by Michael Douglass, Wisconsin Historical Society
Acquired by the Wisconsin Historical Society as its first historic site in 1952, the Villa Louis was long recognized as a fur trader's mansion in the wilderness for more than half a century. But then, in the mid-1990s, a new image of the venerable Prairie du Chien estate began to emerge as research blossomed into a glorious restoration of one of the nation's finest British Arts and Crafts fin-de-siecle interiors.
The restoration story begins on a dusky January afternoon in an attic in St. Paul's fashionable Crocus Hill neighborhood. Villa Louis staff had been called to examine the estate contents of a recently deceased Dousman heir, Mary Young Janes. Mrs. Janes' mother, Violet Dousman Young, had grown up at the Villa Louis and had played a critical role in closing the house and distributing its contents in 1913. Amid Villa Louis furnishings, china, paintings, silver, and box upon box of letters and financial records scattered throughout the spacious house was a footlocker filled with photographs revealing detailed information about turn-of-the-century room decoration and furnishings, as well as family life and recreation.
As view after view was examined, site staff learned more and more about the late-1890s furnishing of the Villa Louis and how intact the assemblage of Dousman family decorative arts remained. The century-old images provided direction on how to furnish many of the main public spaces in the residence and adjacent office building, but they also revealed how faded and spare were the late-20th-century wall coverings, curtains, carpets, portieres and other decorative embellishments.
When the Villa Louis first opened as a historic house museum in 1936, there was little interest in the gilded age of the late 19th century. Those decades were just too close, and the country was in the midst of the Great Depression. Instead, the Dousman family members leading that first restoration reached back to the time of their grandfather, the famed fur trader come frontier entrepreneurtruly one of Wisconsin's great founding fathers. This interpretation may have saved the property but it never really fit the collection, much of which was assembled after the old trader's death by his son Louis and his family.
From the early 1870s through the early 1880s, Louis and his wife Nina Sturgis Dousman lived a fashionable life of travel and art collecting in St. Louis. Louis also developed an affinity for the track. When his mother died in 1882, Louis and his wife began making plans to bring their five children home to Wisconsin. Louis sold his collection of paintings and invested the proceeds in Standardbred racehorses and in an extensive reworking of his boyhood home. Stables, paddocks, a trainer's house, and other out buildings were erected and a half-mile track was established.
In 1885 Louis and Nina turned their attention to their residence and hired a Chicago decorating firm who advertised that they were agents for the famed British-Arts-and-Crafts firm, William Morris and Co. Leading the design team was Joseph Twyman, a British-born decorator who regularly traveled home to buy the latest goods and furnishings for Midwest clients. Twyman was devoted to both the art and politics of William Morris. Like Morris he exalted the craftsman as artist and believed that everything in a house should be beautiful or practical. Using block-printed papers, hand-printed velvets, faux-grained woodwork, brass chandeliers and other architectural highlights, Twyman worked the colors of red, blue and gold into a richly patterned tapestry of theme and variation.
With private-sector funding provided by the Jeffris Family Foundation of Janesville, Wis., and other regional donors, a documentary restoration team completed a plan in 1995. Selective demolition began in 1996, and in 1998 seven rooms were completed including more than 25 line-for-line, pattern-for-pattern reproductions of 19th-century wallpapers, carpets and other textiles. Exterior restoration was completed in the summer of 2001, and six more interior spaces will be completed in the late winter of 2003. A final phase will complete bedrooms and servants' spaces in 2004-05. Together, the house, the collections, the landscape and the intriguing story of a Victorian Wisconsin family who fully embraced life provide a powerful and evocative lens through which the 1890s come to life.