Many locals and tourists who view the Riviera understandably have the impression that the building has been here forever. The magnificent building that sits like a crown at the head of Geneva Bay is so formidable that is exudes a sense of timelessness. But looks are deceptive and so they are in the instance of the Riviera.
In 2013 the Riviera is celebrating its 80th anniversary as a fully functioning building. Although constructed in just five months during 1932, it did not become fully operational until the summer of 1933. I recall that when my mother first took me to the Riviera in 1944, I thought it was a palace. It was clearly the most impressive building that my youthful eyes had ever seen. And I, of course, being a small child, had no reason to believe that the Riviera had not always been there, even though it had been built just 10 years before I was born.
The construction of the Riviera in 1932 was probably one of the most significant things to ever have happened in Lake Geneva. The Lake Geneva News Tribune, one of the predecessors of the Lake Geneva Regional News, carried stories every week about the progress of the construction of the Riviera. Each story usually referred to the building under construction as the $55,000 recreation building.
When considering the construction of the Riviera, two questions come immediately to mind. How was it that in the midst of the Great Depression, which began with the crash of the stock market on Oct. 29, 1929, Lake Geneva was able to conceive of and build the Riviera? And how was the Riviera constructed so quickly in just five months?
The answer to the first question is that the Riviera did not cost the taxpayers of Lake Geneva anything. The construction of the Riviera was financed by the sale of 200 bonds at $500 a bond. Secondly, the construction of the Riviera was intended to relieve unemployment in Lake Geneva, which was acute at the time, and to draw tourists to the city as well as to serve as a recreation facility for the city’s residents. And, thirdly, the citizens of Lake Geneva overwhelmingly supported the concept of constructing the Riviera.
As to how the Riviera was constructed so quickly, one need only consider the high quality of workers in the construction trades — carpenters, masons, bricklayers, painters, plasterers, electricians, tile setters, sheet metal workers and construction laborers. Most had developed their skills over a long period of time constructing the lake shore mansions of Chicago millionaires as well as homes and business buildings in Lake Geneva.
One of the key provisions of the decision authoring the construction of the Riviera was that workers living in Lake Geneva be given the highest priority in the hiring process. That provision, of course, was intended to address the critical unemployment situation, but it also functioned to employ very skilled tradesmen.
Prominent citizens of Lake Geneva had conceived of building the Riviera in 1931, knowing that it would serve to draw tourists to Lake Geneva, meet the leisure needs of local residents and alleviate the terrible unemployment situation in the city. They persuaded the Lake Geneva City Council to place a referendum on the ballot in January 1932 allowing Lake Geneva citizens to vote on the issuance of bonds to finance the Riviera’s construction. On Jan. 19, 1932, the referendum was held and the citizens of Lake Geneva approved the issuance of bonds by a vote of 842 to 340. The “yes” vote carried each of the city’s three wards by a 3-1 margin. Also on the ballot was a referendum to issue $15,000 in bonds to rebuild the city’s street lighting system, which was approved by a vote of 878 to 298. In 2013 dollars, the amount of bonds voters approved to finance construction of the Riviera would be $1,336,718.15.
Only six days later, on Jan. 25, a committee formed to oversee the construction of the Riviera and selected a site for the building. It was to be on the lake at the foot of Broad Street, where the lake steamer docks were then located. The committee also appointed a superintendent for the construction project, Frank Lowry. Lowry had been a member of the Lake Geneva City Council, but resigned from the council to accept the position of superintendent. In February, the committee hired an architect to design the building, James Roy “Jack” Allen, who worked in Chicago, but lived in a house in Lake Geneva on Wisconsin Street where the contemporary Lake Geneva architect Ken Etten now lives.
Because the construction of the Riviera was to be a comprehensive project, it also included the creation of a new beach west of where the Riviera was to be built. The then-existing beach was pathetically small (only 200 feet long and 10 feet wide) and it lacked a sufficient amount of sand. It was proposed that a new beach be constructed, extending for 400 feet and to be 60 feet wide, with a sand bottom extending six feet into the lake.
Work on building the beach began on March 2. The city had purchased a lot on the far north side of the city with ample sand under it. By the beginning of March, 1,149 cubic yards of sand had been dumped on the beach and in the lake. Fortunately February had been a warm and snowless month that allowed the construction project to begin early.
