New, old mix in restoration project

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Margaret Plevak | May 28, 2017

LAKE GENEVA—Vacationing tourists are starting to fill Walworth County, and Black Point Estate and Gardens is ready to welcome them. Of course, Black Point has been opening its doors to guests for well over a century

The property's original owners, Chicago beer baron Conrad Seipp and his wife, Catharina, finished building their 20-room summer “cottage” on a scenic bluff overlooking Geneva Lake in 1888. For four generations of extended family, it was a place to gather and relax. In 2005, the Seipps' great-grandson, William O. Petersen, donated the grounds and furnishings to the Wisconsin Historical Society, and since 2007, Black Point, now a state historic site, has hosted tours of the Queen Anne-style house and surrounding wooded grounds to visitors during a season that runs from May through October.

Original furnishings—from furniture dating to before the Civil War and  a 19th-century billiard table to everyday household items—fill the house, creating a virtual time capsule of wealthy Victorian life. That authenticity helped earn Black Point Estate and Gardens a spot in 2014 in Fodor's Travel list of the 10 best home-estate tours in the U.S.

Additionally, Black Point extends visitor education with a range of programs. Upcoming events on its calendar this season include a presentation on Wisconsin supper clubs, a Geneva Lake cruise pointing out the historic lakeside homes of other beer barons, and several Black Point nooks and crannies tours that will take participants into behind-the-scenes places like the house's basement and root cellar.

This season visitors also will see a major restoration project in the covered veranda that wraps around the house. It's a favorite spot of Black Point's director, David Desimone.

“The house is an 8,000-square-foot summer residence with plenty of beautiful rooms. The music room, the billiard room, the dining room—all those are wonderful spaces, but the veranda is special,” Desimone said. “At its deepest spot, it is 14 feet deep. You can catch a nice lake breeze there, and in the days before air conditioning, you wanted to be outside anyway. You get glimpses of the lake, see boats sailing by. The wicker furniture there is comfortable and unless there are horrible storms, you're protected from the rain. I had to believe it was the family's living room in the summer time.”

Like any house, Black Point requires regular maintenance, but it must also adhere to state and local code requirements for public buildings. Structural problems with the columns, column foundations and deck support systems of the veranda meant it had to be rebuilt from its footers to the ceiling. Desimone said the challenge of the restoration was to bring the veranda up to building code without adversely changing its aesthetics.

Desimone said members of both the Lake Geneva Land Conservancy, and Black Point Historic Preserve, which had the responsibility of reviewing the project, were helpful and supportive of the work.

Glen Fern Construction of Lake Geneva was awarded the project.  

In a major job that began in October with a budget of $360,000, the veranda was meticulously taken apart, with columns, newel posts and railings carefully tagged so that reusable pieces could be put back together again. Paint was stripped and the strength and integrity of pieces were determined.

From the decking down, new material was used, although the columns supporting the weight load are actually old “new” material, Desimone said.

“The columns are made of reclaimed cream city brick from a brickyard in Milwaukee. They are new to our property, but actually 100 years old with some patina,” he said.

Reusing material whenever possible saved money and kept the look of the structure, Desimone said. While the wood on some pieces had rotted out over the years, he estimated about 80 to 90 percent of material from the deck line of the veranda up to its ceiling was able to be reused in the restoration.

The replacement pieces were replicated in design, making it hard for visitors to tell the difference, he said.

In a news release last fall on the project, an owner of Glen Fern Construction expressed surprise at the construction quality of the original veranda back in 1888.

“Today's construction crews, working with power tools, is a far cry from what tradespeople used 130 years ago,” Desimone said. “And these were master craftsmen working on the Seipp's house.”

Finishing touches to the project still need to be made, but visitors can still enjoy the veranda, Desimone said.

But even last fall—which he noted marked the 50th anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act—the restoration project-in-progress was incorporated into tours to educate visitors on the challenges of maintaining a historic building, Desimone said.

“We didn't want to shy away from the fact that we were under construction. We embraced it as a teachable moment. Tour guides explained the need for the project and gave kind of a crash course to visitors on the challenges of restoring a historic property,” he said.

“Anybody who's watched “This Old House” knows buildings that are long in the tooth can be really well built, but still are in need of constant upkeep. It's not like you do a restoration in 2007 and never need to worry about it again. For historic buildings like this, ongoing funding is required to keep them in serviceable condition so that 20, 30, 50 years from now, people will still be able to appreciate their craftsmanship and their architecture.”

Desimone said future projects at Black Point include replacing custom-built windows, replacing wall coverings, restoring furniture and light fixtures and refinishing floors.

Currently, Desimone is in the process of reviewing bids and lining up fundraising for a shady woodland garden on the grounds. He hopes garden preparation work can begin this fall for planting next spring.

“While it won't be a true wildflower or native garden, we plan to use as many native Wisconsin plants as possible,” he said.

“A hundred years ago, there were all kinds of paths through the woods on the property. We want to give the visitor the experience of strolling through a landscape garden in a wooded setting. It's not a re-creation, but a garden that speaks to a landscape vernacular of the early 1900s” he said. “I like to say if Conrad and Catharina walked out their front door and saw the garden, it would make sense to them, even though it's new.”

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