A house built for rosemaling
An insider’s view of Door County’s historic Binkhaven
Nestled in the picturesque village of Ephraim, Wis., lives a Norwegian cottage plucked straight from a fairy tale. The family estate turned vacation rental sits on 13 acres designed to resemble a forest in southern Norway. Beneath the trees, the main house rises in a style strikingly influenced by Norwegian architecture. Keeping the main house company are three other buildings: two stabburs shipped directly from the province of Telemark in Norway and the “troll house”—named for the troll mural lining its walls. Aside from the troll house, every building is covered in rosemaling, much of which was painted by the influential rosemaler Sigmund Aarseth. But how did this all come to be?
In the years following World War II, Americans developed a renewed interest in connecting with their cultural heritage. To Dean and Marilynn Madden, that led to an impassioned interest in the arts of Norway. Marilynn, affectionately known as Binky, was born in Illinois to recent Norwegian immigrants. Dean, on the other hand, was Irish-American, although, he was often referred to as the “most Norwegian member of the family.” Binky’s father would say the most Norwegian thing he ever did was marry his daughter to an Irishman, to which his son-in-law would respond, “After all, an Irishman is merely a shipwrecked Viking!”
In 1951, the Maddens set out to find a location for a summerhouse. Having circled Lake Michigan, they came upon a group of small villages that together make up Door County, a long popular summerhouse location. The area had been settled by Scandinavians. Ephraim, specifically, was founded by a Norwegian immigrant in the mid-19th century, and the Maddens saw that so much of the Scandinavian heritage had lived on. While there, they saw Nordic buildings, such as the Scandinavian Craft shop, Al Johnson’s (the now iconic Swedish restaurant), a village hall built in a Nordic-revival style, and a replica 12th-century Norwegian stave church. As they spent the day fishing, they adored the bluff that reminded them so much of the Norwegian fjords. This was it: this was the place to start what would become a lifelong journey giving new life to Nordic arts in America.
Construction and decoration
They found suitable land in 1958 and started building in 1961. Plans were drawn up by Bink’s brother, Russell Amdal, who drew inspiration from the Norwegian peasant architecture of the 18th and 19th centuries. While referencing historic precedent, the goal was to build something comfortable by modern standards. The structure takes the form of a wide stabbur with an overhang around the second floor and a few added porches. Inside, the living room is centered on an oversized Inglenook-style fireplace, which houses an indoor grill and two fireplaces. The ceilings and beams were left exposed and beautifully finished to allow ample surface for future rosemaling. Carved panels were even made to frame the front door, though they were later moved to make way for carved panels shipped over from Norway.
Construction was finished on the main house in 1962, though that was only the beginning of what would be a decade-long process. Next came the woodwork. With a workshop built on site, the first few years were spent working on the details of the house: custom-cut stair railings; custom hinges; a fireplace mantel modeled from a Nordic example; and a Norwegian staple, a built-in bed. Much of the house’s furniture was also made in the early years, modeled from furniture from the Norsk Folkemuseun in Oslo and other examples found in books.
But for all the work, one very important thing was missing in the early days of Binkhaven: rosemaling. The early 1960s was before rosemaling regained popularity in America. Because of that, Dean had not been able to find an artist he thought suitable to rosemal the house. Several women were painting in the Americanized versions of rosemaling pioneered by Per Lysne in the 1930s, but that wasn’t the rosemaling Dean desired on his trips to Norway.
That changed in 1966 when Madden met Sigmund Aarseth, who was 30 and barely spoke English. As one of only a few trained Norwegian rosemalers, he was sent by the Norwegian Embassy to represent the country and the art of rosemaling. Dean jumped at the opportunity. He drove to Chicago to meet the young artist and then invited him to Binkhaven to paint after his demonstrations. Sigmund took the job, and what they thought would be a one-time opportunity to get authentic Norwegian rosemaling at Binkhaven led to a decade of painting and a lifelong friendship.
