By Jim McClure | Photos by Lauren Harrigan, courtesy of Jolan Deeley, Lake Geneva Public Library
There’s a certain timelessness to summers spent on Geneva Lake, especially for those who live in the many clubs, neighborhoods and subdivisions with shared lake access. Some of these are so petite that they contain only a single road, which allows access to all of the homes in the club. These single-lane neighborhoods may be small in size, but they tend to engender a tight-knit sense of community among neighbors. Often, families remain for generations.
So it is with the Lake Geneva Club, founded in 1922 and located on the lake’s south shore, not far from the Lake Geneva Yacht Club. From South Shore Drive, you’ll recognize the entrance by its classic sign and the presence of a small market, which has provided necessities since the neighborhood’s earliest days. (New owners will re-open the market this summer under the name Big Foot Market.) In many ways, life in the Lake Geneva Club has changed little over the past 100 years, making it an exceptional example of classic Lake Geneva life circa the early- to mid-20th century.
The land that makes up the Lake Geneva Club, like much of the land on either side of it, was originally part of a large and expansive estate owned by Edward Norton, co-owner of the Norton Brothers’ Can Company in Chicago and a contemporary of prominent Geneva Lake summer residents Charles L. Hutchinson and R.T. Crane, among others. Norton commissioned the estate in 1895 from prolific architect Henry Lord Gay and named it Our Home. In this time before paved roadways, Norton and his family arrived by train in Williams Bay on the opposite side of the lake from the estate. Williams Bay’s lakefront and municipal pier served as the launching point of steam yachts, which would take train passengers like Norton to their respective mansions and cottages.
Arriving at “Our Home,” the Nortons’ 60-foot yacht, Little Tycoon, landed at the property’s elaborate stone boathouse pavilion on the lakeshore, built at the same time as the house and also designed by Gay. Disembarking, the family followed a stone fence up the gentle slope of the property to the main home, which was built as a variation of a Colonial style with a large, wraparound porch supported by a stone foundation that matched the boathouse. Unfortunately, the estate only lasted about 10 years; the main home burned in 1905 after the Norton family had moved to New York.
THE LAKE GENEVA CLUB
By 1922, the land that had made up Our Home was subdivided, and a portion was sold to a developer who named it the “Lake Geneva Club.” The vast majority of the homes in the small subdivision were built between 1922 and 1930, after which time the Great Depression brought businesses, fortunes and new construction to a halt. With rare exceptions, these charming cottages were not built for winter residence; only the hardiest owners would venture to Geneva Lake from Chicago in the colder months. Owners of the cottages that were built in the Lake Geneva Club tended to give their summer homes creative names (a modern holdover is “While-Away”), with colorful signage greeting visitors and passersby.
Many of the 32 homes that today make up the Lake Geneva Club still bear their original 1920s architecture, a design many Chicagoans would recognize as a familiar cousin of the ubiquitous bungalow, but with an airier, lake cottage feeling. Many feature a front door located through a broad and deep front porch, second-floor dormer windows and a low-slung roofline.
Present day owner Annie Roberts is a longtime resident of the Lake Geneva Club, and owns one year-round home and one summer-only home. She is still one of the few year-round residents of the Lake Geneva Club. “We love winter and everything about the change of season,” says Roberts, who recalls an era when colder winters meant that iceboating was a season-long experience. Summer only residents in the Lake Geneva Club prefer soft-water sailing at the nearby Lake Geneva Yacht Club, as well as water skiing, wakesurfing and other modern diversions.
The variety of activity at the Lake Geneva Club still appeals to Jolan Deeley, a longtime resident of the neighborhood and organizer of last summer’s neighborhood centennial celebration.
Jolan’s husband, Bill, grew up in the Lake Geneva Club. His father served in the United States Army during WWII and fought in the infantry, carrying his rifle on a march through Europe that started in Italy after Mussolini’s surrender. “He landed at Anzio and fought his way toward Germany,” says Bill. “I can’t say much more about it because he would never talk about it.” Returning stateside, the elder Deeley turned to Geneva Lake to provide a healing balm to his soul and a summer community for his family, purchasing a home in the Lake Geneva Club in the 1960s. “My parents met in the area,” Bill notes. “They decided that they wanted their children to have that experience [of summers on the lake].”
