Durkee Mansion: Major player in Kenosha history

Durkee Mansion once occupied the property as a home, but today it’s part of Kemper Hall, a museum/events center.

Upon first view, you might think Durkee Mansion is one huge place. You’d sort of be correct, as well as wrong. Durkee Mansion is actually small compared to rest of the facility, known as Kemper Hall. The mansion was sold to the local Episcopal Church, which added a chapel and a girls school to the property.

The mansion was built in 1861 by Charles Durkee, who served one term in the United States Senate. He arrived in Wisconsin in 1836, with his first wife. They built a small cabin in town. Mrs. Durkee fell ill and died.

Durkee devoted his life to business and politics following her death. He developed a reputation of fighting for the “regular” person, supporting workers rights and homestead laws. He remarried, and had the mansion built on land the couple owned.

Durkee Mansion.

The mansion is beautiful. Most of the furniture and accessories didn’t belong to the Durkees, but are from the era they lived there.

The main floor is home to a foyer, featuring a suspended staircase. The parlor was used to greet and entertain small groups of guests.

The mansion’s parlor room.

The dining room was beautifully decorated to represent the 1860s, when the Durkees lived there.

Dining room.

The second floor had the family’s bedrooms.

One of the bedrooms on the second floor.

The third floor was for entertaining large groups, such as dances.

In 1865, Durkee was named as the territorial governor for Utah by President Andrew Johnson, shortly after attending the funeral of assassinated President Abraham Lincoln. Durkee agreed to sell the land and building to the church.

The church then added buildings to the mansion. A chapel is located at one end, while the girls’ school was located on the other end of the property. Kemper Hall – named for the first Episcopal missionary bishop in the United States – offered high school education for girls. All told, less than 2,000 girls graduated over a 100 year period.

The school is now a museum, which is not open to the public on a regular basis. We were fortunate a couple of Kemper representatives were available to give us a tour. A hallway between the mansion and chapel serves as a reminder of what student life was like for the Kemper girls. Exhibits highlight uniforms and classrooms.

A display recognizing dorm life for the students at Kemper Hall, an all-girls school.

The chapel was impressive. The pews were set up differently than you might expect in a church. Younger students sat in the back pews which faced the pulpit. The upper classes sat in pews that faced sideways. This was to allow them to keep an eye on the younger students.

The chapel that is located down the hall from Durkee Mansion. The Episcopal Church obtained the property after Senator Durkee and his wife moved to Utah.

The chapel had beautiful stained glass windows.

Some of the stained glass windows located in the chapel.

In fact, stained glass was a tradition with students. Each graduating class donated a stained glass window to the school. You can see them around the school, as well as the mansion.

Graduating classes often donated a stained glass gift to Kemper Hall.

As we toured the actual school – now a conference and events center – several of the classrooms have exhibits recognizing the subject taught. The library has an abundance of books of display.

Kemper Hall library books.

A chemistry room remains almost intact. The school was among the first to teach girls chemistry. The long black counters with sinks in the middle were used for experiments. The cool thing is that when the students looked out the windows, they saw Lake Michigan. The view of the lake from Kemper Hall was exquisite.

One of the first chemistry labs for female students in Wisconsin.

The Simmons Auditorium is home to an amazing art project. Students under the direction of the art teacher created murals that encircle the auditorium, based on the famous Bayeaux Tapestry. They depict scenes which eventually led to the Battle of Hastings in 1066. The auditorium is used for special events, including wedding reception.

A beautiful mural in Simmons Auditorium.

Behind Durkee Mansion, a small building – once used to make communion wafers – has a mosaic made from items found along the beach by Kady Faulkner, a student. She created the mural, which depicts making altar bread and wine.

This is part of a larger mosaic made by a student with items she found along the beach.

What started as a couple’s home for grew to serve the greater good by providing wonderful educational opportunities. Now, it serves the community as a historical shrine. Kemper Hall is a great attraction and well worth the visit. Plus, it’s free! Though, they’ll gladly accept a donation. The mansion is open for tours between April and October.

For more information on the Durkee Mansion and Kemper Hall, please visit www.kempercenter.com or www.visitkenosha.com.