Villa Louis, 521 North Villa Louis Road, Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin

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Villa Louis

Front Entrance, East Side
Interior Parlor
Address: 521 Villa Louis Road N
Neighborhood/s: St. Feriole Island, Prairie du Chien, WI, Wisconsin
City/locality-
State/province
Prairie du Chien, WI, Wisconsin
County-
State/province:
Crawford County, Wisconsin
State/province: Wisconsin
Country: United States
Year built: 1871
Primary Style: Italianate
Secondary Style: Victorian
Historic Function: House/single dwelling or duplex
Current Function: Museum
Architect or source of design: Edward Townsend Mix
Builder: Bently & Son
Material of Exterior Wall Covering: Brick
Material of Roof: Tin
First Owner: Hercules Louis Dousman II

St. Feriole Island Prairie du Chien, WI Crawford County

Villa Louis, 521 North Villa Louis Road, Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin
(43.0559943° N, 91.1574562° WLatitude: 43°3′21.579″N
Longitude: 91°9′26.842″W
)
National Register of Historic Places Information
Reference Number: 66000123
Reference URL: [Reference]
Primary Style: Late Victorian


The Villa Louis located on St. Feriole Island in Prairie du Chien, WI is the crown jewel of the city. The house sits atop an Indian built bound surrounded by pristine estate gardens. Hercules Louis Dousman II inherited the original house from his father Hercules Dousman I. Louis had the original house razed and hired Edward Townsend Mix in 1871 to rebuilt an Italianate Late Victorian house. The house represents Today the house has been restored to its 1880’s glory and is open to the public.

Contents


Site Importance

The site in which the Villa Louis stands was originally inhabited by a group of prehistoric Mound Builder People. These Mound Builders built large mounds for burial, residential and ceremonial purposes. The mound at the Villa Louis Estate has not been categorized into any of these typologies. Mounds similar to this can be seen in Illinois at the UNESCO World Heritage site of the Cahokia Mounds.

Following the habitation of the Mound Builders, Fort Crawford occupied the area. Fort Crawford was built in 1816 and occupied until 1827. It was one of a string of forts along the Mississippi River, including Fort Snelling. Fort Crawford kept peace between the Native Americans and new incoming white settlers with peace treaties. The fort was also the site of the only battle in Wisconsin during the War of 1812.

Hercules Dousman I purchased the old Fort Crawford and began to build his country estate. The house was a large brick Gothic Revival style that was built atop an Indian mound. Because of the placement of the home, it received the nickname, “House on the Mound”. The estate expanded to included new outbuildings, gardens, a hothouse, vineyard, and a large addition to the house. Dousman and his family would inhabit the house until his death in 1868. Dousman’s son, Hercules Louis Dousman II inherited much of his father’s fortune including the “House on the Mound”. Hercules Louis Dousman II decided to raze the “House on the Mound” and re-build a modern estate.

Building Description

Edward Townsend Mix, the architect, designed Louis an Italianate style home with its identifying features of boxy proportions, wide eaves, numerous brackets, and gently sloped roof. Mix decided on traditional solid masonry construction, building the walls twelve inches thick on the main block and eight inches on the kitchen area. This was in contrast to the typical balloon framing simplified construction technique that was used on Italianate style homes. He was able to even reuse many materials from the old “House on the Mound”. There are recycled bricks in the wall, recycled beams in the floor, and recycled doors in out-of-the-way locations such as the basement, attic, and servants’ wing. These features would later make it difficult for architectural historians to determine accurate dates of construction.

An enclosed veranda on three and half sides of the house wraps the boxy layout of the house. This feature was unusual for Mix, but was requested by Mr. Dousman, because he had enjoyed the time he spend with his family on the veranda that was on his father’s house. The principle entry of the house was on the east side, but there was similar grand entrance on the west side of the house that is a marker of stream boat travel, as the west side of the house faces the Mississippi River. The reception hall organized the family’s public areas by establishing circulation and the standard by which the house is viewed. The reception hall creates and east-west axis with the sitting and dining room across from the parlor and guest bedroom that was typical of this period. Off of the dining room, the back hall leads to the service wing. Many of the servant’s private bedrooms were located in outbuildings on the estate; there was one bedroom for their longtime servant, Louis Le Brun.

In 1885 many updates and renovations were made to the house. There had been major advancements in plumbing, heating, and electrical systems in the fifteen years since the house had been built. These advancements were implemented into the house as well as telephones and electric call bells. A large kitchen suite and more domestic help rooms were also added at the time. A major part of the renovations was the interior decorations that needed major updates to keep in style with the latest fashion of artistic British-inspired wallpapers, carpets, and textiles.

The building additions could be done by local Prairie du Chien builders, but for the interior design the Dousman’s sought outside help. They hired Joseph Twyman from the J. McGrath firm in Chicago. Twyman was a proponent of the English Arts & Crafts style and devotee of the work of William Morris. Twyman created an original and brilliantly crisp color palette of red, blue, and gold in various arrangements. Tyman followed Morris’s golden rule of “have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful”. The house transformed from a boxy polished plaster walls to a colorful jewel box of texture and pattern.

The Dousman estate included much more than the Villa Louis itself. The total of buildings on the estate rounded to about twenty. Accompanying these buildings were two large farms north of the city that total around 5,000 acres. These farms were rich meadowlands located in the ravines of the bluffs. The vast amount of acreage that the Dousman family owned allowed for Louis to indulge in interest of his, equestrians. Louis established a standard bred horse-breeding farm on the estate, which he called the Artesian Stock Farm in reference to the artesian wells on the estate. Louis constructed stables, paddocks and a half-mile racetrack, which was used for annual carriage races on the property.

Historical Value

Hercules Dousman I brought great economic boom to the Prairie du Chien area with his involvement of the Astor Fur Trading Company post that serviced the white settlers and neighboring Native American tribes. Hercules also was responsible for the expansion of the Milwaukee and Mississippi Railroad Co. from Milwaukee to Prairie du Chien. The Dousman family was considered to be the Kennedy’s of Prairie du Chien, bringing and elite group of guests including close family friend and mentor Henry Sibley, who was the first governor of Minnesota. Much of the French heritage and culture that is seen in Prairie du Chien today is from the influence of the Dousman family.

Current Use

In January of 1950, the deed title of the Villa Louis estate was handed over to the Wisconsin Historical Society. Major restoration did not happen until the mid-1990s. Luckily the Dousman’s kept the majority of their family heirlooms, furniture and even photo-documentation of the estate. Researchers painstakingly went through all the family records, letters, bills, receipts, and photographs to accurately restore the Villa Louis to its 1880’s glory. Being able to have such and extensive documentation of the estate during its peak years allowed for the researchers to bring in many of the same textiles, wallpaper, woodwork, ornamentation and carpeting that was present at the time. Many of the original Dousman furniture and heirlooms were also used in restoring the house. Much of the furniture had to be reupholstered, but was done so with period accurate fabric that could cost upwards of $500-per-yard. The extensive restoration done on the Villa Louis makes it one of the most authentically restored Victorian houses museums in America. The Villa Louis today offers tours daily tours during the spring, summer, and fall months. Events are also held through-out the year including Victorian style cooking workshops and the annual Carriage Classic.


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