Source: Lake Geneva Regional News

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Black Point Mansion set to open soon
Shaking off winter chills, preparing for spring

by Chris Schultz

April 21, 2011

Town of Linn — The Painted Lady is awakening from her winter sleep and preparing to welcome the warm weather visitors who will soon flock to her parlor.

In early 2006, the house's exterior was repainted to capture its original look, that of a "painted lady," which means it is multicolored. Research shows that the original main color of the house was a mustardy, sagey color now called "Black Point gold." The window sashes are white and the exterior doors are detailed in a dark red.

Starting April 30, Geneva Lake Cruise Lines will again bring tourists to the pier at Black Point, where they will ascend the stairs to the porch and front door of Conrad Seipp's summer home, and for a while, step back in time to luxurious summer living, late 19th Century style.

That means the volunteers and docents of the Black Point Preserve are hustling through the giant summer home's rooms and hallways, uncovering furniture, dusting off windowsills and vacuuming up the dead bugs piled in the corners.

It takes about three weeks to prepare the old house for its warm weather visitors, said Gwen Tveter, a volunteer and member of the Black Point Preserve's board of directors. Cleaning and airing out the house started last week, she said.

During a visit to the venerable summer home on April 7, the windows were still shaded, the hallways were dark and the mirrors and furniture were covered with sheets.

Joining Tveter on a brief inspection of the house were Mary Kaye Merwin, Delavan, a volunteer, and Mike Baker, Walworth, caretaker manager for the William Petersen property.

In years past, only the maintenance staff hired by the Seipp, and later, the Petersen families, would see the house in this condition.

Yet, by April 27, everything will be ready for the tableware to be set out in the dining room for display, Tveter said.

The mansion is unheated, which is why the tours end in October and then start up again in April.

During the winter months, temperatures inside the house can drop to below freezing. But proper preparation and care prevent structural damage from the cold. The cold also acts as a preservative, Tveter said.

About the only things that need protection from the cold are the oil paintings, which tend to crack from the freeze and thaw over time, said Baker. During the cold months, important family paintings are stored at the home of former owner William Petersen, which is nearby.

Seipp, a German immigrant and Chicago beer magnate, had the house built in the late 1880s for $20,000.

The grand, three-story house was done in Queen Anne style, with a wrap-around porch and plenty of Victorian gingerbread. It boasts 13 bedrooms, four main rooms, one bathroom and an elevator (no longer functional). It also has a four-story look-out tower.

The old house's interior is very simple. Single hallways with rooms lining either side are stacked up three floors. The halls end in large doors that lead out to balconies. The doors are positioned to capture the summer breeze off the lake and allow it to circulate through the house.

The inside of the house was mostly for sleeping or for the rare rainy days. Most of the family's daytime summer activities were on the mansion's wide porches and balconies, Tveter said.

Completed in 1888, the Seipp family brought many of their older possessions to their summer home. Newer furniture were kept at the family's year-round home in Chicago.

Most of the summer house furnishings, preserved by Seipp's descendants, date from before the Civil War.

Conrad did not get to enjoy his new house for long. The Chicago entrepreneur died in 1889.

However, his widow, Catherine, his children and their descendants for the next century returned to the house every year to enjoy summers on Geneva Lake. As other ornate 19th Century summer homes around the lake fell to fire, neglect and redevelopment, Black Point remained.

In 1997, William Petersen, Chicago attorney and great-grandson of Conrad Seipp, offered the house at W4270 Southland Road, town of Linn, its grounds and contents to the state of Wisconsin as a gift. The property around the house is about 7.5 acres along 620 feet of undisturbed Geneva Lake shoreline. The house has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1997.

Accepting the gift wasn't easy. Neighbors fought the proposal at every turn, arguing that it would damage surrounding property values.

It was also caught up in the corruption investigation of State Sen. Chuck Chvala, former State Senate Majority Leader, who was accused of demanding campaign contributions from supporters and opponents of the Black Point historic site for his support. Because of a plea bargain, those accusations never went to trial.

In May 2005, a state appeals court cleared the way for Petersen to transfer Black Point's title to Wisconsin. The deed was transferred Sept. 26, 2005.

The state set aside $1.7 million for renovation and another $1.8 million in state Department of Natural Resources funds to act as trust for operation costs.

Black Point will be forever protected by a conservation easement held by the Geneva Lake Conservancy and the nonprofit Black Point Historic Preserve Inc. The State owns the property and leases it to the preserve, which manages the property as a historic site.

Tours started in 2007. Tveter said estimates Black point sees between 6,500 to 9,000 visitors a year.