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Wright Studies
Lake Geneva Hotel, Lake Geneva, WI (1911) (S.171)

(Note, due to the fact that the internet is constantly changing, and items that
are posted change, I have copied excerpts of the text, but give all the credits available.)


A Study of the Prairie School architectural designs on Geneva and Delavan Lakes, Wisconsin (structural and landscape; residential and commercial)

John K. Notz, Jr.

Delivered to
The Chicago Literary Club
October 7, 1996

Excerpts from Web Page.

With respect to Wright himself, I identified, in addition to his several Delavan Lake residences, the 1912 hotel in the Town of Lake Geneva (demolished in 1969) and the lovely (but demolished in 1915) little original 1902 Delavan Lake Yacht Club on its South Shore, not far from those five residences. I know of no other structure claimed to be a Wright design on Delavan Lake other than parts of its Delavan Lake Country Club clubhouse, which clubhouse I believe to have been a Spencer , not a Wright design. While I have seen references to two extant residences on Geneva Lake having been designed by Wright, I have concluded that neither is a Wright design; both are discussed in more detail hereinafter. I know of no extant or demolished Wright design on Geneva Lake other that his 1912 hotel.

In his Preface to "Sticks & Stones", Lewis Mumford also stated:

". . . Mr. Wright's style has turned its back on the whole world of engineering: . . . Mr. Wright's designs are the very products of the prairie, in their low-lying horizontal lines, in their flat roofs, while, at the same time, they defy the neutral gray or black or red of the engineering structure by their colors and ornament." (at p. 181)

Much of this is true with respect to Wright's several Delavan Lake residences, and it is exactly true with respect to his Lake Geneva hotel. (A list of those structures reflecting owner and construction date is attached hereto.) Much has been written of the several Delavan Lake residences, all on South Lake Drive. The surprise to me was his 1902 Delavan Lake Yacht Club, of which I was unaware, until I saw a reference to it in a catalogue for a 1992 exhibit at The Milwaukee Art Museum. All of these structures were constructed on property developed by one Henry Wallis, a realtor of Oak Park, IL, who had recommended Wright to his buyers. Jones, the one of them for whom Wright designed the best and most elaborate, as well as its separate gatehouse and boathouse, appears to have been a relative of Wright; Jones' "Penwern" was renamed "Robbinswood" by Burr L. Robbins of Chicago, the next owner; its boathouse has been destroyed by fire. Its gatehouse is, now, a separately-owned residence. Adjacent to "Penwern, to the East is a well-designed residence in the Style of Frank Lloyd Wright, by Brian Spencer of The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation.

The original 1902 yacht club structure, of which there is a photograph and a drawing in the recent Centennial book of the Delavan Lake Yacht Club and in Carla Lind's "Lost Wright" (1996), was demolished in 1915; it is said that parts of it were incorporated into the clubhouse of the 1915 Delavan Lake Country Club, as it was being built. Nothing remains of the yacht club structure. The Delavan Lake Country Club, reflected in old postcards, is an exceedingly graceful design. Prof. Brooks has written me to the effect that, of all the Prairie School architects, its designer is most likely to have been Robert Spencer. By 1940, its operations impaired by The Great Depression and the coming World War II, it closed; its members were absorbed by the Lake Geneva Country Club; and its golf course was converted into a quite mediocre subdivision. What remains of the golf clubhouse, is a ghost of itself - a nondescript private residence, barely identifiable as having been the core of the substantial attractive structure that it, once, was.

With respect to the Wright-designed hotel in Lake Geneva (per Patrick J. Meehan, a Milwaukee-area architect whose principal source has been the same as mine, the Lake Geneva area local weekly newspapers) Wright was engaged in 1911 to design a hotel, to replace the former Whiting House, which had been destroyed by fire in July, 1894, after some 20 years of operation. (When I, now, read of such fires, I recall one of the local Geneva Lake historians saying to me, "John, that's how people, in those days, got rid of buildings that they no longer wanted." While a January fire would have been more suspicious than one in July, even the Geneva Lake area had been greatly affected by The Financial Panic of 1893, and bookings for 1894 may have been too sparse to warrant continuing operation of the hotel.)

