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.
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 dining room was beautifully decorated to represent the 1860s, when the Durkees lived there.
The second floor had the family’s bedrooms.
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.
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 had beautiful stained glass windows.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.