historic mansion has been a comfort zone for the gay community | Wisconsin News

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By FRANK SCHULTZ, The Janesville Gazette

JANESVILLE, Wisconsin (AP) – A 169-year-old mansion that housed Janesville’s first surgical hospital stands on an uncrowded street on the east side of Janesville.

The house was designed by the same architect who designed the famous Tallman House across the river.

It used to house an asylum for people with mental illness and it was a drama school that produced a silent film actor.

With a story like this and the Italian beauty of the house, it’s no surprise that some think ghosts are haunting her.

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But this story is not about any of these fascinating topics. These are the residents of the house for the past three decades.

Their story began when Alan Callies bought the dilapidated and abandoned house in 1990. The windows were smashed. The young people had played inside.

Callies, an architect, fell in love with the place. He was joined by Randy Gurney and Lisa St. Clair and others over the years who paid rent but also formed an unusual family unit.

This was at a time when gay people weren’t always welcome in local society, they told The Janesville Gazette.

Their close connections were evident as they told stories and joked about days gone by.

“These are my brothers,” said St. Clair. “They’ve been there through every good and every bad thing that has happened.”

“This is what the family does,” Gurney said.

Gurney and Callies, a divorced couple who still live together, raised five children in the house. In 1996, they threw a party for the 30th anniversary of St. Clair.

They liked the result so much that they all decided to have more lawn parties, but in the summer.

This was the origin of the Sutherland Family Party, which took place every summer from 1997 to 2019.

Two former residents, Jen Schuler and Kevin Ruff, also played key roles in getting the party started the band.

The party was a gay party, in every sense of the word, although everyone was welcome.

“Today you can just be gay anywhere. But back then, you just couldn’t. This was where it was okay to be gay, ”said St. Clair, who no longer lives in the house.

Local gays often socialized in Madison or Rockford to get away from the socially conservative Janesville, residents of Sutherland House recalled.

While fun was a big motivator, and drinking was as important as any summer party in Wisconsin, the organizers at Sutherland House had advice available, as did the Madison AIDS Resource Center. , which offered confidential HIV tests in a secluded room.

The residents of the house prepared all the food and provided the drinks in previous years. Most recently it has been to bring your own alcohol and a side dish.

Guests have come from afar, including a few from Colorado and Texas. A good number of people who met at parties went on to get married, Gurney said proudly.

Wendt attended his first party at Sutherland House in 2000. He remembered thinking, “I’m going to live there someday. “

During the peak years of the mid-2000s, 550 to 600 people attended, Wendt said.

They would invite the neighbors over and always inform the police, who sometimes came to tell them to turn down the music when it was getting late.

In all these years, Callies remembered only one nasty incident. It happened the day before the party, when kids playing in the streets used an insult on gay people while harassing a friend of theirs.

Residents of Sutherland House displayed signs around the 3¼ acre property on public holidays saying, “Some are; some are not. Some do; some do not. Some will. Some will not. Thank you for respecting everyone! “

Perhaps the signs were superfluous. Gurney said the event has become a great way for people to meet other people of different lifestyles.

“It was always a feast of love,” agreed St. Clair.

More than a dozen patrol cars showed up a year when two people in a row got into a fight, Callies said. Police apparently believed they were coming to the rescue in an incident of gay bashing. But it was a personal dispute, Callies said.

The parties featured “drag races,” in which participants raced from station to station in the courtyard, donning women’s clothing at each stop.

Drag queens put on shows. Other entertainment included corn sack throwing tournaments, volleyball and lounging in the above ground pool.

The group recalled with emotion that the lesbians had beaten the straight three years in a row.

The house needs work, its inhabitants admit it freely. There are many places where the paint peels off and needs repair. They are working on it little by little.

They recently built a fence around their vegetable patch, and one day they would like to rebuild an octagon-shaped annex that used to be the operating room of the hospital.

They stopped throwing parties when COVID-19 got in the way, but they hope to revive it when the pandemic allows.

The Sutherland House family learned this summer that young people are hosting a gay pride event scheduled for Saturday, October 9 at Lower Courthouse Park.

They enthusiastically offered their tips, ideas, tables and drag racing gear.

“Everything they needed to maintain the pride,” Gurney said.

The Sutherland House group, like the house, is aging. And they soften.

“Instead of a drag show, we now end the evening by dancing on the patio,” Gurney said.

They hope to have many more parties, starting next summer, if COVID-19 allows.

For now, they’re excited to show up to a more public gathering of LGBTQ people and other friends.

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