At Pleasant Home, fence departs, but violano to return

•The fence will return too, after restoration, but the big news involves the Violano Virtuoso. The what, you say? Read on.

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By KEN TRAINOR

Pleasant Home had two owners before the Park District of Oak Park took over in 1930. Now, after 75 years, a little history from both are getting their due.

First the fence, installed in 1901 by first owner John Farson, at a cost of $10,000. The fence was, like much of George Maher's masterpiece, ahead of its time, made of rolled steelâ€"obviously durable, but still in need of work after weathering a century of Midwest weather, said Laura Thompson, executive director of the Pleasant Home Foundation.

The local Rotary Club donated $10,000 plus labor as a community service project, and the park district matched that, but whereas $10,000 purchased a full block of rolled steel in 1901, $20,000 today will get just three sections restored. Of course, it will be the three most intricate sections of fence, surrounding the main entrance to Mills Park and the mansion.

Two local contractors, Thompson said, will handle the project. Adams Street Iron will do the prep work and Coffman & Wicklow will supervise the painting.

If all went well, the three sections were removed yesterday, using a 39-foot-tall crane, and sent to the Adams Street workshop in Melrose Park. There they'll strip the voluminous coats of paint and eliminate the rust, repair any damage, and prime it for painting.

They'll also replace the Maher shield, a motif traceable throughout the mansion, originally suspended over the gateway.

Sometime around the end of April, the sections will be returned and welded into place.

Thompson says they have also found conduit for the art glass globes that originally adorned both the gateway and the mansion entry. They have a sample of the globes upstairs in one of the Historical Society's display cases. High on her wish list is getting someone to sponsor a project that would bring those ornaments back into use.

Pleasant Home was one of the first houses in Oak Park to have electric lights, Thompson noted, and Farson, ever the showman, had the entire house outlined with filament bulbs in 1897. Must have been quite a sight, she said.

On Saturday, May 7, a crew of local Rotarians will come over for a painting party, with Coffman & Wicklow supervising. The contractor plans to apply the finishing coats in time for a June 18 reception honoring Rotary International's 100th birthday.

Based on what they learn from restoring these three sections, Thompson said, they will try to raise funds and redo the rest of the fence.

What the heck's a Violano Virtuoso?

And speaking of fundraising, Pleasant Home will soon have one of the more amazing inventions from the turn of the last centuryâ€"the Violano Virtuosoâ€"perhaps the greatest invention of Herbert Mills, second owner of Pleasant Home, and owner of Mills Novelty Co.

As fate would have it, Thompson, on just her second day on the job last October as the new executive director at Pleasant Home, attended an unrelated fundraiser with her husband, Michael, at the Barrington Hills mansion of Jasper Sanfilippo, head of Evon's Nuts. Sanfilippo frequently makes his mansion available to non-profits for fundraising events (in this case a local dance organization) because the enormous house and grounds harbor one of the most amazing collections of mechanical music devices (including working, full-size carousels) in the world.

And among the hundreds of coin-operated contraptions (many of which have been restored to working order) are dozens of Herbert Mills' vaunted Violano Virtuosos. First introduced in 1904, it consisted of a mechanically played violin with piano innards combined inside ornate wooden cabinetry behind a pane of etched glass. Small, spinning celluloid wheels played the violin's strings, while "fingers," operated by electromagnets, pressed down on them to change chords. The combination of violin and piano led to the name "violano."

In 1909, after its first public performance, the U.S. Patent Office proclaimed it "the engineering wonder of the decade."

Later, Mills included two and even three violins.

Thompson knew the history and knew Sanfilippo's interest in these machines, so when she finally met him that evening, she mentioned the connection. No, he told her, he had never visited Pleasant Home. Yes, he said, he would be happy to donate a Violano Virtuoso to the foundation. Only fitting after all. Mills had one in his own living room.

The details are still being worked out. The main contact is Robert Ridgeway, curator of the Sanfilippo collection. Even an unrestored Violano Virtuoso sells for $50,000 these days. The restoration expert in Ohio who is working on it is giving them a reduced rate, but they'll still need to raise funds in order to pay for the finished product.

Mills Magic Machines, April 12

To publicize the project, Ridgewayâ€"and possibly Sanfilippoâ€"will attend Pleasant Home Foundation's annual meeting on April 12 at 7 p.m. to talk about the instrument's history and play recordings. Historic photos will also be on display. The evening will be titled "The Magic of Mills Machines" and is free to the public.

Unfortunately, they can't lug one of the machines with them since they weigh 1,500 pounds. But when Pleasant Home's very own machine finally arrives, Thompson said, people will be in for a pleasant surprise. "At the fundraiser," she recalled, "they really drew a crowd. When the music began, people actually gasped."

Performances at Pleasant Home should help fundraising efforts, and Thompson is hoping to schedule a major fundraiser at the Sanfilippo mansion sometime in the not-too-distant future. In the meantime, they need to find the $10,000 to $15,000 to pay for the instrument's restoration.

The Lake Theatre's owners, Willis and Shirley Johnson, are big supporters of the foundation and are quite interested in the Violano. She's hoping someone like that will take the lead in a "Restore the Violano" campaign.

The return of the violano would likely attract many groups that wouldn't normally come throughâ€"collectors groups, for instance, and those passionate about machines.

"We hope this is the start of something," Thompson said. "We want to have this magical machine back where it started."

CONTACT: ktrainor@wjinc.com

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