chimneys opened as a public museum and cultural center.