|In the Spotlight: Jerry and Emma Talen|
"'You need a little aggravation in your life.’ That’s what our friends said to us," laughs Emma Kuipers Talen ’48. “And we got it!”
The aggravation Emma and husband Jerry Talen ’49 got was the “Cheyney House,” a 4,000-plus square foot ruined mansion in the historic El Presidio neighborhood of Old Tucson. The Mission Revival style dwelling was built in 1905 for Annie Cheyney, widow of a former Tucson postmaster and superintendent of schools. Later Cheyney’s daughter lived in the house. “She was very interesting, but a little strange,” as one Tucson tour guide describes her. Then one Halloween night the house burned, fueling stories it was haunted. A local contractor bought the mansion with the intention of restoring it, but he was shot and killed by his son on Christmas Eve 1983.
When the Talens came to town looking for a project—they had searched other cities, like Santa Barbara, Calif., and St. Augustine, Fla.—the landmark was slated for demolition. Neighboring property owners had sued the city for allowing blight in the historic district, listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
“It was screaming for someone to do something for it,” said Emma Talen of the cantaloupe-colored mansion. “It had been without a roof for 20 years. There were vines growing through the rooms—just a terrible mess. Homeless people had been living in it, there was old food inside…and dead cats.”
That was in February 2000.
Two years of aggravation later the Cheyney House is again a showpiece. “Nothing in the house is quite plumb or square,” said Emma. “Everything had to be specially made.” Also, historic preservation codes dictated what the Talens could do to windows and walls. They searched for 100-year-old boards to match the original floors and moldings and furnished it with turn-of-the-century Stickley.
“What I like about it is preserving some of the past,” said Jerry. “This house was built before Arizona was a state. Also, we’re trying to encourage people to live downtown.” “And,” Emma adds, “not be so dependent on automobiles.” From their new home the Talens can walk to Tucson’s art museum, symphony hall and theaters, places they frequent.
Architectural restoration is something Jerry and Emma Talen have come to “in our old age,” as Emma puts it. Still in good health after their retirement they found themselves looking for projects to work on, places to make a difference.
During Jerry’s career in banking and finance the Talens moved 19 times between various cities in the Midwest and New York, usually to “the worst house in the best neighborhood,” as they describe it, which they then fixed up. “We learned so much moving so many times,” explains Emma, “that in our old age we started thinking, ‘We still have those skills.’”
Before the Tucson mansion there was a 125-year-old bank in downtown Menominee, Wis., where Jerry was president and owner of 1st Bank and Trust from 1985 until his retirement in 1997. Gutted, stripped of its façade and painted white, the building “looked like a big, white ice cube,” when the Talens got to it. Working from old photographs they restored the bank to its original appearance.
Once the bank was restored, other downtown Menominee business owners began to work on their properties. “It was like the Old Testament ‘begats,’” laughs Emma. “Now the whole core of the town has been pretty well preserved.”
Beyond brick and mortar the Talen’s delight in preserving and restoring beauty takes many forms. They support several civic and arts organizations; the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra is one of their favorites. At Calvin, the Talens, with Jerry’s sister, Arlene Talen Star ’52, and her husband, Clarence Star ’52, funded the main cell culture laboratory in the new life sciences building, where scientists and their students isolate and grow cells outside the body to better understand their particular roles in maintaining and restoring health.
Their gift helps continue Calvin's mission of educating young men and women to be agents of renewal and restoration in God's world. Reflecting on their college years—1945-1949—Jerry said, “The mood on campus was fairly serious then.” A radar technician on Guam during WWII, Jerry attended Calvin on the GI bill. “We had seen sobering things. We wanted to get an education and do something constructive.”
Jerry and Emma Talen have spent their years together doing constructive—and re-constructive—things. And they have energy for more. Said Emma, “I don’t know what we’ll do next!"