If readers ever wonder what the most significant developments in the history of Geneva/Lake Geneva were over its 182-year history, this column and my next column will, hopefully alleviate their curiosity. I have selected 20 of the most significant developments in the village/city’s history. Eight of these developments occurred during the 19th century, and 12 occurred during the 20th and 2lst centuries.
The first significant development occurred at the onset of Geneva’s history in 1837. In that year, the Irish-born surveyor Thomas McKaig began laying out a plat of what would eventually become Geneva. The central core of the City of Lake Geneva today essentially corresponds to the plat that Thomas McKaig laid out for the seven founders of Lake Geneva. His plat extended from North Street to Main Street and from Maxwell Street to Sage and Mill streets. A southeast “tail” of his plat encompassed today’s Flat Iron Park, Seminary Park, and Willow, Wells, Cass, Baker, and Campbell streets. McKaig’s plat included two public squares, which are today’s Maple Park and Seminary Park, and a block for a cemetery at the far northwestern corner of the plat, which today is Pioneer Cemetery.
The second significant development in Lake Geneva’s history is the development of numerous additions to McKaig’s original plat. These included the Andrew Ferguson’s and Harrison Rich’s additions (ca. 1852), extending, respectively, from North Street to just north of Henry Street between Madison and Williams streets and from North Street to just north of Henry Street between Williams and Center streets. The next addition to Geneva was the Erasmus Darwin Phillips addition (ca. 1856), extending from the railroad tracks east to today’s Curtis Street south of Main Street on “Catholic Hill.”
It was not until 1875 that the next addition to Geneva was developed, the Crawford addition platted by the owners of the Crawford Manufacturing Company. It comprised the land between Water Street on the south to what is today’s Interchange street on the north and from Center Street on the west to the White River on the east, an area that today is the entire northeastern section of the city. It is still referred to as “the Crawford.” At about the same time (the early 1870s), the Fernando Marsh addition to Geneva was platted. This addition was one block long between Dodge Street and the northern edge of the Pioneer Cemetery and extended three blocks west between the Pioneer Cemetery and Fremont Avenue. It included the 500 blocks of Maxwell Street, Franklin Avenue, Jefferson Avenue, and Fremont Avenue.
Because of adverse economic times in the United States, it would not be until 1893 that the next addition to Lake Geneva would be platted. This was the Columbian addition, named after the World’s Columbian Exposition (World’s Fair), which was held in Chicago in 1893 along the “Midway Plaisance,” just south of the newly-founded University of Chicago. The Columbian addition extended north of the Pioneer Cemetery to today’s Pleasant Street and from Madison Street west to today’s Clover Street. It included Park Row, which was modeled after the “Midway Plaisance” at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
There would be no more additions to Lake Geneva during the following half-century until the development of the Manor subdivision in the early 1940s along the shore of Geneva Lake south of Main Street on land that had been owned by Levi Leiter, the co-founder of the Marshall Field department store in Chicago. Leiter’s oldest daughter, Mary, was one of two models for the character of “Cora” in the PBS series “Downton Abbey,” who was portrayed by the actress, Elizabeth McGovern.
At the beginning of the 1950s, the Lake Geneva businessman Clarke Habecker (the co-owner of the Habecker and Derrick Funeral Home) developed the subdivision of Sturwood, which was named after one of the three Sturges brothers, Buckingham Sturges (the other two were George and Shelton Sturges). Buckingham Sturges had owned the property which became Sturwood. His mansion, a part of which survived a fire, still exists in Sturwood.
It was not until the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century that many other additions to Lake Geneva were developed, far too many to note here except for “Stone Ridge,” located on the east side of the Center Street hill at the northern edge of Lake Geneva. Many of the homes constructed in “Stone Ridge,” have commanding views of Geneva Lake.
The third significant development in Lake Geneva’s history occurred in July 1871. In that year, the railroad connection between Chicago and Geneva was restored. The railroad from Chicago to Geneva had first reached Geneva in 1856, but the rail connection lasted only until 1859 when poor track caused it to cease operation. Twelve years elapsed before rail service was restored in 1871. The restored rail connection ensured that Lake Geneva would be within Chicago’s economic, social, and cultural sphere.