By March 10, the last of the bonds had been sold. On March 29, the local construction firm of (Herman) Malsch and (Edward) Reinert had been hired to build the foundation for the Riviera. Malsch and Reinert had built the “new” Lake Geneva High School at Wisconsin and Madison streets in 1929. On April 11, the first steel piles for the retaining wall surrounding where the foundation for the Riviera would be built were driven into the lake. The new beach had been completed, except for the leveling of the sand. Six thousand cubic feet of sand had been placed on the beach or shoved into the lake to a depth of six feet. On April 28, Malsch and Reinert’s workers began laying the forms for the building’s foundation. They had contracted to finish the job in 35 days. A “deep sea diver” had been fastening together strips of steel under the water to hold the steel piles together.
On May 16, a 12-hour work day was introduced to speed the work. Thirty-two carpenters and masons worked in two six-hour shifts from 6 a.m. to noon and from noon to 6 p.m. to complete the foundation. On May 29 the first brick of the building was laid. Seventy-five thousand bricks were used in constructing the Riviera. By the middle of May, 48 tradesmen were working on the building, including masons, bricklayers, laborers and one carpenter. In early June, contracts were made with local Lake Geneva firms for plumbing, electrical, roofing and sheet metal work. When the bricks were all laid, the foundation area was filled with stone and 1,000 cubic yards of sand. By this time, the Lake Geneva News Tribune was referring to the Riviera as the “recreation building.”
By June 16, work had begun on 27 cement pillars to support the building’s second floor. They would support 20 tons of reinforcing steel plus the cement floor and the maple wood dance floor to be laid down on top of the cement. Work on the second floor was completed on June 24. Bricklayers began laying bricks for the second floor. The steel supports for the roof were being erected as were four towers, one in each corner of the building. Twenty-eight cement pillars on the outside of the second floor helped support the roof.
On Tuesday, June 21, 1932, the only major accident during the construction of the Riviera occurred. The southeast corner of the second floor caved in and three construction workers fell through a gaping hole onto the first floor along with tons of concrete, lumber and reinforcing rods. Among the three workers was Hank Malsch, the father of longtime Lake Geneva resident, Muriel Malsch. Fortunately, the three construction workers, while badly shaken up and bruised, escaped serious injury.
On July 12, the tiles were placed on the roof and the final pouring of concrete for the first floor would begin shortly. Around July 16, James Leeson of Beloit, together with a group of Beloit and Chicago investors, leased the building. During the second week of August, most of the work on the building was completed, including the installation of the windows, 36 exterior columns and glazed tile walls. Also being constructed were three piers extending from the Riviera into the lake on the building’s south side.
During August, a contest was held to select a name for the new $55,000 “recreation” building. The winner was Violette A. Fenner of Lake Geneva. The name she selected was not the Riviera; it was the “Harbor Light.” However, the contest’s judges decided instead to name the new building the “Northport.” They nonetheless awarded Violette Fenner the prize for winning the contest.
On August 26 the maple dance floor (in the second floor ballroom) was laid down. The final pouring of concrete on the first floor was completed and yellow tile was placed on the first floor’s walls.
On Thursday, Sept. 1, 1932, the new “Northport” was informally opened with 1,000 people in attendance. Ralph Williams and his Chicago orchestra were the entertainment. The “Northport” remained opened over the Labor Day weekend. After Labor Day, work continued to complete the project. During the last months of 1932 and the early months of 1933, another contest to name the new building was held and Mrs. Hobart Smith of Lake Geneva won the contest with the name “Riviera.” On Monday, May 22, 1933, the Riviera was formally dedicated. The headline performer at the dedication dance was the famous band leader Wayne King, the “Waltz King,” and his orchestra. Tickets for the event were $1 per person.
During this year, 2013, the 80th anniversary of the formal opening of the Riviera, residents of Lake Geneva, as well as thousands of tourists, owe a great debt to the foresight of a generation of Lake Genevans eight decades ago that included Mayor Sturges P. Taggart Sr., Ralph Bucknall, Frank Lowry, A.G. Bullock, Dr. T.H. Ferguson, E.F. Dunn, the Rev. H.J. Diehl, Edward Dunn Jr., Clark Habecker, Hoyt Mullen, Solon Smith, Paul Smith, George Ebbesen and A.G. Lawrie.
And an equally great debt is owed to the nameless masons, bricklayers, carpenters, electricians, painters, plumbers, plasterers, sheet metal workers and laborers who built the Riviera, one of whom was my uncle, Tom J. Wardingle.