LAKE GENEVA: A party place grows up

Tribune staff reporter

It's changing here too.

For the better? For the most part. But there's a tug--and we'll get to that a little later.For sure, Lake Geneva is on a roll. It's surrounded by booming development on its edges that's beginning to ease closer to town, for one thing. For another, the semi-historically significant downtown is full of shoppers and full of flowers, and there was a time not long ago when it was full of neither.

"We're spending about a hundred grand a year making the town look good," says George Hennerley, longtime executive vice president of both the Chamber of Commerce and the Convention & Visitors Bureau. "Because while the lake is a wonderful asset, it should not be the asset. It should be a asset."

Yes, there's more here than that deep, blue puddle, especially if the search goes a little beyond the corporate limits: great golf, some excellent places to eat, the above-mentioned shopping, rustic roads (officially designated, by the Wisconsin tourism people, "Rustic Roads"), farm stands and what every community needs: its own observatory.

But Hennerley is wrong. The lake is "the" asset. The rest is details.

The lake is what drew the Potawatomi here. Later, it drew the powerful and prosperous--various Swifts, one Smyth, an Allerton and a Wacker and assorted Wrigleys. The original Marshall Field didn't settle in here, but his original retailing partner did.

(A major incentive for the major-money people: the Great Chicago Fire. The elite had to meet and greet somewhere while their homes and businesses were being rebuilt after October 1871. And there was a train up from the ruins. Eventually the moguls built mansions, and many of them--the mansions, not the moguls--are still around.)

Some years later, Lake Geneva began drawing young, beer-swilling Fourth of July revelers who, in 1967, turned into young, beer-swilling rioters. Today's analysts differ on what ignited the fun--fun, because evidently there were no serious injuries--but the National Guard had to be called into quelling duty.

"There were like 15,000 to 20,000 young people from all over the country who came here," says Helen Brandt, curator of the Geneva Lake Museum of History. "It seemed like one basic party.

"I don't know if it was in response to the Vietnam War, but one of the things they destroyed was the Andy Gump statue. They smashed it to smithereens."

Gotta love Wisconsin. Iraqis smash Saddam statues. In Lake Geneva, in the heat of wartime, they smash statues of comic-strip characters.

Coincidentally, a year after Andy was turned to powder, Lake Geneva drew Hugh Hefner, and that, of course, settled down everybody.

The Lake Geneva Playboy Hotel and Country Club would wither, change owners and names, and continue to deteriorate (since 1994 it's been the Grand Geneva Resort, huge now and in all respects first-rate); nonetheless, Lake Geneva was forever transformed.

From a small town with bars, some motels, the odd castle and a lake, it was now on the way to becoming a year-round vacation destination for grownups as well as for kid-toting families, leftover thirsty collegians and remnant society types.

The constant: the Lake.

Which isn't Lake Geneva.

"It is actually Geneva Lake," insists Brandt. "I am very strong on that.

"Because in 1835, when the surveyor John Brink (the name as published has been corrected in this text) from New York state came here and saw the beauty of the lake, it reminded him so much of Seneca Lake, near Geneva, N.Y. So it became Geneva Lake, and it's on all the maps."

Over the next 170 years, that's never really caught on . . .

"Well," she scowls, though sweetly, "a lot of people just call it Lake Geneva--but I correct them as often as I can."

Geneva Lake, by any name (and our Official Office Geographical Dictionary says it's "Lake Geneva," but we love Brandt's explanation so much . . .), could hardly have looked more lusciously blue than it does today.

To be able to see boats, white sails full, sliding across its surface on a perfect summer afternoon against a deep-green backdrop is to be grateful. Just grateful.

Certainly its beaches have never been cleaner.

"They didn't groom them on a regular basis," says Hennerley. "Now we groom them."

There are places to stay, from big hotels (another grand old resort, the 42-year-old Abbey, which had badly faded, has just reopened with shocking splendor) to bed-and-breakfasts. There are things to do, most of them gentle: A hike around the lake's perimeter, past those big houses, is a unique treat. There is plenty to eat. Hennerley, who plays them all, says there are 22 golf courses within 20 minutes, several of them terrific.

And now: the but.

For generations, even as the wealthy toasted the sunsets in gated exclusivity, Lake Geneva was where ordinary Chicago folks could drive up and spend a few days with the kids by the water. Lunches were picnics. For dinner, it was portable grills for hot dogs and burgers. The beer was domestic.

They stayed overnight, if they stayed, in one of the motels or little cottages along Wells Street on the eastern edge of downtown.

The old billboard is still there: "Lodging on Wells. Two miles of motels."

The motels are vanishing.

"They're just pushing everybody out of there," says Karen Wydra, innkeeper at a B&B that charges nearly $200 a night and doesn't allow kids.

"Where's a middle-income family going to go? Truly sad."

Glenn Kelley runs, and has a stake in, the Alpine Motel on Wells Street. His cottages go for $99 a night, which is relatively high-end for the strip.

"There was a motel down on the right," he says. "Turned into townhomes, 50 and older. The one on the other side of me, that was bought by a developer, and they're putting up, I think, four-plexes and single family. They're building townhomes all over the place."