On the first trip to Binkhaven, the newly formed team worked tirelessly for 10 days straight and accomplished several of the bigger projects in the main house. While up on scaffolding to paint the living-room ceiling, Sigmund invited Dean to Norway to show him around the old rosemaled farms and museums. Dean wasn’t one to pass on an opportunity, so he took Sigmund up on the offer, and they traveled there the following spring. On the tour, one thing really stood out: all these great old farms and museums have a stabbur. Madden wanted to add one to Binkhaven.
By this point, there was only one manufacturer still making stabbur, and they were new to the business. Madden ordered one, the first stabbur to ever be shipped to the United States, and he built it at Binkhaven in the summer of 1968.
The final building came in 1971 when, along with the Al Johnson stabburs, little Bur was shipped from Telemark. Each of these buildings became canvases for rosemaling, and rooms soon to be filled with rosemaled objects by the American artists who would come to learn the traditional art.
On Sigmund’s first trip to the United States, he also met Dr. Marion Nelson, then director of the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum in Decorah, Iowa. Marion sought out Sigmund in hopes of recruiting him as a teacher for the rosemaling classes offered at the museum’s folk school, which was gaining popularity. But no Norwegian had ever come to teach the American rosemalers. Sigmund became that teacher and came to directly influence a generation of rosemalers.
Sigmund made introductions between Dean and Marion, and the three of them came to have an impact on the revival of rosemaling that is hard to overstate. Dean served as the president of the museum for many years, ultimately becoming a major benefactor. In that role, he bought rosemaling from the American artists at Vesterheim’s Nordic Fest in Decorah, since its inception in 1967. He collected rosemaling from all the early Vesterheim artists, including several of their most significant pieces, which have remained together in Binkhaven’s collection.
Nils Ellingsgard, another rosemaler from Norway who also came to teach at the Vesterheim, visited Binkhaven several times and offered to sell the Maddens significant pieces of his work. This included two trunks, a custom camera case, a troll cabinet made to match the troll murals, and a grandfather clock that all grace the Binkhaven interiors today.
By 1972, most of the painting and building had wrapped up. Ceilings, beams, windows, doors, cabinets, furniture—you name it—were painted. Finally, the house was considered done and essentially left untouched from there. It remained in use as a summer residence, but as time went on, the family came to use it less, and the house slowly aged.
Binkhaven changes hands
In need of long-overdue restorations, the house changed hands in 2018, when I, as an art historian, took on the project of restoring the estate. The nearly all-original condition proved a great benefit: aside from some dubious tile work done in the 1990s, most every surface could be restored with a bit of patience.
Today, the house looks much the way it did the day it was finished. Room by room, the house has been diligently worked through to carefully address even minute details. Rooms have been stripped down to allow restoration on the countless carefully painted surfaces, including all nine of the rosemaled ceilings.
Objects have been archived, cleaned, and brought back to decorate the house with more rosemaling than has ever been in the house. With the collection now consolidated into Binkhaven, some of the more important pieces of rosemaling from the Maddens’ other home have come to replace custom-made objects that had to be moved to storage. It’s difficult to express the quantity and quality of rosemaled objects at Binkhaven. It’s more than enough to create an immersive experience in rosemaling that harkens back to the days of rosemaling in the 19th century, though a roughly 20th century version.
Two years into the restoration, the house has come a long way, and there are still countless projects underway, which you can keep up with in real time on Instagram with @Binkhaven. You can also find more information or reserve it for your next vacation in Door County on Binkhaven.com.
Elliot Taillon has always had a love of decorative art and architecture. It was his major at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., before moving to work in New York City. But when the opportunity arose to buy Binkhaven—complete with its all-original interior and rosemaling collection—he left his prior job to start the multi-year restoration. When he is not working on the estate, he can often be found in his art and antiques shop or on the hunt for the next great piece to add to his collection. Get to know Elliot and follow the course of the restoration on Instagram at @Binkhaven.
This article originally appeared in the July 10, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.