Stage Magic

Some of the world’s best-known actors spent time at Ten Chimneys,
the grand estate owned by Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne

By John Hill

A visit to Ten Chimneys, the historic Genesee Depot estate of Broadway greats Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, will send you away feeling like a guest of the Lunts in the mid-1900s rather than a 21st-century tourist.

That illusion’s no accident. It’s the result of careful planning, hard work, and the pleasure that staff and volunteers take in telling about two of the world’s most famous actors and their National Historic Landmark estate, which was opened to the public in 2003 after a $12.5 million restoration.

The time trip starts when you board a tram with two docents at the Lunt-Fontanne Program Center, across the road from the estate. The program center’s free permanent displays and annual special exhibit bring you up to speed on the Lunts’ contributions to the theater.

As you ride through the gate to Ten Chimneys, you can easily see why Lunt, a Milwaukee native, and his English wife loved to come here each summer for respite after a hectic Broadway season. The three-story Main House, with its green trim and green-and-white striped awnings, and the Cottage, Studio, and farm buildings are surrounded by oak-covered knolls and deep glacial kettles. Flowers abound on the 60-acre estate as they did when the Lunts lived here. Rooms are filled with the Lunts’ collection of art, Staffordshire figures, original prints, converted pre-Civil War oil lamps, Spanish statues, and other artifacts.

Our guides showed us how the Lunts welcomed guests at the entrance. We could almost see Lynn Fontanne sweeping down the spiral staircase. The hallway and many of the other rooms are filled with bright murals painted by Claggett Wilson, the Lunts’ favorite scene painter and costume designer. There are no stanchions, velvet ropes, or carpet coverings inside the National Historic Landmark estate; you walk into a room as any guest would. And while you can’t touch the items you see, you can enjoy them up close.

Rather than rattling off a script of soon-to-be forgotten dates and facts, the 150 volunteer docents tell anecdotes about the Lunts as if they actually know them. The bust of a woman in the opulent dining room, for example, leads to a story of the time on stage when “Lynnie” was so intent on remembering her lines that she didn’t notice the top of her gown slipping down. The candlesticks with umbrellas in the Cottage symbolize the green umbrella that Alfred felt was the key prop for playing the character Henry Higgins in Pygmalion.

Ten Chimneys was more than a refuge for the Lunts; it was a gathering place for their friends. The tour includes visits to the Helen Hayes, Laurence Olivier, and Noël Coward bedrooms. Katharine Hepburn reportedly liked to walk uphill to the estate on a back road rather than driving into the main driveway. And you can almost feel the presence of Coward playing the brightly painted grand piano in the drawing room, festooned with Wilson’s whimsical paintings of biblical stories—a fitting way to bring to life the magical world of the Lunts and other stage luminaries of the last century.

If You Go...

The full estate tour of Ten Chimneys lasts two hours. Wear comfortable walking shoes, as the tour includes flights of stairs and uneven terrain. Tues.-Sun., May through November; ask about group discounts. Because of the estate’s fragility, children under 12 are not permitted. For those who might have trouble walking the full estate, 90-minute tours feature the 14-room Main House.  Reservations are recommended for all tours.

The Lunt-Fontanne Program Center includes a permanent collection of exhibits on the Lunts and a museum store.

Ten Chimneys, Genesee Depot; (262) 968-4110.