Mad Love and Money Behind the Downton Abbey of Door County

It’s humongous. Sur la Baie, also known as the Ellison Bay Manor, is the largest residence in the state of Wisconsin. The story involves a wealthy, love-struck Chicagoan, a struggling California artist and the appearance of a rare Fazioli grand piano.

Ellison Bay Manor Exterior

Photo by: Big Splash Public Relations Frank Spitzer's wife Annie fell in love with the Ellison Bay Manor after watching a video of the estate online. She died before she could live in it.

The French-inspired Door County mansion is an astonishing 35,000 square feet. Built in 1993 by Chicagoan Judith Blazer of the Illinois Tool Works family, the Porcupine Bay Road manor is lavish, spectacular. To give you an idea, at 5,000 square feet, the master bedroom is twice the national median size of an entire house; you could comfortably fit its neighbor, a 2,000-square-foot home on Door Bluff Park Road listed for $2.4 million, into one bedroom. There’s a total of 43 rooms, including four bedrooms, 10 baths, a beach house, eight fireplaces, several parlors, a two-story library a la the Vanderbilt Mansion, an indoor pool and sauna, and a 12-seater home theater. That’s the short list. In 2011 the tax bill on the estate was $159,332. (Take a look at the gallery to see why.)

In 1999 Blazer put it up for sale, asking $13.9 million. It shuffled on and off the market for years with no takers. Once more she listed it, upping the price to $19.5 million. Then in 2005 a call came from California. They wanted to purchase it, sight unseen.

It’s the kind of improbable, wildly romantic story that Hollywood loves. Remember in Sleepless in Seattle when teary-eyed Meg Ryan and Rosie O’Donnell play that scene from An Affair to Remember? The tale of Frank and Annie Spitzer zonked us, too. Here’s how we heard it:

Frank Spitzer was worth a fortune. He was a Chicago guy, fluent in five languages, with a master mechanic’s hands and a head for business. He started a manufacturing empire that included Wire-Guard Systems, Inc.; Flo-Tronics Metal Mfg., Inc.; and Mastercraft Die, Inc. Described as “charismatic,” he set up camp in California in 1953 and entertained a who’s who list of power and privilege including the flamboyant Los Angeles Mayor "Shoot From the Lip" Sam Yorty, Chicagoan and Playboy magazine founder Hugh Hefner, and presidents Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford. He got around.

Ellison Bay Manor Grand Staircase

Photo by: Big Splash Public Relations Based on the staircase in the epic Gone With the Wind, the Ellison Bay Manor grand staircase sets an opulent tone for the interiors.  

Introduce the struggling artist. This Erlys Schwartz (everybody called her “Annie”) worked in the florist department of a grocery store. She painted on the side and walked miles in the baking sun down in the industrial business pockets of Los Angeles trying to sell her paintings door-to-door. We imagine the pitch along the lines of: “Sir, I have an oil that would look great in your lobby.” One day (it always happens one day), her arms full of canvases, she tumbles into the Huntington Park offices of Wire-Guard Systems and into the life of the much older, many-times-divorced Frank Spitzer. He bought every painting on the spot. Now, Annie wasn’t interested, not … romantically. So what’s a determined fella to do? Spitzer found out where she worked, showed up, and bought every flower, bouquet and bulb in the shop. “Who are all these for?” asked Annie.  “For you,” he said. And that was that.

Photo by: Big Splash Public Relations The Midsummer’s Music Festival is a series of 30 classical concerts. In the background: the Fazioli grand piano for a concert in the grand parlor of the Ellison Bay Manor.  

Flash-forward: As Mrs. Spitzer, Annie saw pictures of the Wisconsin mansion online. She wanted it, so Frank bought it for her. They planned to relocate to Wisconsin, use the home as a primary residence, and spend winters back on their California ranch. They trucked things to Wisconsin, prepared the house — and then Annie fell ill, tragically, mortally ill. She died a few months later, never once setting foot in the home.  A heartbroken Frank Spitzer followed her in 2011. He was 92. 

But there’s music in the house. Beautiful music. Here’s where the piano comes in. The Fazioli F308, over 10 feet in length, is the Maserati of grand pianos, the largest and most prestigious concert piano in the world. On loan from PianoForte in Chicago, it made the six-hour, 280-mile journey up the Lake Michigan coast especially for the Midsummer's Music Festival at Ellison Bay Manor. This is a premiere event in Door County — they sold out in July and the organizers decided to schedule an encore for Labor Day weekend, on Sept. 2 at 3 p.m. According to the promoters, this is the first public concert ever held at the mansion.  The chamber concert, billed as "Music for a Grand Parlor," will feature the works of Mozart, Johann Nepomuk Hummel and Sergei Liapunov played by 16 musicians. In its 23rd year, the theme is “Bursting with Passion.” That’s quite the summer sendoff. Tickets are $150 each. Visit the Midsummer's Music Festival website or call 920-854-7088.

And the Ellison Bay Manor? The property is repped by Kurt Penn of Sotheby’s International Realty. Asking $8.7 million.

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