By Lisa Schmelz | Photography by Shanna Wolf, unless noted
It is late in the afternoon on the second day of spring and David Desimone is walking across the great lawn at Black Point Estate and Gardens, describing what will be coming up from a ground that is only beginning to soften. In front of his boot-clad feet, small tufts of some 4,000 sedges are emerging from mud-and-leaf-caked patches of earth. At the moment, brown is the most prominent hue in this garden’s palette, but Desimone insists there is a color wheel here, readying itself to be admired.
“It’s not much to look at right now,” says Desimone, the site director for Black Point, of the recently installed Woodland Garden on this 71/2-acre historic site. “But soon, it will be.”
Black Point, a 19-century Queen Anne Victorian, is a destination for nearly 10,000 tourists annually. Completed in 1888 for Chicago beer baron Conrad Seipp, it was gifted to the State of Wisconsin in 2005 by Seipp’s great-grandson, William “Bill” Otto Petersen. Once a summer retreat for generations of Seipps, it is a well-preserved time capsule of a bygone era. Though the mansion has always been the focal point for modern visitors, Black Point was much more than a 13-bedroom, 8,000-square-foot “summer cottage” for the Seipp descendants, who spent the season here. Now, thanks to the efforts of many, the gardens of Black Point are also a focal point.
The new Woodland Garden was opened last summer. Like the mansion, the garden, though new, is layered in history and draws inspiration from the original plans conceived around 1900 by land- scape architect Olof Benson. Masterfully, Chicago landscape architect Ted Wolff and Roy Diblik of Burlington’s Northwind Perennial Farm captured the spirit of an estate that once spanned nearly 100 acres, 2,700 feet of shore line and boasted a working farm and greenhouse. The pair also created a nod to symbiosis.
“I think the availability of plants is different today and we have many, many more plants available than they did in that era. What we’ve done [here] is true to the feeling and emotions that were here then, and that’s all that you ask from anybody in your life,” says Diblik. “They built the home there because they loved the emotional feeling of being around the lake. It’s a feeling of stepping into nature. You are not trying to control it, you are trying to live in it.”
LIVING IN IT
For gardening novices, the thousands of sedges and ferns planted here last summer do more than add a textural aesthetic. They nourish a flowering dogwood and swamp burr oak hybrid. Specifically, the garden on the great lawn now features three herbaceous plant habitats dubbed Open Meadow, Woodland Edge and Woodland. Blended together by transitional plants that are happy in shade and light, they also feature a cascade of color rotations as the summer progresses. Wolff, who has four decades of experience in landscape architecture, emphasizes that the goal was never to create the same plantings or exact arrangements the Seipps may have showcased in the early 1900s.
“Everything we’ve done is reversible and that’s really important in historic preservation,” says Wolff. “As archives become available, if they do, and reveal something not before known, you want to be able to add that at future points. But there’s very little evidence in Olof Benson’s plans of what was here exactly. His was a plan for the overall site. We didn’t want to be specific about what might have been. What we did want to do is develop it into something attractive and have a new element at Black Point that fit into the historic framework and add something new to the visitor experience.”
What is here now is a sustainable blend of plants that exist in biological harmony. Diblik and Wolff acknowledge that wasn’t typically the goal of upper-class estate owners in the Victorian era, but limited budgets of state-owned museums like Black Point don’t employ the same level of staff the Seipps once did.
“We said the plants had to be shade-tolerant and native, and that is where Roy was ridiculously helpful,” says Wolff. “The guy’s a brilliant plantsman.”
Even absent the ornate petals of the Victorian era, Desimone can envision Catharina, Conrad’s wife, who took over management of the estate when he died after just his second summer here, strolling the grounds with approval. “She helped preserve this sense of place for her descendants and for all of us,” says Desimone.
Family legend has it that Catharina Orb Seipp was, on first sight, overwhelmed by Black Point. Rumored to have burst into tears, she was likely sensing ties to her native Germany were being further-severed. It was common back then for affluent German immigrants to build summer estates in the motherland. But Conrad, so legend goes, wanted to keep his family close. Catharina, a German immigrant like her husband, likely knew summering in Germany was off the table when she set eyes on the enormity that was Black Point. Yet it was Catharina, a prim and proper Victorian woman, who continued her husband’s vision of summers on Geneva Lake after he died in 1890. Around 1900 is when Desimone estimates that she hired Benson to design the outdoor spaces of Black Point.
