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Life in the Ewing home is revealed through carefully crafted tours

Five women and one gentleman lined up in front of a stately fireplace smile at the camera
Lauren Warnecke
Toni Tucker, left, is the director of Ewing Cultural Center. Volunteers (from left) Jan Capodice, Carolyn Erwin, Lynda Lane, Joan Brown and Dan Leifel lead tours of the manor.

Davis Ewing was born in Bloomington. His father was a dignitary during Grover Cleveland’s administration. And his grandfather was the fifth mayor of Bloomington.

Ewing himself was no slouch. He rose to prominence as a concrete magnate and, after a world tour with his wife Hazel Buck Ewing, settled into their custom-built 60-acre country estate (built out of concrete).

Davis Ewing would live in the home called Sunset Hill for less than a year; the couple divorced in 1931. Hazel lived in the home until her death in 1969; it is now part of the Illinois State University Foundation. Thus, while the current Ewing Cultural Center’s design and construction cannot deny Davis’ influence, it is Hazel whose presence is more felt in the stories and personal touches instilled in the center’s tours held throughout the summer and early fall.

The final two days to tour Ewing Cultural Center this season are Sept. 18 and 25.

A man in khakis and a burgundy polo shirt gives a presentation to a woman and small boy.
Lauren Warnecke
Dan Leifel often gives the introduction to Ewing Cultural Center tours. He has volunteered at the Center for nearly a decade and spent months building the model train set in the attic playroom.

Volunteer docents remark on architectural and decorative features and share stories about what life was like when the Ewings lived in the home. Using a tag-team approach, a new guide greets visitors as they wander from room to room. Practicality is the main reason for this approach: it saves the volunteers from frequently navigating stairs and narrow passageways and ensures everyone has something to do.

The more ephemeral benefit is getting a fresh approach in each corner of the house. Several docents are retired teachers. Others, like Carolyn Erwin, signed up hoping to meet people when she moved to Bloomington-Normal several years ago. Dan Leifel, one of the few men at the manor, spent several months building a custom train set for the third-floor attic, and often opts to give the introduction to the tour.

An elegant, relatively modest home

Director Toni Tucker joined Ewing Cultural Center in 2012.

“In the house itself, people expect a ballroom,” she said. Behind the manor’s grand façade and supremely elegant gardens—first designed by Jens Jensen, whose other projects include Chicago’s Humboldt Park and Ravinia Festival to its north—lies a stately, well-appointed home that is relatively modest based on what the Ewing’s could afford.

“They built this to live in,” Tucker said. “They didn’t build it to entertain. The dining room is small. They never intended to have big parties; that’s not who they were.”

Just a single room wide, north and south facing windows provide maximum airflow and idyllic views of what was once Bloomington’s horse country. Little touches like a dumbwaiter for firewood, a drinking fountain sourced from ice box melt and a sink in every bedroom are perhaps the most practical examples of the couple’s ingenuity. Extravagances take the form of custom sconces (so many sconces), a three-story tower room fit for Rapunzel at the home’s entrance and side chairs dressing up the commodes.

The Ewings kept everything. Much of Tucker’s decade at the center has been all about meticulously archiving everything they found in nooks and crannies of the home and looking for items that had been lost.

“Our offices were in the bedrooms,” she said. “We had none of that furniture.”

Tucker’s background in library science was a perfect match for the job. With additional guidance from Milner Library and the McLean County Museum of History, she established temperature-controlled storage for furniture pieces and paper archives, which are being digitized. New acquisitions from Hazel’s wardrobe will be featured in a special exhibition next month. And Tucker has worked with remaining family members to bring original furniture pieces and model train cars once belonging to Nelson Ewing, the youngest of the couple’s two sons, back to the home—not to mention a centenarian fruitcake.

“I was told to read Hazel’s will,” she said. “Her wish was that this be a museum and a cultural center. And to me, she’s the story.”

Two Mondays remain to tour Ewing Manor this season. Free tours begin at 4 p.m. on Sept. 18 and 25 at Ewing Cultural Center, 48 Sunset Rd., Bloomington. The gardens are open daily, weather permitting. Scheduled tours of the house and garden are available for $5 per person by calling 309-438-6333. ewingmanor.illinoisstate.edu.

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Lauren Warnecke is a reporter at WGLT. You can reach Lauren at lewarne@ilstu.edu.
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