The beautiful 1857 Tanner House Museum in Aurora once required a bit of planning to visit, but today all it takes get inside is the click of a mouse. Thanks to a video made during the summer of 2020, a 17-minute tour of the house is available on the Society’s website above.
The house, although used as a museum of local history from 1938 to the early 1990s, and later reworked to show an upper-middle-class home in the late Victorian era, has always been open for just a few hours a week due to budget constraints.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the house simply shut down, Aurora Historical Society Executive Director John Jaros said, “By and large, Victorians designed the interiors of their homes to be compact and economical,” he said. “What that means to us today is that there is no way to social distance during tours or events. And not only that, but there is no good way to repeatedly clean and sanitize our valuable antiques, or our woodwork and painted surfaces.”
Over the summer as the house sat empty, the society decided it was time to tackle a project they had talked about for years, a video tour.
In a classic demonstration of making lemonade when fortune gives lemons, the AHS turned for help to a pair of Aurorans who, thanks to the same pandemic, just happened to be out of work.
In normal times, Chrissy and Bennie De Swardt trot the globe in their careers on the production side of major sporting events, but one evening in March, 2020, as they prepared to host a party for their crew at the BNP Paribas Open tennis tournament in California, the fateful text dinged on Chrissy’s phone. The rumors were true: the BNP was cancelling.
Two days later, flying home to Aurora, they counted the dominos that had fallen for them: 13 tournaments — and counting — had been cancelled.
So, now that they were home for a good long while, would they be interested in making a video tour? Yes, they would.
The De Swardts had a special reason for their interest in the Tanner House. They are the daughter and son-in-law of Aurora Historical Society president Mary Clark Ormond and already had plenty of familiarity with the house, although mostly while wearing period clothing as they helped out at events on the Fourth of July or at Halloween.
First, the pair, who over the summer formed their own video production company, EarthFoot Entertainment, did some test videos which focused on the art restoration going on in the basement, the historic bells which are rung on the Fourth of July, and the elaborate plasterwork throughout the house. All are available on YouTube through the society’s YouTube Channel.
Then came the hard work of trying to compress 163 years of house-and-family history into a video tour that would substitute for an actual tour during the pandemic and whet the appetite for an in-person visit later.
To follow coronavirus precautions the group worked in a bubble, which accounts, Jaros said, “for why almost everybody in the video seems to be related. We had no choice.”
“My biggest challenge,” says Bennie in his British-inflected South African accent, “was to avoid going down rabbit holes. When I work in television I have a director back in the truck whose job it is to, shall we say, gently advise me through the headset if I get too involved with a shot. Here I had to be my own watchdog, and it was massively tough.”
Chrissy, whose job it is to edit the footage into a smooth narrative, agrees.
“There were way too many great views,” she said. “Bennie has three Emmys for his camera work with ESPN, so I pretty much knew it would be like that and just saved everything. Maybe later we can work up some in-depth videos on particular aspects. For instance, there is an art piece by one of the daughters made up of twists of hair from each of the children. That would make a fascinating study.”
Favorite parts of the video vary according to the viewer.
For Board of Trustees member Angela Thomas it is the artistic treatment of the fancy plasterwork in the parlor. For docent Spiros Koliopolis, a graphic artist and printer, it is the chance to see a closeup of an Aurora Beacon newspaper from 1876, usually protected in the archives, but for the video laying on the desk in the library.
For staff member and film buff Scott Sherwood it is the Ken-Burns-like flow of the introductory narrative and for singer-songwriter Brad Green, who wrote and performed original music for the audio track, it is “finally getting a look into the cupola. That space is NEVER open to the public so what a treat to have the camera go up there for us.”
Both the Tanner House and the Pierce Art and History Center in downtown Aurora are closed indefinitely, but anyone who is interested can sign up for regular email updates.