Bringing History Back to Life

Allyn Mansion B&B – Delavan, WI (Photo Credit: Allyn Mansion)

“I think my favorite part of restoration is laying a brush full of varnish to this wood and seeing it come alive again.” – Ron Markwell

Like most people who love history, I’ve visited many restored homes and sites on the National Register of Historic Places. Reading history from books is one thing, but walking through it always brings it to life in a whole new way.

Over the years I’ve had some pretty incredible experiences touring such places. But this week, I visited a place unlike any other I’ve visited before. It truly was like stepping back into the 1880s.

Welcome to the Allyn Mansion in Delavan, Wisconsin.


Nathan and I found the Allyn Mansion through a casual search for a last-minute overnight getaway. As soon as I saw the pictures, I knew we had to book our stay there.

For one thing, it’s one of the most meticulously decorated historic homes I’ve ever seen. For another, it’s the exact style and layout of Alethia Grey’s old home, Grey Point, that has been mentioned in Volume One and will figure prominently in Volume Two.

Reference photo time!

The Allyn Mansion was built in 1885 by Alexander Allyn, a prosperous Delavan-area farmer. He had already built an impressive home several blocks away. But when his first wife died, prompting Alexander to marry again, his second wife wanted a home all her own.

I’m guessing from the results that her new husband was not one to “half-do” anything.

For me, my first walk through the home was nothing short of magical. I recognized immediately upon entering through the port cochere that the front hall layout was indeed exactly as I had imagined for Alethia Grey’s family home.

This was one of those strange “foreseeing” moments that I wrote about last week: another instance of the Inner Mentor placing a vision in my head that later turned out to have a real-life match. I took lots of photos and made sketches, too, for the opening pages of Alethia Grey Volume Two.

Another such foreseeing moment happened when I walked into the parlor. There, tucked in a corner just as I had imagined it, was a phonorium: a parlor organ of the exact size and variety (excepting its single vs double keyboard) that Alethia enjoyed in her childhood.

Seeing it brought me to tears. Ah, how the little details and moments of our lives truly are interconnected! Just like in the best stories, life has set-ups and payoffs.

There is no such thing as a “random detail.”

Walking through the rest of the house, we encountered room after room of stunning period furnishings. The walls have been beautifully recovered, the wood restored to glory. Even the ceilings were carefully papered to period specifications or restored with their original painted designs.

As if that wasn’t wall, our room had its share of historical secrets to share. This suite was original Alexander’s bedroom, connected to his wife’s adjacent suite by a private breezeway that also opened onto the second-story balcony.

While investigating the beautiful old clock on the mantle, Nathan found a note tucked inside. The old-fashioned handwriting shared the story of the clock’s original owners . . . from the 1860s.

(I made a note that Alethia Grey should hide something in a clock. Watch for that detail in the volume to come!)

But perhaps my favorite part of the house was that beautiful balcony on the roof: a part that was nearly torn off when present owner Ron Markwell bought the house with partner Joe Johnson back in the 1970s. They had the balcony rebuilt, and today it hosts elegant afternoon tea, suppers and other intimate events.

I thought immediately of how I could make use of this Alethia Grey Volume Two. Of course, the setting will be moved to a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan . . . but that’s an artist’s prerogative, right?

We came away from the Allyn Mansion with a great appreciation for the 20+ years of passionate care that Ron and Joe put into the home, restoring it and turning it into a bed and breakfast themselves before turning it over to the present B&B manager, Randy Bangs.

Now in his 80s, Ron still lives in the home and sat with us at breakfast, obliging us with stories of secret treasures “unearthed” during the restoration, or the lengths he and Joe went to to obtain period-appropriate furnishings. He spoke of how each piece of restoration brought something else “back to life” in the old house.

It felt to me as if history had been slumbering, and the gentle touch of their oil or paint (or a good stiff scrubbing brush!) had brought the past to its senses, nerve by nerve.

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All of which makes me incredibly thankful that there are still those among us who love to bring history to life: who don’t think it a waste to spend money bringing old things back to usefulness instead of just buying new.

The life of the 1880s Allyn family still speaks and breathes through the halls of their home. With all the time and care that Alexander put into building the home in the first place, I think he’d be glad to know it’s still as stunning—and well-loved—as it no doubt was in his day.

Thanks to commitment, dedication and above all, love, history lives on.

*  *  *

Read the complete history of the Allyn Mansion here, or visit the B&B website.

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