By Tasha Downing | Photos by Shanna Wolf, unless noted
A couple approaches the elegant white facade of Maxwell Mansion in Lake Geneva, an 1856 Italianate-style home turned boutique hotel and unique, historic event space. Instead of passing under the black-and- white striped awning and walking in the front door, they take a set of steps discreetly tucked off to one side, leading them down to a hidden door. Knocking, they give the doorman a secret password and are admitted into the Speakeasy Bar, a hidden room offering a full range of options to whet any whistle.
This isn’t a scene out of history, it is one that could take place today, courtesy of Maxwell Mansion owners Luke and Monica Pfeifer. The Wisconsin natives quietly purchased the unique, historic property from Andrew Fritz in December 2020. Fritz had spent the previous eight years revitalizing the estate and restoring its grandeur, while adding luxe modern touches to guest suites and outdoor spaces. Since purchasing Maxwell Mansion, the Pfeifers have taken the hotel to yet another level, putting the 150-year-old mansion back on the map as a sought-after destination for rest and rejuvenation.
The history of Maxwell Mansion begins with Dr. Philip Maxwell and the founding of Lake Geneva itself. In
1836, Maxwell, a prominent Chicago surgeon described as a “large man of wit and overflowing humor,” purchased 1,600 acres of land from the United States government in what eventually became the city of Lake Geneva. Because of this, Maxwell is widely acknowledged today as the “Father of Lake Geneva.”
Prior to moving here, Maxwell served in a variety of roles: he was a member of the New York state assembly, and served as a physician with the United States Army, where he was assigned to Fort Dearborn, the military outpost that eventually became the city of Chicago. Later, Maxwell opened a private practice in the fledgling city and served as the Chicago City Physician. He sat on the Chicago Board of Health, and also served as the Illinois state treasurer. His name is listed on the first census as one of the original 500 residents of Chicago prior to its incorporation, and Chicago’s historic Maxwell Street was named for him.
When Maxwell retired from the medical profession, he decided to build an elegant home on property he owned near Geneva Bay in Lake Geneva, and moved there with his wife, Jerusha, in 1856. They named the estate “The Oaks,” in honor of the century-old trees throughout the property. “In 1856, [the village of ] Geneva would have been a beautiful retreat and a return to civilian life for Dr. Maxwell,” says Sonja Akright, historian and board member of the Geneva Lake Museum. “There were Indian burial grounds and sacred springs; the wildlife was plentiful.”
As an early resident, Maxwell was a prominent member of the community. One colorful account of the era described him as “a rotund gentleman of about 280 pounds with a flair for horsemanship and a reputation for galloping hell-for- leather through town.” He became a pillar of the village during this era when it remained a quaint, rural hamlet.
The popular Dr. Maxwell only spent a few years enjoying his country home retirement — he died in November of 1859. An early history of Lake Geneva remembered him as “kind and unostentatious … and an excellent citizen, he made many warm friends wherever he resided, and his death was regarded as a great public loss; especially at that juncture, when our citizens were expecting so much from his influence and example.”
Following his death, Maxwell’s wife, Jerusha, remained in the house, and continued to entertain her late husband’s friends and colleagues when they traveled through the area. Future president Ulysses S. Grant, while a decorated general in the United States Army, is rumored to have been a guest at The Oaks. In the summer of 1873, another high-ranking general, Philip H. Sheridan, arrived at the home to take in the splendor of Lake Geneva. Jerusha Maxwell lived in the house until her death in 1875, by which time the completion of the Chicago & Northwestern Railway, and then the Great Chicago Fire, had transformed Lake Geneva into a newly popular summer resort.
Over the following decades, the house changed hands several times. Owners of the mansion included wealthy business owners like George and Inez Parker of Janesville’s Parker Pen Company, and Agnes Gleason, founder of Michigan Avenue’s Parkway Tea Room. After Gleason took ownership in 1931, a young Nancy Davis stayed as a guest at the mansion — two decades later, she would marry the actor Ronald Reagan and go on to become the First Lady of the United States.
