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Preserving Our Rich Heritage: Inside the Hearthstone Historic House Museum

Stephen Weis says turning on an original Thomas Edison light switch is the most fascinating thing about the Hearthstone.

First he places his hand on the end of the switch, which looks like a brass faucet on an old bathtub. Next, he pushes it in and rotates it clockwise. “Then you ease up on the pressure to see if it sticks or not,” he explains. “You have to find the right spot to make the lights stay on.”

Weis is the board of directors president of Friends of Hearthstone, Inc., owners of the Hearthstone Historic House Museum. The group is committed to preserving and restoring the 9,000-square-foot Victorian house that was built for Henry James Rogers.

Tricia Adams, the museum’s executive director, says the cost of building the house in 1882 on a bluff overlooking the Fox River was estimated at $15,000 to $18,000.

The Hearthstone was the first house in the world to be lit by a hydroelectric central station using the Thomas Edison electric system. Today, it is Wisconsin’s 51st Historic Site and is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Hearthstone Assessment

When the Friends of Hearthstone acquired the property in 1986 the group made plans to restore and preserve the house so it could be a museum.

Several studies and improvement projects got under way in 1992. Among the information collected was a paint analysis, which provided insight into the chronology of modifications made to the house. The research gathered during this period was­ used for the most recent assessment that began in 2009.

The Friends of Hearthstone want to make sure the house continues to be an educational resource for the community on what life was like at the turn of the 20th century. The group contracted with Engberg Anderson, an architecture, planning and interior design firm. The project team began evaluating the museum’s building components last year and in the final stages of developing a historic structure report, which will be provided to the Friends of Hearthstone in May.

Preliminary findings indicate that the foundation, roof, exterior walls, dormers and gables are in good condition. Adams says the report puts their restoration plans into perspective. “The main focus of the report is to make sure the building is structurally sound, such as the foundation and the roof, to make sure it will be here for the next 100 years,” Adams explains.

In addition to waterproofing the basement walls, repairing some minor cracks in the walls and upgrading the electrical service, recommendations include replacing exterior accent lighting. While the lights on the outside of the house are in good working order, they should be replaced with energy-efficient products. The lighting on the porches also should be upgraded.

The report recommends redoing porches. There are three porches on the main floor, three on the second floor and one on the third floor. They need to be repainted and some of the deck boards need to be replaced.

Also included in the report is a historical chronology and a list of all the families who lived in the house, beginning with Henry J. Rogers. It was compiled by Anne Biebel, an architectural historian/preservation planner based in the Dane County Village of Cross Plains. She also compiled the developmental history of the Hearthstone from 1880 to 1992. “It really intrigues me that Rogers had the wherewithall to harness the Fox River to light his house,” she says.

Biebel said her work on the project was simplified by the previous research of Ann Kloehn, a local historian and founding member of Friends of Hearthstone.

Kloehn considers the Hearthstone Historic House to be a national treasure. She notes that there were other homes that were lit in the world, but the fact that this was a Thomas Alva Edison system is what is so important for our locale.

Treasures in Every Room

Kloehn recalls when the Friends of Hearthstone began cleaning the rooms in the house. “It was like a putting a puzzle together,” she says.

While cleaning the windows they discovered an etching on the exterior window in the library. It is the monogram of Henry Rogers’ daughter, Florence Talbot Rogers, and Frank Hesing Pietsch, whom she married in 1889. It was common in that era for people to use their diamond rings to etch in glass. Kloehn suspects that when Rogers received her diamond in the front parlor, she etched her monogram and his and the date into the glass.

Kloehn also notes that people who tour the house today are amazed at the fine condition of the hand-carved woodwork. The wood was harvested from Wisconsin forests. The grand foyer consists of oak, the front parlor features birds-eye maple, the library is accented with cherry wood and the servants’ quarters are made with pine. “From a carver’s standpoint, it shows the finest artistic skills of the period,” she says.

Adams notes that during the Victorian period, people were fond of nature and much of the wood carvings depict birds, bird nests, flowers and feathers.

They also liked to impress their guests. Some of the nine fireplaces feature Minton tiles on the hearth that depict scenes from literature, including Longfellow’s “Evangeline,” Charles Dickens’ “Pickwick Papers” and Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” “In Victorian times it was all about showing off,” Adams says. “And by having literary tales on your fireplace, you could show off that you were well-read.”

When these tiles were being cleaned by the Friends of Hearthstone, they discovered the signature of artist Frederika Crane. The Neenah native was the decorator of the Hearthstone in 1884.

Another surprising discovery was made by Stephen Weis and another board member, Eric Goldsmith, when they took off a wall panel to see the original plumbing and found a trough under the pipes. Weis explains that if the pipes break, the trough will direct the water into a cistern in the basement so the walls won’t be damaged.

Restoration in the 90s

After the paint analysis was completed in 1992, the Friends of Hearthstone began restoring the rooms to their original colors of 1882.

A fresco by artist J. Frank Waldo was restored on the ceiling in the front parlor. Preservation professionals cite more than 65 colors in that painting. Another fresco was restored in the dining room ceiling.

Many improvements were completed in the early 90s, including replacing the chimneys, rebuilding the porches and reshingling the roof. The exterior of the building was painted. A gift shop and permanent exhibit were added in the basement.

Future of the House

When the Friends of Hearthstone receive the final historic structure report this month, it will put together a restoration plan to get the house as close to its original condition as possible. Fundraising will give prospective donors the opportunity to support the restoration in an area that matches their interest.

Stephen Weis says plans are in the works this year to strip and repaint the porches of the house. He also plans to correct the footings that hold the wrap-around porch and the office and kitchen entrances.

The longterm goal is to upgrade the house to American Museum Association Standards. This certification will enable federal funding.

A permanent hands-on exhibit explains how hydroelectricity works. Visitors also can ride a high-wheel bike called a bone shaker. It is connected to a generator that produces electricity, so the faster they pedal, the more light bulbs are lit. Another exhibit allows visitors to use a hand crank to generate electricity and light a bulb.

Touring the house is like walking through history at the dawn of the electrical age. Kloehn notes, “For being built and lit in 1882, [the house] has some of the finest things that Wisconsin had to offer.”

From the beautiful Victorian décor to the original electroliers (electrified chandeliers), the Hearthstone continues to be an educational resource.

—By Jan Sommerfeld

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