The fourth significant development in Lake Geneva’s history occurred not in Geneva, but 72 miles to the southeast. This was the Great Chicago Fire of October 8, 1871, which destroyed much of the center of Chicago. The Great Chicago Fire prompted many wealthy Chicagoans to avail themselves of the newly restored railroad connection between Chicago and Geneva and to purchase land on the shores of Geneva Lake upon which they had summer cottages (i.e. mansions) built. As a result, the non-descript small midwestern village of Geneva became the focal point of the summer homes of wealthy Chicagoans, and thus was transformed during the summers into the “Newport of the West,” the midwestern version of Newport, Rhode Island, the summer home of wealthy New Yorkers.
The fifth significant development in Lake Geneva’s history was the construction, in 1873, of the Metropolitan building at the southeast corner of Broad and Main streets, known today as the “Landmark Center.” It is the only major building still extant in Lake Geneva designed by the famous architect, William Le Baron Jenney. The developers of the Metropolitan building were the Civil War veteran Dwight Sidney Allen and his partner, Hiram Curtis, the son of Geneva pioneer Lewis Curtis, for whom Curtis Street is named. Constructed of brick, it was the first three-story building in Geneva. The construction of the Metropolitan building was shortly followed by the construction of the other three-story building in Geneva’s downtown business district, the Walker Block (later known as the Trinke building) at the northwest corner of Main and Center streets. The Metropolitan building and the Walker Block were the first steps taken in transforming Geneva’s downtown business district from an array of nondescript wooden buildings into an impressive row of substantial brick buildings that today is a National Historic District. The Landmark Center/Metropolitan Building is on the register of National Historic sites. Over the years, the Landmark Center/Metropolitan building housed many significant businesses, including the Lake Geneva Herald, a predecessor of the Lake Geneva Regional News, the Hotel Clare, and a portion of the Schultz Brothers Variety (“dime”) store. Located in the building’s basement was Lazzaroni’s Clare Lanes bowling alley, which for decades was one of Lake Geneva’s social centers.
The sixth important development in Lake Geneva’s history was the creation in 1880 of the Oak Hill Cemetery. Designed by the well-known landscape architect H.W.S. Cleveland, Oak Hill Cemetery became the final resting place of many wealthy 19th century Chicagoans, including, among others, Shelton Sturges and Richard T. Crane, the founder of the Crane Plumbing Manufacturing firm, as well as generations of residents of Lake Geneva. Oak Hill Cemetery has been nominated as a National Historic site.
The seventh significant development in Lake Geneva’s history was the donation to the city of Lake Geneva of the land south of Geneva Lake’s outlet which became Flat Iron Park, named for its shape, which resembles a flat iron. In Flat Iron Park today is the Brunk Pavilion, where the city’s Memorial Day commemoration is held. It is also the site of the famous Andy Gump statue, which is a tribute to the Chicago Tribune comics character created by Sidney Smith, who resided on Geneva Lake’s south shore. Funds for the “Three Graces” statue in Flat Iron Park was donated to the city in 1916 by the indomitable suffragist Reinette Lester McCrea, who with her first husband, John Lester, owned the Blacktoft estate on Geneva Lake’s north shore. Unfortunately Reinette Lester McCrea died three years before the passage of the 19th amendment to the U.S Constitution, which secured women’s right to vote in 1919. For many years, Flat Iron Park has also been the site of music concerts and carnivals during the summers, including the Venetian Week Carnival in August.
The eighth significant development in Lake Geneva’s history was the donation to the city in 1894 by Mary Delafield Sturges of her house (that was built in 1859 by Asa W. Farr) as the first Lake Geneva Public Library. Not only did she donate her house to become the home for the public library, but also all of the land that she owned surrounding it, which became Lake Geneva’s Library Park overlooking Geneva Lake.
In my next column, I will review 12 more of the 20 most important developments in Lake Geneva’s history, developments that occurred during the 20th and 21st centuries.
Quinn is a Lake Geneva native who is the University Archivist Emeritus at Northwestern University.