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In The News

The Kamber House

Restoring this vintage Victorian has been
a 30-plus year passion for Oconomowoc couple

June 2005


When he decided to move from Brookfield in 1969, Dick Kamber came across a vintage Victorian home on the east shore of Lac La Belle in Oconomowoc that soon became a labor of love. Though the home was in terrible shape at the time, the magnificent old abode had just about everything Kamber was looking for — it was on the lake, it had a small yard that didn’t require much maintenance, and it was just a short walk from downtown. Having a good eye for quality, Kamber also knew that the house had limitless possibilities and it wasn’t too far gone that he couldn’t bring it back to its original splendor.

"One of the reason’s why Dick chose this home was because it wasn’t cobbled up and he knew he could fix it," explains wife, Mary Jane. "Plus the sunsets are just magnificent and they’re really a hidden bonus of the property."

The stunning Queen Anne that stands today was believed to have been built by Oconomowoc entrepreneur, George L. Wilsey somewhere between 1888-1890. At the time the home was constructed, Wisley was owner of George L. Wilsey & Dry Goods, Carpet and Clothing Store, vice president of First National Bank and co-financier of the electric company in Oconomowoc. Though he is believed to have built the home, there is no evidence that he or his wife, Martha, ever lived there. After his death in 1906, the home was sold to Joseph Doe who used the property as a summer home until 1923 when it was sold to Rose Prichard. In 1940, Prichard sold the home to William and Mathilda Robinson.
Stained Glass Restoration
The Kamber home had a front porch and fenced-in yard in the early 20th Century. The three stained glass windows on the right side are still a prominent feature.
"For many years this was known as the ‘Robinson House,’ since they were the ones who owned the home the longest," says Mary Jane. But as time has gone by, the home is now generally referred to as the "Kamber House," since Dick purchased it in 1969 from Roger and Denise Hosefield, who had lived in the home for four years. Immediately after he moved in, Dick began restoring the historic home.

"The restoration has been a 30-plus year passion for Dick," admits Mary Jane. He first tackled the fundamental issues in the home such as removing the old furnace and installing forced air. Next he needed to update all of the electrical and plumbing and he then made an addition to the kitchen and removed a small kitchen porch. A much-needed bathroom was added to the first floor and the garage was enlarged.

In 1982, after Dick and Mary Jane were married, the cosmetic part of the restoration began. With three children each, the Kambers, while still interested in restoring the home to its original style, also knew they needed to accommodate their newly blended family.

"The Victorians believed in embellishing and layering, that too much was never enough," explains Mary Jane. "Blending two families with six children required a more casual lifestyle, yet we still wanted to keep in mind the integrity of the house."

Having three bedrooms on the second floor and three bedrooms on the third floor as well as a living room, dining room, reception room, kitchen, pantry, five bathrooms, and an apartment in the basement, the home was plenty big to accommodate the family, but restoring it while living there proved to be a challenge.

"When we started the cosmetic restoration we said we were going to start with the third floor and work our way down, but after a while we just decided to do the whole thing at once," laughs Mary Jane.

One of the home’s most recognizable features is the beautiful stained glass windows in the reception room. Original to the home, the windows were removed and meticulously restored by Oakbrook-Esser Studio of Oconomowoc. It was these restored stained glass windows that also led to the discovery of some old photographs of the home.

Around 1995, photographs of George Wilsey (the previous homeowner) were discovered at a flea market in Vermont by Jack and Alice Gausch. The couple knew nothing of Wilsey, the home, or the other people in the photographs. Ironically, Gausch was employed at a printing company in Vermont who worked with Brownberry Bestfoods in Oconomowoc. Seeing "Oconomowoc" stamped on the frame of the photos, Gausch sent the photos to Jill Gust, an employee of Brownberry. Gust also knew nothing of Wilsey or the home.

It wasn’t until one day while she was walking past the home that Gust recognized the stained glass windows on the Kambers’ home as those in the photographs.

"When Jill first called me and told me she had ‘something I couldn’t live without,’ I thought she was trying to sell me something," laughs Mary Jane. "But when I saw the photos I was so amazed and happy to realize we were moving in the right direction with the restoration because before that we really had no way of knowing."

Stained Glass Restoration
The stained glass window, which is seen from the street, is one of the original elements in the home and gives it its distinctive style.
Having completed the major restoration of the home, the Kambers now have assurance that they’ve kept with the original integrity of the house, though some things have changed. For instance, the stone fireplace that once stood in the living room has now been replaced with gorgeous woodwork crafted by World of Wood, also of Oconomowoc. The company also crafted the home’s crown molding, wainscoting and bookshelves in the reception room.

In the living room, artist Gretchen Snyder painted a meticulous paint design that resembles Victorian wallpaper. She also carefully painted a flannel logroll design in the reception room. Matt Chatfield completed all of the plaster work in the home, which took months.

Another lovely feature of the original house can be seen while descending the basement stairs. The couple restored the brick walls in the basement to their original glory by removing the paint. Prior to restoration the brick walls were whitewashed and dull, but thanks to a fairly new procedure performed by Cream City Brick called cryogenic blasting, the bricks were returned to their natural beauty with minimal damage. The procedure involves blasting the wall with fine pellets of dry ice at a high velocity.

Though the home is truly an antique in itself, the Kambers also enjoy collecting antique telephones, of which they have some 30 different phones of various sizes and descriptions. In the basement apartment they also display some of their fully functioning antique slot machines. One of the Kambers’ favorite antiques, however, is a gorgeous pier mirror, which resides in the home’s entryway. The mirror once stood in Draper Hall, an exclusive hotel in Oconomowoc that was built in 1868 and was later destroyed by a fire in 1927.

"We felt after we purchased the mirror that we had brought back a little bit of history to Lake Road," Mary Jane explains.

With all the work they’ve done to restore their home, Mary Jane and Dick Kamber can now take a step back and revel in all their hard work. Though they admit it was a challenge, and she swears sometimes she can still smell fresh plaster, the outcome was well worth the wait.

"We really do love this home and enjoy all the history that it has," she says. "Plus now that we have the pictures we really do believe we kept with its original integrity."


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