Today, The Oaks is known as Maxwell Mansion, maintaining its glamour and sophistication as a 28-room boutique hotel just two blocks from both the lake and Lake Geneva’s downtown. Guest rooms are located in either the mansion, carriage house or stables, and each space is uniquely designed, filled with historic patterns and antiques while offering the latest luxuries and amenities.
Husband-and-wife team Luke and Monica Pfeifer first met at Lakeland University while pursuing degrees in hospitality, and together they have 30 years of combined experience in the industry. Monica is the professional event planner with an eye for detail while Luke’s background in hospitality operations and technology fills a crucial role on the business side. They both love offering guests an amazing getaway in this unique space, and have implemented a full-scale rebranding of Maxwell Mansion, bringing the vintage glam they love to a modern clientele with chic, annual soirées and personalized events.
“I love the customizability of our property,” says Monica. “Whether private events like weddings, or our own seasonal parties like our Repeal Day party which celebrates the end of Prohibition, we can hold a good amount of people, and the style of the property gives everybody an opportunity to make an event their own.”
Luke says his favorite part about the property is the ability for guests to find moments to connect with friends in rooms like the Cognac or the Ballroom. “You could sit with a couple of people in the Tea Room and have a conversation and enjoy some cocktails or mocktails,” he says. “Finding time and space to sit with your significant other or friends is hard to come by and we have all these unique places to do that.”
Last July, the Mansion served as a centerpiece for a fundraising event for the Geneva Lake Museum entitled “Exploring the Mystique of Maxwell Mansion.” In the Cognac Room, Akright shared the property’s history and gave information about the Maxwell family and the estate, while guests enjoyed self-guided tours of the home. “Today the mansion is beautifully restored,” says Akright. “Its tall windows, broad entrances, elaborate ornamental wood moldings, marble fireplaces and grand staircase are remnants of a bygone era.”
To increase the property’s flexibility as an event venue and maximize guests’ enjoyment of the property, the Pfeifers have worked to curate the property’s outdoor spaces as well. Ceremonies and events with acoustic music can be held on the front lawn, and the property now boasts a deck, a balcony and multiple back terraces, one of which is connected directly to the Apothecary Bar. One terrace even features a bocce ball court. “We do a lot of events on the back terrace,” says Monica. “Live music, corporate dinners, birthday parties — or it can just be a lounge for people to hang out. We have a heated, saltwater pool; a gazebo; three fire pits; and we just updated the outside of the carriage house with heaters on the second-floor patio.”
The property’s two bars — the Apothecary Bar and the Speakeasy Bar, which is located in Dr. Maxwell’s former surgical suite — are open to the public, and offer craft cocktails and mocktails made by skilled and creative bartenders. “We make a phenomenal Wisconsin old fashioned in the Apothecary Bar, and we take different spins on it,” says Luke. “We switch up the menu seasonally and focus on true craft cocktails, so the experience involves everything from the ingredients, to how we stir and shake the cocktails to be sure they have the most consistent flavor and taste.”
The Apothecary Bar is also one of the only bars in the area offering absinthe drips, and the only bar in the world with a Sipsmith highball machine. “Sipsmith is a London-based craft gin company,” Monica explains. “[The machine] creates a perfect consistency and measurement of liquor and soda water, which comes out three times more bubbly than champagne.” This year, the couple is also adding new kitchen equipment to bring food options to Maxwell Mansion, with a small-bites menu in the works.
Community outreach is another priority for the Pfeifers, and Maxwell Mansion supports a number of local events and organizations, from the YMCA and the Jaycees to Lake Geneva Winterfest. “I’m glad we are in the position we are in now to be able to give even more back to the community,” says Luke. “Last year we partnered with the Immanuel Lutheran Church in Lake Geneva, and donated all our proceeds for one day to the relief efforts in Ukraine. We give out hundreds of donations to area organizations each year and believe strongly in finding ways to give back locally.”
This positive relationship between Maxwell Mansion and the city of Lake Geneva is a tradition that dates back to 1856, and the “kind and unostentatious” man who first saw the potential for a hub of hospitality in the heart of Lake Geneva, Dr. Philip Maxwell.
For more information about events or reservations at Maxwell Mansion, visit staymaxwell.com.