In the interim between 1894 and 1911, the local Lake Geneva papers reported several attempts to assemble groups of investors for the purpose of building a new, modern hotel on the site of The Whiting House - most notably the group consisting of several of the most prominent Chicago owners of lake shore property that was to use the architectural design services of the then locally famous and fashionable Henry Lord Gay. Gay's death in 1905 probably ended that venture. No progress was made until one John J. Williams, who had, recently, developed a hotel in nearby Waukesha, WI, was attracted by two local Lake Geneva businessmen. Williams associated himself with Arthur L. Richards of Milwaukee; the latter's "Artistic Building Company" became the developer of what has, variously, been called "The Geneva", the "Lake Geneva Hotel" and "The Geneva Inn". The hotel was operational for the 1912 season.

Postcards exist that reflect Wright's "rendering" of the Lake Geneva hotel; they reflect a structure rather different that what was, actually, built; the rendering shows a several story tower of bedrooms at the East end of the structure; that tower was never built. Had it been built, the structure may have been given greater recognition than the mediocrity status that has been accorded it. The likely reason for the deletion of the tower was the reputation for significant cost underestimates and cost overruns that were typical of Wright's work for private clients.

On the other hand, since, in 1911, simultaneous with his contracting to design a hotel for the Lake Geneva site, Richards had retained Wright for the construction of houses to be sold under the name of "American Building System" which were being built as late as 1916, it is likely that, by the time of its construction, the hotel development was no longer controlled by Richards. By 1911-1912, Wright had deserted his family in Oak Park, and his mind was likely to have been on other things, such as Tokyo's Imperial Hotel. I am told by one of my Lake Geneva informants that whoever actually constructed the hotel took Wright's plans and built what they chose to build, without Wright's supervision, and Wright had to sue to collect his fee.

Whatever, in the 1920's, the Lake Geneva hotel was in its hey-day. It is said that, during the Prohibition that started in 1919 and lasted into the early 1930's, tunnels into the basements of nearby storefront buildings facilitated the movement of "booze" for consumption into the hotel and, when raids for Prohibition violations or gambling took place, the movement of customers out. While there are denials of that kind of activity in the local written histories such as the now defunct "Lake Geneva Magazine", such activities are more than plausible, as I have been told of biplane landings in the Winter on the frozen lake surface, for the purpose of picking up "booze" from the lake shore residences. (I have a copy of a photograph of one such biplane, on the lake ice, that was a Christmas card of a well-known Lake Geneva/Lake Forest family.)

The end of the Lake Geneva hotel was sad. A long-time operator-owner sold it, vacant, in 1962 but had to take it back in 1965 - selling it, again, in 1966. At that time, it is said to have existed only for its bar, no provision for which was in the 1911 plans by Wright. One Eric Johnson of Williams Bay, WI - then an architectural student - spent a Summer vacation measuring, cataloguing and sketching all of the hotel's panels, bricks and window sills - all for naught, as the structure was razed in October, 1969; the Wright- designed artifacts in and about the structure were dispersed by sale, gift and theft. Johnson, himself, is said to have referred to the structure as "exhausted". In 1972, an eye-sore condominium structure that, soon, bankrupted its general contractor, and was taken over by its bank lender, took its place. The 1996 catalogue of the Frank Lloyd Wright Home & Studio Foundation contains an aluminum magazine rack bearing the "Frank Lloyd Wright Lake Geneva Tulip" - presumably modeled after a window design in the Lake Geneva Hotel.

In Delavan's Aram Public Library, I was directed to an extensive clipping file created by a local Frank Lloyd Wright "buff" that had been accessioned into the library's own clipping collection. Everything therein confirmed my belief that the only Prairie School designs on either Geneva Lake or Delavan Lake properly attributed to Wright are the Lake Geneva hotel, the several residences on the South Shore of Delavan Lake and the Delavan Lake Yacht Club. The oldest source document found there by me was a 1954 listing titled "Buildings by Wright in Six Middle Western States" prepared at the then Burnham Library of Architecture (now part of the Ryerson-Burnham Libraries) at The Art Institute of Chicago; it, Visser's analyses of Wright's works and the list of executed Wright designs in William Allin Storrer's "The Frank Lloyd Wright Companion" (1992) are consistent in this regard.




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