Three Friday 13’s

Superior’s Fairlawn Museum offers little, dark, evening tours of their mansion on every Friday the 13th. This year, three nights of tours, each thirteen weeks apart, take place in January, April and July. For a nominal fee, and with your or their flashlight, a guide will walk you through the Queen Anne, Victorian-style, 42-room home, regaling you with Pattison family history and descriptions of Victorian era superstitions.

The Pattisons, who built Fairlawn in 1891, are a study in themselves. Martin Thayer Pattison, born in Ontario to an East Coast family, grew up as a teen in lower Michigan, where he began his career as a lumberman. He married a couple of Michigan women, and in his late 30’s, moved west to Wisconsin, where he logged along the Black River.

The ancient forests could only be eliminated once. Soon Pattison changed sights for Vermilion Range iron ore, a move that made him into a very wealthy man. To demonstrate his wealth, he and second wife, Grace Frink, a Yooper, built Fairlawn on a city block tract in Superior.

Pattison was an Elk, a grandmaster Mason, and an Oddfellow. Stained glass, cutlasses, and other  artifacts demonstrate his memberships. Guatemalan mahogany woodwork is embellished with emblematic scrollwork. 

According to Fairlawn guide, Courtney, Victorians related to the numbers 7 and 9, but 13 was verboten. Seances were popular, transcendentalism was a ‘religion’, romantic writers like Poe were in vogue, and horror had its ascendency. The Brontes, Mary Shelley, Conan Doyle were the rage.

Superstition dictated that candles at weddings burn in sets of 3, not 2, not single. Old, new, borrowed, blue came from this era: old, a gift from an older couple; new, a symbol of the new life of the newlyweds; blue, for happiness.

Electricity, gas heat and indoor plumbing made life at Fairlawn pretty spiffy. Throughout the home, beautiful hardwood fireplaces never burned wood, but gave off gas heat.  My gracious 1898 home in Philadelphia had similar elegant fireplaces; instead of grates, they displayed decorative ceramic tiles.  We had gaslight wall sconces, whereas Fairlawn showplaces duel electric/gas chandeliers that ensure against a power outage.

The front door to my childhood home in Illinois led to what my mom called the reception room. Fairlawn has reception room, parlor (for the women), library (for the men), music room. Instead of dark mahogany, the parlor fireplace is white birch with gold leaf touches. It has a unique split chimney, with a delightful blue stained glass window between. Shades of this era, my sisters and I would put on plays and variety shows, sometimes jumping on top the furniture as we passed around mom’s volume of Shakespeare, often singing the dialogue.

Fairlawn’s dining room has extraordinary guillotine doors, going straight up between the walls 12 feet. Here’s where, if unfolding your napkin you found a diamond-shaped crease, you were jinxed: this could  mean a pending death. However, two teaspoons on one saucer might indicate an engagement.

The landing to the second floor has a huge corner fireplace. Our guide urged us to train our flashlights upward to a stained glass transom. Heat from the landing fireplace wafts up through the transom to warm the upper two floors.  

Upstairs is the sewing room with metal patterns, the sitting room, the bedrooms, the nursery. Cribs would be covered with a net, not only to ward off flying insects, but also to keep away children-snatching fairies and witches. Why was my father, born in 1910, dressed in a dress? Fairies preferred boy children; if you put the boys in dresses, you’d fool the fairies.

Courtney told us a lot about tight-laced corsets and the awful health effects for women. She pointed out a Daughters of the Revolution certificate. Pattison’s family were descendants of Ben Franklin’s sister. 

The 3rd floor was for adult recreation: smoking room, billiards room, ballroom, refreshment room.  There’s a sick room and plenty of rooms for the servants. There were so many rooms, our guide had to skip lots, and we didn’t get to the basement with swimming pool and bowling alley. 

This typical Queen Anne Victorian had a fruit and flower conservatory, now torn down, as was a giant carriage house. It still sports a four story turret with winding iron staircase up to the roof and above. Queen Anne lived in the 1700’s, so why her designation in the Victorian era, I am not certain. 

Pattison may be our prototypical politician. As a young man in Michigan, he was on the school board, graduating to MI house member. In Superior, he was elected three-time mayor. As is sometimes the wont of powerful men, his actions came to shoot him in the foot. Apparently originally married and father of two children in lower MI, his first wife, Isabella, tracked him down in Superior. He had never divorced her. I can only wonder how second wife, Grace, mother of his next eight children, took the news that her husband was a bigamist.

I’ve never been in awe of old mansions. They stand for an era of rape and pillage of native lands and natural resources. But the Pattisons pique my interest. Martin secretly bought up 100’s of acres of land along the Black River after hearing a dam was in the works. To save the spectacular falls, he gave the land to the state of Wisconsin. After Martin’s death, Grace donated her home as an orphanage.

Keep Fairlawn in mind for next Friday the 13th. If you have not visited Pattison Park, do. And don’t forget to toss a pinch of salt over your shoulder when you leave the room.