My friend Jeanna and I were looking for something to do and neither one of us had ever toured the Durkee Mansion at Kemper Center in Kenosha. I had heard my mother say that she went every year in the week after Thanksgiving to see the mansion and also the trees on display at the Anderson Arts Center on the grounds, but Jeanna and I were were a day too late for the trees and had to settle for the mansion alone.
Kemper Center is on the Kenosha lakefront and is a collection of historic buildings currently used for conferences, business meetings, luncheons, weddings and special events. This 17.5 acres of park along the Lake Michigan shoreline also has an athletic field and both wooded and open spaces.
Kemper Center began as the private home of United States Senator Charles
Durkee who came to the Wisconsin Territory from New England in 1836 and
soon became the largest landowner in the area that would become
Kenosha. In 1865,
Senator Durkee’s home became a boarding school for young women. The
Episcopal girl’s school became Kemper Hall in 1871, in memory of Bishop
Jackson Kemper, the First Missionary Bishop for the Northwest Terretory
of the American Episcopal Church.
I was surprised to learn that Jeanna used to cater weddings and other
events held at Kemper Center, and she had extensive knowledge of the
areas that were not open to the public on that day. We wandered around
the grounds and while I didn't get a true inside "look" at the
buildings onsite, I did get to hear a few fun stories. My favorite was
her description of how she used to push the catering cart through the
darkened hallways at a run to get past the "creepy" mannequins that
were on display in the old girl's school.
Touring the Durkee Mansion is free, but donations are encouraged. Volunteers decorate this Italianate Victorian home, and we especially liked the doily inspired decorations on the trees. The first and second floor are open to the public, but the third floor ballroom is closed as it now houses the building's climate control equipment. The home is furnished with period antiques and they are currently gratefully accepting donations of any appropriate items to their collection.
One of the unique features of the mansion is the suspension stairway which was the largest of its type in the state.
While Senator Durkee was attending President Abraham
Lincoln’s funeral in 1865, the new President of the United States Andrew
Johnson appointed him to the governorship of the Utah Territory which
was appealing to him since he suffered from chronic rheumatism and
sought a drier climate. St.
Matthew’s Episcopal Church arranged to purchase the Durkee home and
began adding new buildings to the Senator’s home in order to develop it
as a girls’ school. Included on the grounds is a separate gymnasium and
a chapel and the girls' school remained in operation until 1975.
While looking for information about the Durkee Mansion online I found a link to an online copy of "Wisconsin's Historic Houses & Living History Museums". Guess what I'll be reading to see what other nearby historic homes are open for visitors? I'm sure there are many more hidden gems nearby for me to discover and it'll make for great winter travel ideas now that camping season is unfortunately over.