The Alpine?

"It's for sale."

There's a hint of melancholy in his voice--but only a hint. Kelley's other job is with an Oak Brook-based developer.

"We're putting up 96 townhomes," he says. "Across the field from us, they're putting up almost 200 apartments.

"I've lived up here most of my life, and it's just amazing how much it's changed over the last 10 years."

For the better?

"It depends on who you are."

Which is as good a time as any for this: A few weeks ago, my wife and I bought a home about 5 miles west of Lake Geneva, as an investment. It will be years before we move in. We have no idea what the town will be like then.

We know downtown traffic continues to be an issue and, despite some contingency plans, probably still will be.

"Most of our townspeople know better than to go anywhere on the weekend," Brandt says. "If they do, they go out really early in the morning or real late at night."

"The complaints we get," Hennerley counters, "are from locals who are used to a Tuesday in February. The guy from Chicago, he says, `Traffic? What traffic?'"

We're guessing Andy Gump will still be here, in the park. A replacement Gump, whose strip--commissioned by the Tribune in 1917 and drawn by Sidney Smith, who had two homes here--was smithereened in 1959, didn't stay long. The current Andy is the fourth.

"This one is wired to an alarm system," says Hennerley. It's also fiberglass. "We have a mold, so if it's ever stolen again, we can have another one made real quick. Mass-produced Andy, y'know?"

The Riviera, where Big Bands made music and dancers dreamed in the 1930s and '40s, will still stand, though not with Wayne King's waltzes making dancers swoon. The tour boats will still be leaving its docks.

And the lake. The lake will still be Geneva.

For all, somehow, no matter what develops, to enjoy.

- - -



North on Interstate Highway 94 to Wisconsin Highway 50, then west into town; or U.S. Highway 12 (Rand Road) northwest to the town's east edge at Wisconsin 50, then west. About 80 miles; figure a little less than 2 hours.


A mix of mostly smallish hotels, variable motels (including a cluster of lower-priced mom-and-pops on Wells Street), a bunch of B&Bs, and resorts around Geneva Lake and Lake Como offering a variety of amenities, including spas.

Many require minimum stays, especially on weekends; all rates subject to change, and are typically lower on weekdays and (if open) during the off-season.

At hotels and resorts, ask about packages, and check their Internet sites for specials.

A sampling: The gone-shabby Abbey, in Fontana, reopened this season after a 5 1/2-month, $40 million makeover and is once again a jewel. The sprawling Grand Geneva Resort, which began life in 1968 as a Playboy playground, then faded, is a quality destination once again, especially for quality golfers; a related property, Timber Ridge Lodge and Waterpark, goes for the well-heeled Dells crowd. Geneva Inn is a handsome midsize hotel with terrific lake views and fine dining. West of town on Lake Como, the French Country Inn is a nice, well-established getaway (see If You Could Have Only One Meal, below).

Convenient to downtown and the water, three suite hotels: the Cove, Mill Creek and Bella Vista; in the mix, the more typical Best Western Harbor Shores; and, a bit farther but in range, a brand new Comfort Suites. Among the many interesting B&Bs, three with backstories: Waters-Edge, with historic links to mobster George "Bugs" Moran; the Lazy Cloud, with historic links to Paul Newman; and the Eleven Gables Inn (c. 1847), first B&B on Geneva Lake.


Something for all, along with the essential burgers/wings/pizza/ribs/beer joints. Just about everyone eventually gets to big, busy Popeye's (no relation to the chicken chain), with its expansive TGI Friday's-type menu (plus rotisserie meats) and glimpses of the lake.

Next door and less frenetic, Scuttlebutts has some Swedish dinner plates but is especially pleasant for breakfast (Swedish pancakes, of course). Speaking of breakfast (and lunch; no dinner): Locals adore igloo-shaped Daddy Maxwell's in Williams Bay, and they should. Some of the food (the she-crab soup is a winner) and all the ambience at Red Geranium are better than its location would suggest--between a Wal-Mart and Home Depot on a busy stretch of Wisconsin 50. The dining is fine and the view is grand (especially the sunsets) at the Grandview, in the Geneva Inn.

Colleagues adore the elegant tables and creative (largely organic) offerings at dressy Gilbert's, around the bend and light years away from Popeye's. Expect quality these days from the multiple choices at Grand Geneva and the Abbey. The stand-alone Hunt Club (steaks, seafood, duck) at the eastern edge of Geneva National has an appealing coziness--but for lovers of Wisconsin supper clubs, right down to the relish tray, Friday fish fry and weekend prime rib special, Anthony's Steak House is like visiting an old friend.


Kirsch's, in the French Country Inn (262-245-5756; Exciting food--call it Hawaiian (already a cultural mix) edged in French--served with zero pretense in a lakeside atmosphere that feels like you're on vacation. Isn't that the idea?


Real good. Clean, calm, safe beaches, plus boat rides and plenty of ice cream and fudge.


Contact the Geneva Lake Area Chamber of Commerce & Lake Geneva Area CVB, 800-345-1020;

-- Alan Solomon

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