Black Point reflects bygone days of fancy summer estates

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Anna Marie Lux
Saturday, May 24, 2014

LAKE GENEVA--Doug and Gwen Gerber were surprised at what they found in their own backyard when they visited one of the state's newest museums.

They boarded a boat to Black Point Estate, an 1888 mansion built by a beer baron 90 feet above Geneva Lake.

“It was a total surprise,” said Gwen of Lake Geneva. “It was a day very treasured.”

The nonprofit Black Point Historic Preserve first opened the seven-acre site to the public in 2007. In January 2013, the Wisconsin Historical Society stepped up to make Black Point part of its network of museums and historic sites.

Today, most visitors arrive by boat, just like the original owners did more than 100 years ago. Tourists buy tickets at Lake Geneva Cruise Line and sit back for a 45-minute ride.

“By the time you get to the dock, all your cares are gone,” said David Desimone, site director. “As you climb the 120 stairs, the house emerges from a canopy of trees.”

The museum's conditional use permit requires that most tourists come by water to keep the neighborhood quiet. People who cannot navigate the stairs may drive.

“We never tell anyone, 'No,'” Desimone said. “But we also have very limited parking.”

Black Point's journey to become a museum had a shaky start.

The mansion's former owner Bill Petersen and his neighbors were at odds for a decade over use of the property. Anxious neighbors wanted to protect their privacy, but Petersen was determined to give away his family home to the state for a museum.

Before it was over, Petersen spent hundreds of thousands of dollars mostly on litigation. When the dust settled, neighbors took comfort in the museum's operating restrictions. They limit the number of visitors to roughly 1,000 per week and require site programming to be finished by 7 p.m.

“We have a good relationship with our neighbors,” Desimone said.

The home's biggest appeal is that almost nothing has changed inside or out during four generations of the same family. A historical society official once called the mansion “the best surviving example of the great summer houses in Wisconsin.”

“We have a time capsule,” Desimone said.

The house reflects life during the late 19th and early 20th centuries when wealthy Chicago businessmen built splendid estates on the lake. Their families played croquet on the lawn. They took boat rides. They spent Memorial Day to mid-October in lovely summer homes.

Petersen's great-grandfather, German immigrant Conrad Seipp, was the visionary behind Black Point. He bought the property in 1887 after earning a fortune making beer. The following year, he hired craftsmen to build a magnificent Queen Anne house with elaborate spindle work, balustrades and fish-scale siding. Later, Seipp family members found refuge from the noise and pollution of the big city at the 13-bedroom house they called their summer “cottage.”

The mansion's steeply pitched gable roof and tall windows give it a grand appearance. But the home was all about slow living and remained much the same summer after summer. The Seipps enjoyed warm nights on the sweeping wrap-around porch. They opened windows and doors to let in lake breezes. They celebrated countless christenings and birthdays with much devotion to each other.

Step inside and look around. Notice the European artwork next to generations of family photographs. The mansion's furnishings tell the story of everyday life: a billiard table, writing desks, a Swiss music box.  No wonder historians consider the estate to have one of the most intact collections of Victorian furniture and artifacts in the Midwest.

News of the unique museum is spreading.

Last year, 6,500 visitors came to sit on the spreading veranda, to sip lemonade from the gift shop or to marvel at the dining room porch, which seats 40 people.

“We doubled attendance,” Desimone said. “But we have a lot of room to grow.”

An early feasibility study said Black Point can attract between 10,000 and 12,000 visitors.

Desimone is optimistic about the estate's future because historic homes are becoming more popular.

“The economy is showing signs of life, so museums are seeing an increase in attendance,” he said. “People are looking for authentic and unique experiences. History is cool again.”

The estate has an annual operating budget of $200,000. It depends on earned revenue, an endowment set up by Petersen and philanthropic support to keep its doors open.

Desimone hopes a visit is inspiring.

“We want people to think about the long legal battle to get this site up and running,” he said. “We want them to go away thinking about their own neighborhood. Are there buildings worth saving? We tend to be a throwaway culture, which includes architecture.”

Desimone points to Black Point when people say it is too difficult to save a building.

“Bill Petersen did not take no for an answer,” Desimone said. “This is an important place because of its beauty, the stories it can share and the craftsmanship of a bygone era. This is a success story.”

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