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Oral history info sought for Ceylon Count

Rare home is preserved in museum display


January 15, 2013 | 01:27 PM
Editor's Note: Do you have memories of Ceylon Court? Caryl Robers is preparing an oral history of Ceylon Court. If you have information, please send an email to Caryl Robers at carylrobers@yahoo.com. And if you want to know more about Ceylon Court, following is a slightly edited article which first appeared in May 2011 Welcome Home, which is published by the Regional News.

By John Halverson


Ceylon Court is a house of the past.

Overlooking Buttons Bay, currently the location of the Lake Geneva Youth Camp, its red tile roof served as a beacon for sailors for many years.

Its story starts in 1892. It ended in 1958, when its owners were unable to sell it and insects had damaged its wood, and the fire department was asked to end its misery.

Its heritage, along with artifacts from the home, has been painstakingly reconstructed as part of an exhibit at the Geneva Lake Museum.

It's quite a project, considering a burned building tells few tales, and much of the building was sold at auction or otherwise scattered.

But a treasure trove of pillars and other items were discovered in a barn near Crystal Lake, Ill.

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Several pillars even found their way to a Florsheim shoe store. A scrapbook from one of the original owner's grandchildren helped fill out the picture.

Ceylon Court was built as part of the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago, aka the Columbian Exposition.

That same fair launched Cracker Jacks and the hamburger.

The popular book, "The Devil in the White City" was inspired by the fair.

Each nation was to construct a building representing their country.

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At the time it was built, Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, was controlled by the British.

They were looking for ways to promote the island nation's tea, so Ceylon Court, a replica of a temple, became a teahouse. Inspired by ancient ruins, it was all hand-made.

More than 20 types of wood were used, some unknown to the Americas.

It measured 20,000 cubic feet and weighted 300 tons.

The central hall of Ceylon Court had 32 decorative ceiling tiles and 24 hand carved pillars. Only wooden pegs were used in its construction. It's thought that each pillar represented the vision of the particular artist who carved it.

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Ceylon Court came to Geneva Lake via Anna Chandler, the wife of a real estate magnet, Frank Chandler.

According to one telling of the story, her husband had sat down to take a rest while the couple was at the world's fair; Anna wandered off and came back to announce that she had just bought a building.

The historical documents do not record what might have been said next. In any case, the building was disassembled and delivered to Lake Geneva on 24 railroad flatcars.

Chicago banker John Mitchell purchased the estate in 1901.

The Mitchells added on to the original building, using native materials and workers to ensure authenticity. Their tenure at Ceylon Court ended when both died in a car accident in 1937.

Over the years each owner brought his or her own taste to the building — not always in keeping with the original feng shui.

Old photographs show the interior went through a Victorian period, and later the style popular in the states in the 1940s.

The end of the story is almost as amazing as its beginnings.

Ceylon Court was eventually sold to members of the Maytag family of washing machine fame.

Other owners followed, until 1958 when its reign over the lake ended.

The owner was unable to sell it and much of the wood was insect infested.

The only thing left to do was have firemen burn it down — a mission of mercy no one applauded.

Want to be part of Ceylon Court's continuing history?

You can see it at the Geneva Lake museum and add to it by emailing Caryl Robers at carylrobers@yahoo.com.


Tags: Staff Editorial

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