Black Point's point man is at home

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Margaret Plevak | April 17, 2016

LAKE GENEVA — “What gets saved is often more by chance than by merit, and I think that's true whether it's buildings or photographs,” says David Desimone, the director of Black Point Estate, the Queen Anne-style summer home of 19th-century Chicago beer baron Conrad Seipp, that lies along the shores of Geneva Lake. Desimone became director of the Wisconsin historical site in 2013, some eight years after the property was donated to the state by a Seipp descendant.

Desimone is the former curator of the Stan Hywet Hall and Gardens in Akron, Ohio — the early 20th-century home of F.A. Seiberling, co-founder of Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. He's also worked at the Cleveland Botanical Garden and the Holden Arboretum in Cleveland.   

The soft-spoken Youngstown, Ohio, native was growing up just as the steel industry was collapsing in his hometown. He has a master's degree in history from Kent State University, and a belief that the past is built on stories both collective and personal. Examine a slice of life with Desimone:

Grabbing hold of history

We had to do a state history project in the fourth, maybe fifth grade. I don't know if it was assigned to me, or if I chose Massachusetts. You had to create a scrapbook. There was some writing involved in it, but it was like grabbing ephemera — things that were produced in the state, like maps — and you put all this together. I loved the fact that I could use objects to tell a story. I didn't know it at the time, but that sort of set me on the course to really have an interest in history. My mother in particular really encouraged that, too. When we'd go to the library, I would always gravitate toward books like “Frontier Dan.” I was always interested in that as opposed to “Dungeons and Dragons” and some of the other books my friends were reading.

Short lines and a career choice

I didn't really want to go to college. I was working at a restaurant as a dishwasher and another restaurant as a bus boy my first fall out of high school. I had a pocketful of money because I had no expenses. I was still living at home. I thought, “This is great!” My mom and dad had some foresight. They kind of sat me down and slid over a sheet of paper that had the expenses on it if they were to charge me my fair share: groceries, utilities and rent. The concept was you're 17 now. You're going to be 18 or 19 and at some point you're going to want to get an apartment. All this money you have in your pocket, how quick it goes away. Fast forward four more years and nobody's going to want to hire a 25-year-old dishwasher. So they agreed to pay for the first semester of college, no strings attached. If I didn't like it no big deal, but I had to go.

When I went to register, the line for kids who were undecided had maybe 40, 50 students. The line for English, maybe 10, 15 students. History, there was nobody. I thought, “I can get this paperwork filled out and be on my way.” The professor I saw recommended classes in Western civilization and African civilization. And it just was amazing because in high school it's all time line: World War II starts on Dec. 7 in the United States. This happens and then this. We drop the atomic bomb and it's over. You get to college and it's all cause and effect. You start to see how everything's related. That was eye-opening. That sealed the deal that I might as well go to college because I enjoyed it.

A historic institution

I was in grad school during the 25th anniversary of the shootings at Kent State. Kent has done a really good job of keeping the legacy of that event in the forefront. It's not something that they want the student population to ever forget. They have an archive in their library. They have a memorial service located at Taylor Hall in the vicinity where the four students who died were shot. I was almost 25 at the time of the anniversary and there were 17-year-olds up to a little older than me. Everybody was pretty somber that day. It's just very impactful to stand on that ground and to think about an event that happened my first year on the planet and to think about how much tension there was in the country to actually cause that.

The death of steel

From 1977 to about '83, the steel industry in Youngstown, Pittsburgh, Canton, Cleveland, to a certain extent, all the way to Gary, Indiana, just collapsed. It started off with the mills and there was a ripple effect. The only reason the muffler plant was in town was they could get their steel from 4 feet away — it made their production cheaper. They're not going to stay in business. Then the bars in the areas near where the workers got off closed. And the grocery stores. Boarded up houses, strip plazas with nothing left. As a kid, you don't notice it as much, but it was pretty bleak. Unemployment in my hometown in my junior high and high school years was like 16 to 17 percent, higher than it was during the great recession of '08. That town went from a population of about 150,000 to about 80,000 in about 20 years. I commented to a friend when I was back at home, “I've lived in Lake Geneva for three years, and the only abandoned anything I see is like a 100-year-old barn. I don't see a 1950s house with plywood shutters on it. I don't see shopping centers shut down.”

