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Janesville's historic Chester Alden house to be auctioned

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Neil Johnson
Wednesday, October 18, 2017

JANESVILLE—In a room that was once a lounge at the former Hansen Funeral Home, Angela Hansen looked out the window and recalled a story about her late husband, funeral director Brian Hansen.

Brian Hansen often sang during services at the funeral home, which sits at the foot of Courthouse Hill near downtown Janesville.

When he reached the heights of “Ave Maria” in his smooth baritone, Hansen's huge St. Bernard, Josh, would hear his voice.

The dog, usually kept at a neighbor's house next door during funeral services, often tried to break free so he could join his master in the chapel built into the converted circa-1856 limestone house at 211 S. Main St.

Lately, Angela Hansen is reflecting more often on memories of her deceased husband and the funeral home. The property has been known historically as the Chester Alden house, a two-story, Italianate home named after the illustrious Janesville mill operator who first lived there.

More than two years after Brian Hansen's death in February 2015, his wife has closed the business and is selling the Alden house. That will end a six-decade run of the house operating as a funeral home.

Hansen, 63, has opted to sell the house in a by-owner real estate auction slated for Oct. 28. Bidding starts at $145,000, according to an auction advertisement.

Hansen had been involved with the funeral home for a few years before she married Brian Hansen in 1994. Since Brian's stroke in 2006, the Alden house saw limited use as a funeral home. But for more than two decades of the business's 36-year history, Hansen helped her husband with hundreds of services at the old house.

From 1961 to 1978, the house was the location of Whitcomb Funeral Home, Hansen said. The house itself is on the national and state registers of historic places.

Hansen this week gave The Gazette a tour of the 3,900-square-foot house, showing off spaces that those who were guests at funeral services never saw—including the upstairs quarters that housed an apartment for funeral home directors such as Brian Hansen during his early years of ownership.

Hansen gave a humble description of the well-known downtown property.

“It's not the grandest old gal in the neighborhood, but she's all right,” Hansen said. “I think of all the years, all the storms that came in from the west, across the river. This house faced down those storms from the hillside, years worth of them. Here it is, standing. It's strong.”

Hansen said she and Brian had tried for a few years to sell the business before shuttering it in May. She put the Alden house on the market about a year ago, trying to sell it through a more traditional listing first before recently deciding to auction it.

Hansen herself is not a fully licensed funeral home director. Since her husband died, she's gotten help from another local funeral home to fulfill dozens of requests and commitments she had for funeral services.

In the last year, at another funeral director's suggestion, Hansen said she'd begun to host a handful of services and visitations at the Alden house. That was after several years of using the house mainly as a meeting place for families to discuss funeral arrangements.

Hansen said she'd felt proud to once again turn on the front porch lights for services. She'd always liked how the lights glowed against the buff-colored stone.

“With the lights on, the house looks like a grand old lady. It has a pretty awesome presence. Inside, I heard the usual visitation sounds. Laughter, tears,” Hansen said. “But it was different without my husband there. I was wishing he'd have been able to see it.”

Hansen's earlier attempts to sell the house have faltered, despite a few promising deals. She said interested buyers have included mainly business operators who wanted to turn the Alden house into a law office, a yoga studio, a coffeehouse and bakery, or a bed and breakfast.

One prospective buyer thought the former funeral parlor, with its spacious chapel area, had potential as a midwifing and birthing center.

“There's a lot of irony in that, isn't there?” Hansen asked.

None of the prospective buyers were put off by the house's decades-long history as a funeral home, she said. One buyer brought in an inspector, who found the property was in solid shape, from its thick-hewn basement beams to its limestone walls, she said.

The lending market continues to be finicky, particularly for small-business entrepreneurs, and Hansen said that's caused a few deals to sputter.

She said she hopes the auction will attract a bidder who could buy the property outright—essentially on the spot—and reuse it.

“It would be nice to see it reused as a business—or even as a home once again. I think of children, little feet running around the place. That would make me happy. It remains a mystery with this (auction) what will happen,” she said.

About a year ago, a family met Hansen at the Alden house to discuss arrangements for a 98-year-old local woman who had died. The family told Hansen the woman had been in the house earlier in her life.

“At first, I didn't understand what they meant. Then they told me she'd been born right here, in the house. Her parents had lived here when it was still a house,” Hansen said. “At that time, I thought, 'Well, I guess it's all come full circle.'”

This article has been altered from an earlier version to reflect the correct calendar month of Brian Hansen's death.



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