One of Chicago’s great architecture and preservation supporters has been kind enough to attend many of my public lectures over the years and become a good friend. He asked me to present a lecture to the Lake Geneva Conservancy this September for their annual benefit, and as a prelude gave Felicity and I a tour of Lake Geneva this past week. The lecture ruminates on the past and future of heritage conservation, and Lake Geneva presents excellent examples of the various facets of the history of preserving buildings.
We began at Black Point, the Seipp-Peterson house, built in 1888 by Adolph Cudell for the brewer Conrad Seipp as a summer vacation home. Its preservation over the past decade represents a fairly recent phenomenon dating to the early 1990s, namely the NIMBY house museum backlash, where nearby property owners, guarding their privacy, object to public tours of houses. Black Point responded, as Oak Park did in 1996, by limiting the tours and the accessibility – like the Seipps and Petersons, you must arrive by boat. Despite the limitations, the backlash has been strong.
We then visited the Lake Geneva Conservancy itself, an open land preservation organization headquartered in this lovely 1857 stovewood house, the Douglass-Stevenson House, in Fontana, one of three towns on the 7-mile long lake. This is a classic example of preserving one of the oldest houses in town for a local semi-public use. Walworth has a lovely old train station as well, and our friend pointed out the various train and trolley track routes – long since paved over, that served the vacation community in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
We then visited the town of Lake Geneva, where an active preservation movement created both an historic Main Street and a neighborhood historic district.
There is a lot to see, including the local historical society in an old mill building, and the recently improved Mill Race itself. This is a nice place, with active shops and nice storefronts, some even nicer than their historic forebears.
There is also the legacy of the sort of haunting, ferocious mistake that spurs many local building conservation efforts. A hulking, massively artless highrise right in the center of downtown. I wondered how such an out-of-scale clunker had been permitted, but then the answer was even more damning – they tore down a Frank Lloyd Wright hotel on the site in the 1970s.
Actually, that photo doesn’t reveal the poor detailing visible up close.
The planning disaster did the job. Height limits and historic districts soon followed. This is a familiar story: people only take action in regard to preserving their built environment when great buildings are lost. And when bad buildings replace them.
The final chapter of Lake Geneva’s preservation history is still being written, and it is apparent from the boat tour of the lake. The boat driver narrates almost the entire two hours, and video screens show historic photos of the mansions and homes and camps built all around the lake from the 1870s through the 1920s. They have to, because many, many of the original structure are gone. This is a place full of teardowns.
Preservation has not reached these sites beyond the town boundaries. Like Lake Tahoe, there are a flurry of different jurisdictions. Moreover, as you would expect, people want to maximize value – and windows. You can always tell a new house from an historic one by the windows. The new house may adopt Queen Anne or Romanesque or Prairie styling, but its windows – especially in a lakefront vacation home – will be massive. There are a few great mansions left on the lake, like this Howard Van Doren Shaw composition from 1906.
So, I suppose Lake Geneva has it all: house museums, historic districts, Main Streets, NIMBYism, teardowns, jurisdictional disputes and conservation easements, which are largely used here to preserve the open space, a very worthwhile pursuit. Many thanks to the Lake Geneva Conservancy for inviting me to be their benefit speaker this fall.