Much of what Benson proposed was built, in particular the large circular paver drive to the west of the house and the brick paver walkways that travel around the north and east sides of the house. But many of the winding pathway gardens Benson created were lost to time and the subdividing of property.
THE OUTDOORS AS A LEARNING LABORATORY
Visitors who see the wealth and splendor the Seipps had at their disposal don’t always appreciate how in tune they were with nature here. The Seipps intended the estate to be an outdoor learning laboratory for their children and heirs, a place where the young could learn and grow. Structure and carefree fun existed side by side in the form of swimming, sailing, tennis and riding. Youngsters were also expected to pick fruit, water plants and tend to the vegetable gardens in between tutoring in German and Latin.
All of the children were even tasked, at some point in their young lives, with raising their own goat on the estate’s farm.
“They were very focused on outdoor activity and because they had the finances to hire a landscape architect and wanted it to be on par with the house, they had an outside that was equally as beautiful as the inside,” says Desimone.
As family members set about to do chores, enjoy a variety of recreational activities, or simply stroll the estate grounds, they likely saw rhododendron, roses and azaleas, says Desimone. While none of those easily thrive in the soil here, such plantings were massively popular in the estate’s heyday. While the Woodland Garden doesn’t feature these, it still gives a sense of time and place found a century ago. Desimone explains that the Woodland Garden is the first of three phases of outdoor improvements at Black Point.
“We wanted guests to have an experience outside as well as inside,” he says. “We wanted guests to experience some of what the family would have. The Seipp family wasn’t coming to Black Point at the turn of the century to sit inside and watch TV or Netflix or get on the Internet. They were coming up here to recreate, to sail, to swim, to be outdoors. Most of the estates here also had gardens. And gardens became so important to the area that they gave birth to Horticultural Hall — gardens were outdoor rooms, where a lot of entertaining took place.”
A Brewery Garden is planned for the summer of 2020, the 100th anniversary of the start of Prohibition, pending private funding. A third and final outdoor improvement will be the planting of tree lines between Black Point and nearby properties, providing more privacy for all. Also planned are more outdoor events and partnerships with area businesses. Already on the schedule for this summer are yoga classes on the great lawn.
“Improving the outside,” says Desimone, “provides other ways the Black Point story can be shared.”
AN IMMIGRANT’S DREAM
The Black Point story was somewhat new to Hanna Wereski. She’d toured the estate and knew something about the Seipp family. But last summer, when Wereski, a local volunteer with the University of Wisconsin Master Gardener program, started spending her Thursdays helping with whatever needed to be done in the garden, the story came alive. For Wereski, who immigrated from Poland to America in 1975, the pull to the soil here is strong.
Like the Seipps, but with far less in the bank, she says her family also grew its own food and created beauty through an intentional landscape outside of Warsaw, Poland. Her parents, she said, were avid gardeners.
“We had about nine acres and we had a big orchard with every kind of fruit that could grow in northern Europe, and we had roses,” she says. “My parents loved roses.”
Reflecting on Conrad Seipp’s path to America, Wereski marvels at what an immigrant, whose first job here was driving a horse-drawn beer wagon, was able to accomplish. She’s also grateful for the stewardship Catharina instilled in her descendants.
“We are so lucky to have this place to come to. It’s an immigrant’s story” says Wereski. “And the gardens, it is, to me, it is Europe. It kind of reminds me of the place and time where I grew up. It feels like home.”
Desimone agrees. “It’s a legacy project,” he says of Black Point Estate and Gardens. “It’s not a monument. It’s a testament to that immigrant story that is an American story.”
Touring Black Point Estate and Gardens
From June through September, Black Point offers one tour Monday through Thursday and two tours Friday through Sunday. Visitors access the estate and gardens by boat from the Riviera Docks in downtown Lake Geneva. The entire tour takes about 3 1/2 hours.
Wisconsin State Historical Society Members get a $13 per ticket discount equal to one full ticket. Adults tickets are $39. Seniors are $37. Youth 13 – 17 are $33. Children 4 – 12 are $27. Purchase boat tour tickets from the Lake Geneva Cruise Line (cruiselakegeneva.com or 262-248-6206).
Black Point is located on a bluff, overlooking Geneva Lake. The first floor and estate grounds are wheelchair accessible. Garden pathways are paved with brick. There are approximately 120 steps from the pier to the house. The boat tour is not wheelchair accessible. Those with medical conditions or mobility concerns that preclude arrival by boat can make special arrangements to arrive by car. Call 262-248-1888 for more information. For tour times and additional information, visit blackpointestate.wisconsinhistory.org