Tallman House plans themed tours to boost visitors

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Neil Johnson
Saturday, July 19, 2014

JANESVILLE—The Tallman House has a new angle for its tours with a focus on old technology.

Tour guides at the historic mansion now yell down the house's bedroom-to-basement speaking tubes.

They use long torches to show how servants lit gas-powered ceiling lamps that were Janesville-nouveau in the 10,000 square-foot mansion's 1860s heyday.

In a new thematic tour the Rock County Historical Society is calling “Tallman's Technologies,” tour guides point out what were considered cutting-edge technological features for a home built prior to the Civil War. Think gas lines, gravity-forced plumbing run through an attic cistern system—and a lever-operated bell system that residents and guests used to summon servants.

The tour, which opens to the public in August, is framed as a mock showing for a sale of the home, which was proposed in 1872 by original owner William Tallman. 

It's a twist on traditional tours of the Lincoln-Tallman Restorations that historical society officials say is meant to show locals and tourists that the Tallman House is worth more than one visit. 

“The majority of our visitors are friends or family that have a predetermined knowledge base about the house. They're aware it's old, it's cool, it's got the Abe Lincoln visiting there connection,” Rock County Historical Society Director Michael Reuter said. “What we're trying to do now is to solve that problem of people saying, 'Why would I come back? I've seen the house once, and that's enough.'”

Tour guide Keighton Klos said the idea of thematic tours that examine niche aspects of a historic home is new to historical societies.  

“There's not a lot of this going on in the country. We're hoping to be a little ahead of the curve and kind of set our own trend,” she said.

The new tour series is part of a renewed effort by the historical society to draw more visitors to the site.

In the last two years, the historical society has nearly doubled its operating budget and has ramped up marketing and fundraising for the Tallman House. The society now spends about $10,000 a year to advertise the site, compared to a marketing budget of $1,000 in recent years.

A large share of costs at the Tallman campus are covered through grants and private funding—the bulk of which comes from sponsorships by local businesses, Reuter said.

In tandem, the house has been adding more events and such programming as the new technology tours. Last year, the historical society had a fun run and brought in paranormal experts in a ghost-hunting event, in addition to its annual art festival. 

It's part of a plan forged by an ad hoc city committee during former City Manager Eric Levitt's tenure to create improved economic sustainability for the Tallman House.

Reuter, who has been at the helm of the historical society two years, said the plan has begun to take off in the last year or so. 

“We've gone from an organization in the last two years that had been static to one that's strategic. We've ramped up operations and increased programming 200 percent,” Reuter said.

At the same time, the city of Janesville since 2010 has pumped $1.2 million into renovations and repairs. Reuter says a major project is being planned for later this year to install a new furnace boiler at the house.

Through a lease agreement forged in the 1950s, the city allocates $45,000 a year for the site's operational costs. The funding, which is negotiated every two years, helps cover utilities, insurance and salaries for a caretaker and curator, Reuter said.

The historical society and the city will negotiate a new agreement with the city this fall.

The Tallman House plans to add more thematic tours over the next few years. Historical society employees are now hatching ideas including a potential tour that would put visitors in the shoes of servants at the mansion. They would tour the basement to see how servants prepared food and cleaned laundry.

Another tour would focus on Lincoln's visit. Among ideas for that tour: An occasional visit by a Lincoln impersonator.

Klos said it would be a benefit to school tours, because each year, students could delve into another aspect of the home, such as its history and architecture.

“Our hope is to continue to find ways to breathe a little new life into the old house,” Klos said.

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