Active off-season assures quality, style of Villa Louis estate

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Villa Louis Site Director Susan Caya-Slusser stands on the grand stairway at the entrance of the historic Victorian mansion, as furniture and statues are covered for the off-season.

La Crosse photographer Roger Grant takes pictures of some of the Dousman family’s tableware for a new Villa Louis guidebook that will be available this coming tourist season. Samantha Matern, education specialist and lead interpreter, is ready with another piece of silver to be photographed. (Photos by Correne Martin)

Susan Caya-Slusser (left) and guidebook co-author Mary Antoine peruse the Villa Louis storage shelves for artifacts needed for a project.

These original samples of floral wallpaper will be included in the new guidebook.

Some of the original textiles in storage at the Villa Louis lie below boxes of other items put away for the season.

By Correne Martin

The tourist season ended in October and, for the first time, due to spectacular fall weather, the Villa Louis kept its doors open to public visitors through November. It’s presently the off-season, but that doesn’t mean the hallways in the historic Victorian mansion or the grounds of the elegant local attraction are silent.

Staff has plenty of work to do, mainly deep cleaning of the Dousman family collection, conducting inventory, planning for a new guidebook, preparing for the next summer season and keeping up with maintenance. Three full-time and three part-time employees, out of 29, remain on staff throughout the year. (The rest are mainly seasonal interpretive staff.)

“This past season, especially November, exceeded our expectations,” declared Susan Caya-Slusser, site director. “Gift shop revenues were up 41 percent. Aside from the extra month, people were shopping for Christmas presents.”
Following the season, the Villa offered some behind-the-scenes Christmas programming through the first week in December. The site will also open the weekend of Bald Eagle Day in Prairie du Chien, Feb. 24-25, and for school tours at the end of April. Other than those activities, some by-appointment tours for groups and far away visitors, the historic site’s traditional off-season runs from November through April.

“We’re going to be open in November again next season and we’re planning a full-blown Christmas celebration through Dec. 10,” Caya-Slusser said. “Our 2017 season will start May 13, which is a little later than usual as we get ready for a new clothing exhibit.”

May 13 through Sept. 11, the Victorian wedding clothing exhibit will showcase 12 period bridal and bridesmaid gowns as well as groomsmen attire. Virginia Dousman’s dress has not been on exhibit since 2004, Caya-Slusser noted. The staff is excited about this coming exhibit and the new life it will add to the historic house.

As soon as the doors closed this past December, the extensive cleaning began in every room, top to bottom, and encompassing every artifact, inside and out. During the season, hallways are cleaned daily and the rooms twice a month. Conversely, the off-season process involves pulling furniture away from the walls, vacuuming draperies, dusting pieces large and small and polishing silverware, among other duties. Some of the textiles, table coverings and silver is actually put away during the off months.

“Also, this year, we’ve done the first full inventory since the late-1990s—every object,” Caya-Slusser explained. “On some of the furniture, the numbers have been taken off, so we’re going through, marrying objects with our records and then renumbering them where necessary.”

She said the mansion has been cataloged. The Brisbois House and collection storage are yet to be done, while further inventory of archeological remains from the entire site must be completed too.

“We are financially in a better position, this year, to keep staff on (in the off-season),” she added.

In addition, a complete rehabilitation of the site’s fur trade museum was approved by the state on Dec. 14. Caya-Slusser pointed out that the $384,000 in funds will be used to restore the envelope of the structure; upgrade the heating, ventilation and air conditioning system within the building; overhaul the foundation; complete masonry work and install new windows. None of the money is for the exhibits to be housed inside.

“We have received a $5,000 donation toward the exhibits,” she said, “and we will be doing additional fundraising. I met with an exhibit designer last week to start coming up with a new story line for the museum. Now, it’s more of a general Great Lakes focus and we’d like it to be more about Prairie du Chien, the War of 1812 and the connection of that building to the Dousman family.”

She mentioned that staff has also been working to create a more cohesive story intertwining the site’s 17 structures. An interpretive walking tour of the entire grounds is in the works as well. Some of it will be done by this spring’s opening.

One of the Villa’s most methodical and compelling projects for the winter time is a new guidebook that’s being published for the first time since 2002.

“We ran out of our previous guidebooks in 2009 but, due to funding, we haven’t had another one done until now, through a generous donation,” Caya-Slusser stated. “When the last one was printed, the second floor wasn’t restored yet and our sitting room wasn’t finished.”

The new guidebook, authored by Mary Antoine and Margaret Lichter, will be available for purchase following tours and in the gift shop. It is a documentary based on the juxtaposition between real family documents and the artifacts that tell the narrative. Information and photographs will represent bills and receipts that help depict the 1885 interior of the house—the carpet, wallpaper and textiles of the time—as well as the family’s art collection and how the house on the mound was decorated.

The day of this interview, in fact, a professional photo shoot for the book took place. In the attic of the Villa Louis mansion, La Crosse photographer Roger Grant, with assistance from the Villa’s education specialist/lead interpreter Samantha Matern, meticulously arranged some of the Dousman’s delicate silverware, tableware and glassware for new photographs that will appear in the book.

“The goal is to showcase the artifacts and frame their beauty,” said Grant, who has been working on this book for about a year already.

Caya-Slusser explained that some of the best silver objects from Louis’ and Jane’s time as well as the Tiffany pieces of Louis’ and Nina’s were chosen for this particular photo shoot. Some of the original samples of floral wallpaper were photographed last week too.

While Matern’s job for the day was to help prepare for and carry out Grant’s tasks, she also assists the site director with nearly every aspect of the Villa. In the off-season, she’s kept busy pulling archives for this book’s material, inventorying exhibits, making repairs and also developing an agriculture museum tour for the Stonefield historic site in Cassville. She and a few others who work at the Villa Louis have shared resources this off-season.

The groundskeeping and maintenance staff at the Villa Louis take care of snow removal, repairs, building checks, and, depending on the weather, painting that’s needed. Currently, the Villa pond restoration is in its final stage, including mostly tree planting.

“Because our property has culturally-sensitive areas, Jake (Koresh) is working on a plan for that right now,” Caya-Slusser pointed out.

Just as the pond and the trees reflect the allure of the Villa Louis story, the annual, reenacted events are part of that unique, historic expression. Certainly, the off-season includes planning of schedules and details of those happenings, such as the War of 1812 and Carriage Classic. The War of 1812, of which a majority was taken on by the reenactors themselves a couple years ago, will see new programming and culminate with the city’s fireworks happening the same weekend. The 37th annual Carriage Classic will be held in 2017. Both of these enticements are important layers of the Villa’s history. Also, the behind-the-scenes food programs, using the food, utensils and technologies of the time, have become quite popular in recent years. Those programs will be expanded this year and different recipes will be tried on the 19th century woodstove.

Finally, an aspect of the off-season the public might find intriguing is the significant number of requests the Villa receives from people for genealogical information about their family members who once worked as servants or laborers for the Dousman family. The Dousmans were a large employer in those days.

There’s certainly never a dull moment behind the doors of the Villa Louis, whether tourists are browsing the carefully preserved estate collection or the staff is actively maintaining those records and artifacts of Prairie du Chien’s magnificent past.

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