Lake Geneva, Wisconsin – Newport of the West

Another long anticipated Allerton Field trip to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, finally came to fruition in mid-May. The cloudless, sunny blue sky defied the strong wind and chilly temperatures which struggled to make 60 degrees. A Milwaukee couple familiar with the Robert Allerton story and who share a love of The Park joined the tour.

Similar to the July, 2014, Allerton Field Trip to Chicago, the itinerary of stops and activities centered on an Allerton connection. In the case of Lake Geneva, many of the Allerton’s friends and family owned summer homes. Robert spent his childhood summers at the Allerton Lake Geneva home called “The Folly.”

Wadsworth Hall

Wadsworth Hall

Today, only a few of these original homes remain on the Geneva Lake shore. The Bartlett home, named “House in the Woods” and the McCrae home “Blacktoft” are two such remaining estates with a personal connection to Robert Allerton. In 1880 Samuel Allerton’s heyday, the Geneva Lake shore was the summer and weekend getaway place of the Chicago wealthy.  In the aftermath of the Great Chicago Fire, the lake offered retreat until Chicago homes could be rebuilt. In 2015, Lake Geneva remains the getaway for the Chicago elite and a Wisconsin tourism destination. The newer and new construction along the lake shore with sprinkles of the old still gives the viewer/voyeur a glimpse into the life of the mega-rich.

Blacktoft - Former home of Reinette Thompson McCrae - Note: walkers on the sidewalk path

Blacktoft – Former home of Reinette Thompson McCrae – Note: walkers on the sidewalk path

Because access to the “front” of these shoreline homes is gated, the only way to view the lake homes is on foot or by boat. A twenty-one mile foot path circles the lake and wanders through the yards of these magnificent properties. By city ordinance, property owners may not block the sidewalk or hinder public access.  Because no public restrooms or water are available on the 21 mile circuit, a narrated boat tour of Geneva Lake is highly recommended. There is also a fare one-way to the opposite shore and one can walk back to the dock. Bicycle rental is also advertised in tourism flyers. From the view from the boat, many walkers, but no bicyclists, were noted that day on the path.

In making plans to visit Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, an Ebay search turned up a book published in 1976 by the Lake Geneva Historical Society entitled Lake Geneva: Newport of the West Volume 1 – 1870-1920. During the two hour boat tour of Geneva Lake, this 1976 book provided informative color commentary. As the tour guide referenced bygone homes of Chicago’s rich and famous in 1900, this vintage book presented amazing historical photos of these original homes. By holding this book at arm’s length at horizon level, it was easy to visualize the display of wealth and leisure presented along these shores at the turn of the 20th century. Most, if not all, of the photos presented in this book can be viewed online in the University of Wisconsin digital collections.

Samuel Allerton’s home, The Folly, was one such former beauty. According to this reference, Samuel built the summer cottage for his second wife, Agnes in 1883. Samuel’s first wife, Pamilla Thompson (1840-1880) died when Robert was only 7 years old. Samuel married his sister-in-law Agnes Thompson (1858-1924) the following year. Agnes loved the Lake Geneva home.he entertained friends and family throughout the summer. The Monticello paper reported visits to the Lake Geneva estate by the Dighton and Dillatesh families from Monticello, who were relatives of the Thompson sisters.

House in the Woods - formerly Bartlett Lake Geneva summer home

House in the Woods – formerly Bartlett Lake Geneva summer home

While The Folly is no longer standing, many original homes from this Golden Age remain today. The House in the Woods  built by A. C. Bartlett (founder of what would become Ace Hardware) remains largely unchanged on its outer façade. Robert’s friend, Frederic Bartlett and his first wife, Dora, continued to use the family summer home.

Another summer residence named Blacktoft was owned by W.S. (Reinette Thompson) McCrea. It has been enlarged since 1920, but the bones of the house remain largely intact. Reinette Thompson Lester McCrea, was another sister to Agnes and Pamilla Allerton.

Robert razed the Lake Geneva estate in 1925, a year after Agnes’ death. Similarly, Robert sold the family home on Prairie Avenue, a year after Samuel’s death. That home was razed and a hairpin factory was built in its place. In correspondence and by attribution, Robert Allerton gave consent to razing his gifted Monticello estate should it cease to be functional to the University.

Prairie Avenue Neighborhood

Prairie Avenue Neighborhood

In as much as Robert built wonderful gardens, homes and estates, he was only attached to the land. When asking the theoretical question “What would Robert do?” about his gift of perpetuity to the University, it is essential to consider his prior actions to properties within his own control. The two homes that Robert knew well – the Prairie Avenue family home and the Lake Geneva summer home were both razed soon after the passing of the owner. Robert clearly did not desire to have physical remnants of tangible property associated with a loved family member.

 

Some new “MacMansions” have been built or under construction along the lake shore.2015 5 18 new construction

New construction on Lake Geneva shoreline

New construction on Lake Geneva shoreline

The cruise narrator shared that one linear foot of lake shore can be valued up to $15,000. As the boat made its circuit around the lake, attention was directed to a “For Sale” sign. One hundred twenty feet of lake front property is offered for sale for $4.2 million. The catch, however, is that the lot does not have direct road access. The buyer would need to negotiate easements across neighbors’ properties to access the lot or strictly rely upon boat travel. The great majority of these lakeshore homes are used only one to two months per year. They sit vacant the rest of the year. Lake Geneva swells from a population of 7,900 residents to over 30,000 during the summer months.

Nothing competes with Younglands,

Younglands

Younglands

which was the final attraction of the boat cruise around the lake. This massive stone residence, built in 1899, was purchased at tax sale for $75,000. A swimming pool and gardens, now grace the rooftop of this mansion which was renovated into several condominiums. Very sweet.

Lake Geneva Historical Society curates an extensive inventory of items of local interest. Unlike the rules at most museums, visitors are encouraged to touch and handle many of the items on display.

Sprecker’s Restaurant is located across from Flat Iron Park. Wisconsinites are familiar with Sprecker’s Root Beer.

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