Friday, July 1, 2011



There’s a place in the mountains in upstate New York, an old stone lodge atop a fluttering lawn gently unfolding down to a rippling lake so transparent the smooth river rocks appear so clearly you can see each lichen fiber from a waist deep perspective. Even though the lodge is boarded up, most of its floors caved in long ago, it’s impossible not imagine a small orchestra playing “Star Dust” while couples in beaded dresses and seersucker suits go promenading under a canopy of paper lanterns in tangerine, chartreuse and baby blue down to the lake to board wooden canoes to romantically float among the gently rippling waters of Alder Lake.
Those same nostalgic feelings swept across the hairs on my arms as we visited Ten Chimneys, the home of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, tucked away in Genesee Depot, a little hamlet about 30 miles east of Milwaukee.
A sign on the gates of the estate closes with the sobriquet, “Thank you darling”. The language alone shimmers like a silk glove from a hundred years ago. For a fleeting moment I crave to be back then riding up in a 1940’s Buick Roadmaster after the tedious train ride from New York dressed in a pair of Hollywood waisted gabardine pants, a linen shirt, my arm resting on my chestnut leather valise.
The driver would pull up to the main house, the tires making that crunching sound as he slowly breaks on the pea gravel driveway.
As the driver opened my door I’d catch Alfred’s voice coming from the gardens bubbling with laughter and then there would be Lynn’s hand slipping into the crock of my arm, guiding me into the entry of Ten Chimneys, a perfect little welcome with it’s black and white marble floor and painted images of servants barring pineapples and silver serving trays with carafes filled with wine and spirits.
I drop my valise in the entry as Lynn guides me into the chintz reception room for a cup of weary traveler tea. Alfred, only steps behind brushes off the rich black Wisconsin dirt from his gardening overalls and pats my shoulder. At six-two he seems to tower over me in the low ceilinged room but the warmth of his theatricality diminishes his size and exudes a quality of welcome that immediately puts me at ease.
Lynn says Helen Hayes wouldn’t be there that weekend so I’ll be sleeping in her room, or at least the room they’ve given her name. Nollie, as they all affectionately call Noel Coward, will be staying in the cottage.
I’d always found the cottage amusing in its Swedish arts and crafts motif. Like the entire enclave the cottage has that fairytale quality that make you lose your sense of self and puts you in the audience ready to watch a masterful play.
Napping on Helen Hayes bed is a guilty pleasure, but the giddy laughter coming from the pool wakes me.
I’d packed my swimsuit and within minutes I’m swirling in the pool with Lynn and the other guests. Lynn, the great game player, has everyone howling in a game of water tag.
Alfred has excused himself and left for the kitchen to make some of famous sweet cardamom bread. Wisconsin summers can be cool and arid or hot and muggy. This one is the former. The sun has swept behind the tops of the trees and now a perfect breeze is winding its way through the hundred acres that are Ten Chimneys.
Soon dusk will have arrived and all us guests will have gone back to our rooms to prepare for dinner. With a theater crowd dinner is always served well into the evening and at Ten Chimneys cocktails and dinner don’t begin until the women have put on their elbow length gloves and donned their silk and jeweled gowns. The dining room is as elegant and theatrical as the rest of the house. Everything has a place and once there it owns that piece of real estate. The candelabras here are real and burn with that seductive amber glow, unlike some chandeliers throughout the house which are mere reproductions of the real thing, the wax candles are really painted dowels with nails for wicks.
So much of the trompe l’oeil of the theater permeates Ten Chimneys. It’s difficult to know what’s real and what’s not.
No one stays for weekend at Ten Chimneys. You’re there for a week, or a month, or some for the season.
The elegant dinner of the night before belies the casual atmosphere that so permeates the life at Ten Chimneys. So much of our time here ends up in the lodge, The log construction with it’s cathedral ceiling and Juliet loft force you to relax and nestle in to one of the overstuffed chairs in front of that new contraption they call TV. Days turn to weeks and weeks to months as we rehearse upcoming plays for the next season.
Then the docent says the shuttle bus is here and she hopes we all have enjoyed our tour,
“Come again darlings”. 


“From the mid-1920s to the late-1950s, when Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, the ‘Fabulous Lunts,’ reigned as the leading stage acting team of the day, Ten Chimneys was a near mythic retreat. Coward, Helen Hayes, Laurence Olivier, Alexander Woolcott, Katherine Hepburn and many more flocked there. As Carol Channing, another guest once said, ‘What the Vatican is to Catholics, Ten Chimneys is to actors.”
The New York Times


Noel Coward, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne
On the set of “Design for Living”


  1. It's so amazing, isn't it! Every room, little corner, outbuilding more wonderful and quirky than the next. And the great stories the docents tell. Love, love, love it.

  2. I visited today and am so jealous you got to take pictures inside the house!! I'm in the hunt for a great one of the kitchen and one of the bathrooms upstairs...the 30s rooms were my favorite, by far.