Historic Preservation Honors Arena Abolitionist

By Samantha Crownover

After extensive restoration, a historic home in Arena is now open for guest stays. Many River Valley residents may know of the “stone house” on 18 acres. It was most recently the residence of the Learn family and included Inez Learn’s beloved toy store. After passing by the house for about 25 years, finally, on April 1, 2021, my husband, Bruce, and I, together with our business partner, purchased it. After a dizzying four and a half months, we fully restored the main house in order to celebrate it and the original builder’s legacy, and to host guests. In the spirit of William Henry Brisbane, we intend it to be a place of peace, inclusion, creativity and joy. We celebrate those who speak out against injustice and are honored to be the house’s next stewards.

After fully restoring the 1868 Brisbane House, Samantha Crownover and her husband have opened it to overnight guests. “We … are honored to be the house’s next stewards,” Crownover says.

Both the legacy of the man who built the house and its singular form are worth highlighting. Brisbane originally built the house and surrounding buildings in 1868 when he was in his 60s and well-established as a human rights activist (more about him below). Because it’s so unusual for Wisconsin — tall and skinny and its stone carved out of the nearby bluff — it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1990 and on the Wisconsin State Register of Historic Places in 1996. The adjacent building, the “summer kitchen,” was likely built around the same time or slightly after the house, as well as the granary or barn, which has collapsed. Although unique for Wisconsin, the shape of the house is quite typical in the south. The many tall windows and doors on all four sides provide plenty of cross ventilation. As southerners moved around the country, some heading north to settle in states such as Indiana, Iowa and Illinois, they brought this building style with them, and it became known as “I-style.”

My vision was to stabilize, restore and rejuvenate this three-story gem and summer kitchen. With 30 years’ experience restoring and managing historic properties in Madison, it was easy to put together a team of expert advisers and local craftspeople I knew would find special interest in the project. The former owners blessed my vision and helped out in every way possible with advice, history, and unbridled support and encouragement. 

The Crownovers have decorated the restored Brisbane House to celebrate the building and Brisbane’s legacy as an abolitionist. The house features an antiracist library, books by Black authors and contemporary art created by artists of color, including the painting above by Romano Johnson of ArtWorking in Madison.

Over 150 people have been involved in the restoration of the house, which sleeps up to 10 people and will be completed this month. Restoration efforts included: repointing mortar joints and chimneys; buttoning up the roof; rebuilding the eaves, soffits and facia; adding gutters and downspouts; relocating a large colony of bats and a flying squirrel family; replastering all walls; refinishing the fir floors (that Herb Fritz installed); repainting all other floors, walls, wood trim; refinishing all doors; replating historic hinges; re-grading the land around the house; augmenting the heating system and adding central air, as well as installing HVAC on the third floor; installing a new septic system; installing a new well; upgrading and adding electrical and plumbing; renovating the bathroom; performing fine carpentry in the kitchen and various other rooms; building a screen porch; re-roofing the summer kitchen with cedar shingles as well as installing appropriate new windows and a new bathroom. In one weekend, all of the furniture and art was moved into the main house, which has been open to guests since mid-August.

Before this stone house was built, its land was home to many Native Americans, including the Sauk and Fox. The irony that Brisbane was a vocal opponent of oppression as well as possibly the first white settler on this site is not lost on us.

Who was William Henry Brisbane?

William Henry Brisbane came from a family in Beaufort County, South Carolina, that enslaved 33 people. He moved north in 1835 and became a man of many professions, including pharmacist, doctor and minister — arguably not very financially successfully in any one of them — but he was most noted for his ardent abolitionism. He eventually manumitted and helped to establish each of the enslaved people he owned. He detailed this and many aspects of his life in his multi-volume diaries, held by the Wisconsin State Historical Society.

January 1841 note signed by William Henry Brisbane.

Brisbane died in 1878 at age 71. His obituary read in part, “He … had devoted his long life to, and spent a large income in the interests of humanity … he was one of the great and good men of the state; great because he was true to principle, and was the earnest champion of equal rights of man, without regard to birth-place or color. Good, because he was benevolent, kind …” There is a monument to him in the Arena cemetery and he is buried in the Mazomanie cemetery. 

Before this stone house was built, its land was home to many Native Americans, including the Fox and Sauk Indians. The irony that Brisbane was a vocal opponent of oppression as well as possibly the first white settler on this site is not lost on us. Yet, ever since its sandstone blocks were carved out of the surrounding bluffs, this one-of-a-kind house has been well-loved by many families, notably the Thudiums, Triers and Learns/Chaffees. 

We celebrate both the building and Brisbane’s legacy. As a tribute to his work, the house features a library of antiracist literature, books by Black authors and contemporary art created exclusively by internationally known artists of color. My husband, Bruce, a master printmaker, has collaborated on most of them. Already having hosted over two dozen reservations, I hope guests will come to celebrate their friends, family and their own story. I hope they will depart inspired by Brisbane’s courage to write their next chapter. One of our first guests stated, “What a fantastic restoration, it is really breathtaking! The artwork is outstanding — it really reflects the historical significance of the home and its original owner. We will always remember this as one of the best places we have ever stayed.” 

For more information and reservations, see Brisbanehouse.net. Photos courtesy of Greg Anderson Photography.