Bill and Jolan Deeley purchased his childhood house from his mother in 1980, and both agree it was like finding a time machine. “It was untouched by the passage of time,” Bill laughs. It was also unheated. “Most lake cottages didn’t have heat,” he explains. The couple set about updating the home, and they were so thorough that almost nothing of the original house remains today. The new version is more modern but still modest, in keeping with the character of the neighborhood. They also enshrined the original version of the home by commissioning a mailbox in its likeness. “The mailbox in front of our cottage is an exact replica of Bill’s childhood cottage,” Jolan explains.
CELEBRATING A CENTENNIAL
Because of her family’s deep connection and long history in the neighborhood, Jolan Deeley volunteered to organize the club’s centennial celebration last summer, choosing the theme “Then and Now.” She began by gathering dozens of vintage family photos from current and former residents, with the intention of displaying them at the neighborhood’s annual summer party. The photos she collected span the history of the Lake Geneva Club, many scanned from old-fashioned family photo albums or dug out of drawers where they had been gathering dust. The handwritten labels date back at least as far as 1945, but some of the photos appear even older, with summer revelers dressed in classic fashions of the 1920s and ‘30s.
Perhaps the most captivating snapshots, no doubt shot with a handy portable Kodak camera colloquially known as a “Brownie,” show scenes from the neighborhood in the period just after World War II. Children attempting backflips into the lake, classic wooden motorboats, bathing beauties at leisure on the pier. What emerges is an unmistakable sense of community, something that has been a throughline of the Lake Geneva Club up to the modern era.
Current and former residents of the neighborhood gathered at the club’s lakefront in August of 2022 to reminisce and honor the 100th anniversary milestone. Jolan estimates they had nearly 120 people in attendance. The party allowed present and former residents of the Lake Geneva Club to share memories, catch up and celebrate the history of the neighborhood in the shade of the club’s iconic boathouse, the oldest structure on the property.
HONORING HISTORY WHILE MAKING NEW MEMORIES
Close to the lake, there’s another artifact that appears around the same age as the 1890s-era boathouse. There, observant hikers on the Shore Path can spot a weathered bench which could be called a love seat, not only because it seats two people, but also because the design features two open hearts carved into the bench’s side panels. The most striking features on the bench are busts of what appear to be identical girls on each armrest, seemingly dressed in Native American garb with bare feet. Could they be a reference to the Potawatomi Tribe that lived around the lake in the 18th and 19th centuries? A more likely answer is that the design is a variation on the late-19th century sphinx garden benches popular with royalty and the English upper classes of that era.
Today, the bench is a part of the character of the neighborhood. Additional character is provided by the many four-legged friends who call the Lake Geneva Club home. Like most close-knit neighborhoods, the pets of the Lake Geneva Club can become household names and celebrities, none moreso than Eva Grady’s Black Lab, Sutton.
So far, defying the odds, the lane of vintage cottages has mostly avoided the modern trend of demolition and replacement with flashy, modern homes. “Fingers crossed,” says Grady, casting a sad look up the hill at the historic homes in her neighborhood. This is due partly to the shared lakefront and the general topography of the club. It’s 733 steps from the lake up to Bill and Jolan Deeley’s home. “When Bill was a kid, they named the house ‘Out-Of-Breath,’” Jolan laughs wryly. “By the time you walked up the lane, you were.”
Every year, in another sign of neighborly unity, residents participate in a parade up the lane to the club’s entrance on South Shore Drive. The sweet tradition includes residents as well as their pets, kids and grandkids, either on foot or riding decorated golf carts and bicycles. It’s a tradition that could have taken place in the 1930s, the 1950s, the 1970s or today, with only slight changes in the vehicles over the decades. Jolan explains that this is the appeal of the life in the Lake Geneva Club. “For me, the lake represents that special place we return to where shared generational stories and lifelong friendships are continually nourished,” she says. “Vacationing elsewhere is enjoyable, but returning to the lake at any time of the year, whether a long or short stay, is always an experience of ‘coming home.’”