History up close 

My father had a really good job in manufacturing and then when he was out of work for two years, he had a heart attack. That was still at an age when you could get basically barred from future employment for a pre-existing condition. So my parents had it really tough. He ultimately landed a job as a housekeeper at a hospital, going from a very healthy blue-collar wage to half the wage at a job he held until he passed away in 2000. I had cousins who were in their mid-20s who had these really well-paying manufacturing jobs. They all ended up going into the service industry. The hotel and restaurant business is great, but these guys were making $40,000-$50,000 a year in the late 1970s, early 1980s and now they're making $18,000 to $19,000 a year. It planted the seed — once I got to college I realized this would be an opportunity to create a better life for myself.

It was sort of a transformative experience that shaped my worldview: Ultimately who's in charge, is it capital or labor? Both are necessary for a healthy economy, and I think we've lost sight of that over the last 25 years. Capital really has a lot of advantages and labor, which is the working class, continues to get squeezed. 

In the Black Point neighborhood

I have the benefit of being the new guy. I wasn't here during any of the legal battles that took place. I wasn't here in those early years of operation when there was maybe a lot of anxiety. The first summer here I went around and knocked on the doors of the adjacent property owners and introduced myself and gave them my phone number and said, “If there's anything at all that we need to talk about, anything that's going well, not going well, pick up the phone and give me a call. We want to be good neighbors.” I also think because I do live in the neighborhood here I'm not just the guy that runs Black Point, I'm also a neighbor. They see me walking my dog. They see me out in my yard. They see me wave to them as they go by. I don't want to say it's ever a non-issue, but we've been really good neighbors. I like to joke, “On the Fourth of July, we're the quietest neighbor in this area. I guarantee you that.” You could not have a better neighbor than a museum. We close at five. There are no kegger parties. There ares no boats blaring off our pier with music at two in the morning because somebody's having a good time.

Putting a price on art

It's really hard for us to put it on a bottom line spread sheet and say we can say we add value to the community. Somebody will say, “Wal-Mart created 78 full-time jobs, 200 part-time jobs, pays $2 million in taxes and has a payroll budget of $20 million. That's real value. How does a museum add value?” It's sort of those intangibles. When it's not there, those communities are far less desirable to live in. So I think that's where we add value. We do add value in terms of a tourist draw and a modest economic engine, but we'll never be some business that came into town and employs 60 people.

Favorite spots on the grounds

The veranda to me is the living room of the estate. I'm fortunate that I live nearby, so those early summer nights that we get when the weather finally breaks, we'll have a busy day here, then I'll go home, get a bite to eat, and when 6:30, 7 o'clock rolls around, I'll grab a book, bring my dog, come and sit on the porch, read a little bit and watch the sunset. That's a pretty amazing experience.

Although it wasn't part of the estate originally, I always love going down that staircase to meet the boat. I feel like I'm Mr. Roarke on “Fantasy Island.” I don't get to do it every day now because as an administrator, you end up getting a lot more paperwork than you ever hoped to do, but whenever possible, it's wonderful. The boat pulls up, they throw the rope. We tie it up. All the guests are all excited. They can't wait to get up the staircase.

Cultivating interest

It's getting visitors to think about what is their own history. Not every town has an 1888 Queen Anne Victorian, designed by a significant architect, high up on a hill on a lake, but maybe it's that 1920s beautiful Art Deco Masonic hall that is now slated for the wrecking ball. What can you do to save your own environment?

We do a walking tour downtown and everybody loves coming to Lake Geneva. Well, Lake Geneva has done a pretty good job of maintaining that architectural diversity of downtown, so it feels like Lake Geneva. It doesn't feel like any other part of the state. If every 20 years, you tear down those buildings and put in the newest buildings, it's going to look like those — I think they're called legacy villages — they're sort of fake shopping plazas that are designed to have archways and a giant chess set and the benches and everything. Well, we have the real thing because people have preserved these buildings. We're trying to help people understand that there is value in that.

I haven't really lived in a place that has had such a support for history. This has been an easier sell, whether it was getting people to come to Black Point or getting people to come to some of our programs. There is a sort of above-average interest, a pretty significant interest in history here. I won't take that for granted because I've lived in other communities where it's like, “Let's just tear it down and put up a CVS.”

Making it personal

I think that there is a broader interest now than I saw 20 years ago. It bodes well for the sort of genre of history as a whole. Genealogy has been amazing for the history profession. You have an uncle from the 1920s who maybe was a character and that's all you know. Well, you start to figure it out because you're interested in that. That's history. It's your own history, but it's still history.  

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