Elegant Victorian Home Reflects Family’s Rise to Wealth and Leisure
Hercules Louis Dousman (1800 – 1868) acquired a large fortune through his various enterprises as a fur trader, lumberman, land speculator and frontier entrepreneur. In the mid-1840s the Dousman family began developing an estate on the banks of the Mississippi River at Prairie du Chien that would evolve into Villa Louis.
Its vibrant hues and rich textures reflected the family’s rise to wealth and leisure living. Throughout its evolution the property was always considered an elegant and stylish Victorian country home, and much attention was paid to the grounds surrounding the mansion and outbuildings.
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H. Louis Dousman Inherits Estate in 1868, Builds New Mansion in Italian Villa Style
Upon Dousman’s death in 1868, the estate passed to his son, H. Louis Dousman, and his widow, Madam Jane Dousman.
In 1870 they contracted with Milwaukee architect, E. Townsend Mix, to build a new residence in the fashionable Italian Villa style. The old house came down with some parts recycled into the new building.
The elder Mrs. Dousman lived there while son Louis was beginning his family, business and social life in St. Louis. When Madam Jane died in 1882, Louis made the decision to move back to Prairie du Chien and start a new business — a stock farm for Standard Bred trotting horses.
Restoration and Museum, 1930s
Mindful of their family’s important place in Wisconsin history, Virginia Dousman Bigelow and Violet Dousman Young, granddaughters of fur trader Hercules Dousman, undertook a restoration of Villa Louis in the 1930s. In 1935 they turned the property over to the city of Prairie du Chien for operation as a house museum.
The heirs initially extended an offer to deed the house and grounds to the Wisconsin Historical Society. In the midst of the Great Depression, operating a museum far from the Society’s Madison headquarters seemed a risky venture, so the Society declined the offer.
Expansion and Remodeling Reflects British Arts and Crafts Movement
To prepare for his new life as a country gentleman, Louis and his wife, Nina Sturgis Dousman, initiated an extensive expansion and remodeling of the Prairie du Chien property in 1885. They built stables, barns, a race track and other buildings pertinent to the stock farm. They also enlarged and redecorated the house and the adjacent office. Dousman hired a Chicago-based designer from the William Morris Company of London. The result was a thorough reworking of the mansion, exemplifying the design principles of the British Arts and Crafts Movement.
The estate remodeling and stock farm business launch were barely completed when 37-year-old Louis suffered a fatal health crisis — believed to be a ruptured appendix. At the time of his death his five children ranged in age from two to 10 years. His widow was 33. Within a few months of the funeral the horses were sold and a new and lasting name had settled on the estate — Villa Louis — in tribute to H. Louis Dousman. Each September Villa Louis recalls the days of the Artesian Stock farm during the annual Villa Louis Carriage Classic.
Nina Sturgis Dousman remarried in 1889. She and her new husband relocated to New York City. It proved to be a troubled union and ended in divorce in 1891. In the late summer of 1893 the Dousman family returned to the Villa Louis where they remained until 1913.
Villa Louis Becomes a Wisconsin Historic Site, 1950
A decade later the family renewed the offer — at a time when serious interest in local history was just beginning to emerge. This time the Society expressed enthusiasm. On January 1, 1950, the Society took title to the property and buildings, though court proceedings left the matter unresolved until April 1952, when Villa Louis opened to the public.
The Dousman heirs also donated a large collection of furnishings and accessories original to the house as well as thousands of letters, business records, photographs and other archival documents. The family’s original donation was subsequently enhanced by significant donations from their heirs and purchases from their heirs’ estates.
The extensive documentation provided by the Dousman heirs served as the basis for a documentary restoration of Villa Louis that began in 1994. With more than $2 million dollars provided by a mix of private- and public-sector funding sources, the restoration is now complete. Today the Villa Louis is the finest example of a British Arts and Crafts interior in a rural setting in the United States.