Sounds of the Past
Antique music makers and unique inventions of all sizes and significance are brought to life at Sanfilippo Place de la Musique.
“Fly or be fired!” were the last words I heard when I took off from Springfield that stormy night. I lit a cigar, knowing when it reached the point of burning my fingers, I was near my destination. I had just seven forced landings on my record, but as the weather grew worse, this was beginning to look like my eighth. The clouds were low, the rain heavy, and my cigar told me it was time to descend. The clouds opened, and below me, my destination: The friendly lights of the Sanfilippo Place de la Musique in Barrington. I circled my 1929 Stearman Junior Speedmail biplane over the many cars attending the evening’s gala event and made my approach, but as I landed, the wind changed, my speed became too great and I was running out of field. My wheels plowed through the manicured lawn, I hit a row of bushes, then snapped my propeller as I took out the owner’s elaborate iron fence.
This was the story I told Jeffrey Sanfilippo, member of the Sanfilippo family, as I, dressed like an early-age Air Mail Maverick, handed him a somewhat tattered replica of a 1938 airmail letter.
But there was no Stearman or crashlanding. My son and I arrived safely to the 57-acre estate by car. We were fortunate enough to be attending a masquerade dinner, one of the many charitable events planned each year at the private residence of the Sanfilippo Foundation.
Extraordinary, Historic Collection
On that special night, orchestra music from machines filled the air as we entered the Carousel Pavilion of the Place de la Musique. A breathtaking Victorian setting filled the hippodrome-size dining area, with hors d’oeuvres being served at the base of a spectacular 11-ton, 32-foot-tall monumental clock. The backdrop for this fine dining experience was the 42-foot-high 1890s Eden Palais façade (below), complete with hundreds of lights, art glass and beveled glass, gold leaf, museum-quality paintings and amazing ornate carvings. In the background a stunning carousel whirled away to the carnival sounds of a Gavioli organ.
Guests were filled with childlike glee as they “raced” each other on the 36 beautifully carved horses or comfortably sat together in fancy rocking gondolas, all the while surrounded by an array of colorful musical devices.
Around the corner were more machines, steam engines of all sizes, and always, more music. We strolled the aisles of Pullman’s finest Victorian railcars, pulled by an all-too-real 1881 Grant locomotive. I smiled, fantasizing for a moment, “Had that 1929 Stearman truly transported me back in time?”
Taken aback by all we were enjoying, we nearly forgot dinner was being served and, like everything we had experienced, the food was superb.
A Home Full of Song
After dinner, we were cordially invited into the Sanfilippo family’s home. As we walked the winding drive, lined with century-old Milwaukee streetlights, the Victorian-style Second Empire residence came into view. It’s a magnificent home with arched windows, decorative corbels, cornices and crestings, all executed in copper, including a tower, appropriately topped off with a wonderful finial from the former Schlitz brewery.
Once again, the Sanfilippos were there to welcome us into their foyer with its absolutely grand staircase and midlanding focal point: An 1890s Imhof & Mukle barrel orchestrion, driven by 500-pound weights (below). Just off the foyer is the acoustically perfect music theater, adorned with chandeliers and architectural ornamentation from former grand movie palaces. Here, you can find a good theater seat on the main floor or ride the ornate Victorian cage elevator to the balcony. View the 30,000-piece stained glass skylight and sit back and watch a classic silent movie on the big screen — all to the accompaniment of America’s largest 8,000-pipe organ. Yes, 8,000 pipes!
In the Orchestrion Room, Victorian chan-deliers and Tiffany lamps light your way as music plays from machines of all types: violins, organs, calliopes, harps, pianos and more — all with sounds recorded on pinned barrels, paper rolls, steel discs and even unfolding cardboard books.
The warmth of every imaginable wood encases these fine machines: Oak, walnut, boxwood, pear and ebony inlays, to name a few. Take the tower’s huge spiral staircase to the Victorian bar with a 24-foot carved backbar. There, you will see the Arcade with crank movie viewers, strength testers, fortune telling machines and pinball machines as far back as the mid-1800s, all meticulously restored. The ice cream parlor comes complete with antique booths and fixtures, even a Holcomb & Hoke Butter-Kist popcorn machine that automatically butters each individual kernel. Oh, and the family’s collection would not be complete without the all-important antique peanut roasters. After all, this special place is that of the Sanfilippo family of John B. Sanfilippo & Son Inc., owners of Fisher and many other nut brands.
A Passion for Music, Charity
Behind perhaps the vastest collection of music makers on the planet is not only an accomplished family, but a charitable one with a passion for sharing its collection with others for good causes.
It appears the Sanfilippo Foundation holds two missions, one being a crusade to educate the public about, and the saving of, many of the Western world’s greatest music machines of the past. But that mission somewhat pales in comparison to Sanfilippo Foundation’s other goal: to give back by providing charities a most unique fundraising opportunity.
In 2012, the foundation assisted more than two dozen large and small charities in raising more than $1.3 million by opening up its estate to host their events. Groups invited to book events include nonprofits, collection-related collector groups and some corporate-sponsored events. Assisting charities while exposing guests to this extraordinary collection is Sanfilippo Foundation’s No. 1 priority. Kudos to the Sanfilippo Foundation for using such a virtuous model for utilizing one’s treasures.