Leading the Charge

By Lisa Schmelz | Photography by Holly Leitner

If you’ve ever taken a stroll around Lake Geneva and felt a connection to the past, it wasn’t by accident you felt the tug of time. So many of the places and spaces that draw us back remain because of the Lake Geneva Historic Preservation Commission.  At its helm for the past 22 years is local architect Ken Etten.  A soft-spoken, detail-oriented champion of what once was, his leadership shapes the history we can still see and touch.

That hasn’t come easy, though. Preserving the past is a laborious process. Behind one of those “National Register of Historic Places” plaques is the work of a small army, often led by men like Etten. Undaunted by the extensive documentation required of such honorifics, not to mention the challenges of bringing together groups of people with differing views on what should become of a building that has seen better days, Etten has made it his life’s work.

“I think he’s patient,” says Patrick Quinn, also a member of the Lake Geneva Historic Preservation Commission and a retired Northwestern University archivist and history writer, of Etten. “I think the [role of] patience here, is that you’re dealing with history, which was a long time making, and you have to have patience to sort of take it all in and be able to conceptualize what you’re taking in.”

Conceptualizing is what architects do. From a plan in the mind to a plan on paper, Etten creates new buildings, and saves old ones from the wrecking ball. He lives in the present and cherishes our collective past. What fuels him?

“We need to remember where we came from, and what was here before we were,” he says simply in his office, where he’s been one-half of the McCormack + Etten/Architects firm since its inception in September 1992.

Born in Woodstock, Illinois, on Jan. 24, 1948, to Clarence, a beef farmer, and Bernice, Etten was one of five sons. Etten and his wife, Diane, married in 1983, and have called Lake Geneva home for the last 35 years. As an architect, Etten could have easily designed a new and modern home for his bride. But he didn’t. Instead, the couple purchased a home dated to 1855 in Lake Geneva’s Maple Park Historic District. The home was once owned by the late James Roy Allen, who designed The Riviera in downtown Lake Geneva. Here, the Ettens raised their daughters, Emily and Ashley. In March, Ashley gave birth to the Etten’s first grandchild, a boy, Nolan.

“It’s cool,” says Etten of becoming a grandpa. “It’s fun. We just wish we lived closer to them and could see him a little more.”

FULL AND REWARDING DAYS

When At The Lake profiled Etten several years ago, he said he had no plans to retire anytime soon. That remains the case. Most mornings, Etten rises early and prepares for what will likely be a 12-14 hour day. His office is in downtown Lake Geneva, and within walking distance of his historic home. Most evenings find him busy with work or meetings related to his deep commitment to civic life.

A fading breed of citizen, Etten serves his community with a dedication not easy to find in a world that has become increasingly focused on self. For over 35 years, he’s been a member of the Lake Geneva Rotary Club and its past-president. He’s served on the Lake Geneva Plan Commission for the last 15 years. He’s also the current president of the Friends of the Geneva Theater; a board member for the Black Point Historic Preserve; and holds very active memberships with the American Institute of Architects, National Trust for Historic Preservation, Wisconsin Historical Society, VISIT Lake Geneva, Geneva Lake Museum and the Lake Geneva Symphony Orchestra development team. Etten and his wife have worshipped at St. Francis de Sales in Lake Geneva since arriving, and he was instrumental in expanding and shoring up the 129-year-old church during recent remodeling.

“Most nights, I have a meeting someplace,” he says. “But I like it.”

A WALK WITH KEN

A walk around Lake Geneva is, in a way, like a walk with Ken Etten. You can’t actually see his fingerprints on historic plaques in front of the seven buildings in Lake Geneva that enjoy placement on national and state historic registers, but their enjoyment for future generations is a nod to his leadership. His Maple Park neighborhood and the Main Street district downtown have also been recognized with designations on the state and national historic registers. In 2009, Lake Geneva was selected from 160 applicants as a “Distinctive Destination” by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

“That was exciting for us,” says Etten. “It brought in new visitors to the area and got national attention.”

A couple of blocks away from Etten’s Broad Street architectural firm, is the Geneva Theater. When it closed in the fall of 2010, JaNelle Powers, who heads up the Geneva Theater Actors Guild, saw an opportunity. Her goal, she says, was to acquire the building for her theater company to use for live performances, and for friend and former Lake Geneva Alderwoman Elizabeth Chappell to use as an art museum.

“Ken was just about the first person I kind of asked to join in with Elizabeth and myself … He is very into historic preservation. He just works and he works really hard and he was really instrumental in preserving the theater as a historic property,” says Powers.

Though Etten and the Friends worked tirelessly to purchase the building, with Etten drawing up architectural plans to restore the space to its former glory, the property was purchased by developer Shad Branen, who is also known for his historic preservation work in nearby Burlington. Funds the Friends raised are now used to rent the space for live performances and for nonprofits to host fundraising events. For Etten, not sealing the deal with an outright purchase isn’t a loss.

“We preserved the building. It’s still a theater. There are still the old vaudevillian stages that are used for live performances,” he said. “I’m happy about that.”

Powers agrees. “We did preserve the building,” she says. “It’s not been taken back to what it had been in 1928, when it was built. At least they didn’t tear it down and make a parking lot, right? Everyone is delighted that there can be live theater and there can be live musical performances from time to time, and that’s good, and Ken absolutely made that happen, along with our board. He was very instrumental in making that happen.”

THE RAILROAD WAS HERE

Next on Etten’s list of things to get us to take notice of is a set of “ghost footprints” on Sage Street, just north of the Geneva Lake Museum parking lot. This is where the Chicago & North Western Railway had a series of maintenance facilities. On a recent weekday morning, Etten was busy finalizing details with a landscape company readying the installation of concrete markers, flush with the ground. Each marker tells a specific tale of what once was there — the railroad’s engine turntable, engine shed, water tower and section house.

“Right now, if someone came to the City of Lake Geneva for the first time,” says Etten, “they’d be hard-pressed to know there was a railroad here. And its key part of our development.”

But soon they’ll know. Then, Etten will have to figure out the next thing he’s going to help us remember.

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