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Saving an American 'Downton Abbey'

The Havilah Babcock House in Neenah, Wisconsin (photo by Zane Williams)

Peter Adams was still a young man when his father moved the family from northern California to Neenah, Wisconsin, and into one of Wisconsin's most famous homes — the Havilah Babcock House, built in 1883 by his grandfather, one of the four founders of Kimberly-Clark Corporation. The home is featured as one of the grand homes profiled in the 'Wisconsin's Own: Twenty Remarkable Homes' by M. Caren Connolly and Louis Wasserman, published by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press.

Chronicling the Home's History

The cover of "Wisconsin's Own: Twenty Remarkable Homes"
Adams recently began a blog to chronicle the home's history as well as his and his family's decades-long struggles to preserve and maintain the large Queen Anne-style home that Adams affectionately refers to as "An American Downton Abbey." His blog invites others to "follow the real life rise and fall of an aristocratic American family now fighting to save their own Downton Abbey." Among the history-woven memories, Adams shares the story of his first view of the grand home — and the grand aunts, the Misses Babcocks, who lived there — from the car window as his family arrived for a weekend holiday after a long trek from California. "There, without fanfare or warning, Dad turned in at one of the largest and most impressive of the houses — a brick Victorian mansion that looked something like a Tudor castle, complete with an imposing tower, sprawling stone verandah, formal gardens and a carriage house that was bigger than our home in California. This, it was safe to say, was flossy."

'Overwhelming and Awe-Inspiring'

Adams describes his childhood visit there as overwhelming and awe-inspiring. For example, he writes of a formal family dinner when all four children were "being served fried chicken by a procession of maids in white organdy aprons, each carrying some part of the meal on silver platter perched upon little white cushions trimmed in tatted lace. Sitting next to Mom, I mumbled something about wanting ketchup and was shushed with a little more emphasis than I had normally come to expect. Moments later, however, a tiny silver pitcher of the stuff was set at my place, summoned through the oracle of Aunt Betty's attentive ear and a buzzer to the kitchen hidden under the carpet."

Adams' posts are written so they can be read individually or as a series to better understand the family's history as well as its place in Wisconsin history, and to chronicle how, as Adams says, "the family built a life for themselves among the interconnected families of a small, Midwestern community long reputed to have once been the richest in America."

Read More

Learn more about the architecture and history of Adams' 'American Downton Abbey,' The Havilah Babcock House, in "Wisconsin's Own." The book captures the majesty of this and 19 other Wisconsin homes through the beautiful photographs of Zane Williams and through the stories of each family's journey in the home. A sampling of images from the homes can be found on the Wisconsin Historical Society Press website's book page as well a map of all 20 home locations.

:: Posted January 31, 2013

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