Featured Business: Kemper Center

3/24/2017 - Kenosha Area Convention & Visitors Bureau Staff

Arts & Culture, Family-Friendly, Featured Business, History
exterior of Kemper Center, beside Lake Michigan
Drawing Room (Main Parlor) at Durkee Mansion at Kemper Center
An art gallery of Anderson Arts Center

In the early twentieth century, Kenosha’s most important industrialists and prominent families built their large period revival homes along Lake Michigan on Third Avenue. In what is now known as the Third Avenue Historic District, only one property is open to the public. This land – known as Kemper Center – includes two mansions: Durkee Mansion and Anderson Arts Center. One was built in 1861 for a pioneer, politician, philanthropist, and early settler to the area. Charles Durkee and his wife Caroline would only live in Durkee Mansion a few years. Construction began on the other mansion in 1929 for the granddaughter of Z.G. Simmons (founder of Simmons Mattress Company), Janet Lance Anderson, and her husband James. It’s now known as the Anderson Arts Center. Two historic mansions plus one beautiful Lake Michigan location equals a place worth visiting!

So much can be said about the history of Kemper Center – how Charles Durkee did so much for the community; how his mansion expanded and became an Episcopal girls’ school named Kemper Hall for 100+ years; how the school had the first chemistry lab for women in Wisconsin; how communion wafers were made and distributed all over the world from a bakery on the property; how it’s now a conference center, popular wedding venue, a 17.5 acre Kenosha County park, and a place listed on the National Register of Historic Places. For this article though, the focus is narrowed to the two mansions.

Durkee Mansion is a cream-brick Italianate, Victorian home. It’s decorated in the 1860s style and open for tours April through October. It re-opens for the Christmas season, beautifully dressed for the holiday. You enter into the foyer, and before you stands the large suspension stairway - which was the largest of its type in the state, and one of the first of its kind. The first floor includes a drawing room (main parlor), morning room (ladies’ parlor), and library/office. The back hall leads to the kitchen, a pantry, and a dining room. There’s a trap door in the pantry that led to a root cellar. Rumor has it this root cellar used to be part of the Underground Railroad!
The second floor includes five bedrooms. The upstairs landing was used as a private family gathering place –for music, games, sewing, and reading. The third floor – now closed to the public – was used as a ballroom for entertaining.

Across an open field to the south of Durkee Mansion sits Anderson Arts Center, which encompasses more than 9,000 square feet. It’s a French Renaissance Revival style, two-story, stone and stucco house with more than 30 rooms. It was the wish of Janet Lance Anderson for her mansion to become an art gallery and part of Kemper Center. It opened as Anderson Arts Center in April 1992.

Janet’s grandchildren still visit the center, according to Carolina Curi-Bado, Administrator of Anderson Arts Center, just as they would visit their grandmother each summer. Long-time neighbors can recall how Janet would open her backyard and house for all to enjoy. She would turn the backyard into an ice rink in the winter, and hand out hot cocoa to the neighborhood kids.

In the foyer, the Andersons would host parties with dancing and 3-piece bands. It was also a large enough open space for the kids to play croquet – when not using the play room on the third floor, which is now used for storage. The living room and library on the first floor house art exhibits now. What is currently the two-room gift shop was once the dining room and breakfast area. Items in the gift shop rotate with every exhibit change during the year. Also on the first floor were a gift wrapping room, a room for arranging fresh flowers, and a butler’s pantry that housed china from all over the world. The second floor bedrooms are now filled with art.

Anderson Arts Center is open during exhibits and special events like the Twilight Jazz free outdoor concerts in the summer. Both Durkee Mansion and Anderson Arts Center are free to visit; donations are gratefully accepted. Volunteers are welcome as well.

While the Durkees and the Andersons are no longer here to host parties, their homes and the surrounding property are still available for all to enjoy. Twilight Jazz concerts, a bike path, art exhibits, tours, music classes, art camps, ballroom dances, ballroom dancing lessons, a Haunted House each October, Christmas at Kemper, third grade school tours, Oktoberfest, Art of the Car Show, a seasonal Fish Fry, a Mother’s Day Brunch, weddings, church services, business meetings, luncheons, conventions, stargazing nights at the Griffin Observatory, and motorcoach tours are among the events and activities that take place at Kemper Center each year. Next time you’re at Kemper, pause and take in the history and the Great Lake to the east!

(262) 925-8040,

June 2016

Kenosha Area Convention & Visitors Bureau Staff

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