By Anne Morrissy | Photos by Shanna Wolf, Lauren Harrigan, Geneva Lake Museum
On February 28th, demolition experts gathered their equipment on the lawn of Villa Hortensia, a 1906 Mediterranean Revival estate designed by Chicago architect Howard Van Doren Shaw. The mansion, which by the time of its demolition sat on 21 acres of land, was originally owned by one of Chicago’s famous meatpacking families and had recently made headlines when it sold for $17 million. The Chicago Tribune reported that the new owners decided that the home was too large for their purposes. Instead, after more than a century as a beloved lake landmark, Villa Hortensia met the wrecking ball.
A favorite site for many who enjoyed a boat tour of the lake or walked the public Shore Path, Villa Hortensia’s loss was deeply mourned in the area. But the estate is just one of many historic or architecturally significant homes on the lake to meet this grim fate. From the 1920s to the 1950s, many of the original lake estates burned or were torn down and then converted to subdivisions, including Linden Lodge, Harrose Hall, Ceylon Court and Allview. This trend of demolishing historic buildings and estates has been renewed in the 21st century. Since 2000, the lake has lost Maple Lawn, built in 1871; Swinghurst, built in 1883; Towering Elms, built in 1890; Northwestern Military & Naval Academy, built in 1915; Pikewood, built in 1926; and the near-replica of Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous Fallingwater, built in 1993, among others. These buildings are lost to changing tastes, a desire for modern amenities and high lakefront taxes that disincentivize historic preservation, among other things. This spring, the loss of Villa Hortensia was particularly upsetting for many people, and today it remains gone but not forgotten.
EARLY YEARS: THE SWIFT FAMILY
Villa Hortensia was originally designed for Edward Foster Swift, son of meatpacking scion Gustavus Swift, whose Swift & Co. is credited with developing the first ice-cooled, refrigerated railroad cars, which allowed the company to ship meat safely from the expansive Union Stockyards in Chicago to cities around the country. When Gustavus Swift died in 1903, Edward F. Swift took over as head of the company. Shortly after that, he used a portion of his inheritance to commission the construction of his Geneva Lake estate, which he named Villa Hortensia in honor of his wife, Hortense.
To design the estate, Swift chose Howard Van Doren Shaw, a native Chicagoan whose architectural services were highly sought by the city’s elite. Shaw designed Villa Hortensia in the Mediterranean Revival style, incorporating a symmetrical lake-facing façade with three arched doors supported by classical, Doric columns, which led to a large front patio. (Arches in triplicate are a hallmark of Shaw’s designs.) Shaw repeated the arches on the opposite side of the house as well, where a covered porch provided entry from the estate’s long, winding driveway. Even as it was being built, the Lake Geneva Regional News described Villa Hortensia as “one of the most beautiful homes on the lake.”
Shaw’s architectural philosophy embraced a connection between the house and the property upon which it sat. At Villa Hortensia, Shaw collaborated with famed landscape architect Jens Jensen to ensure that the home’s interior spaces would flow easily into the landscape — he even included a large fountain in the home’s reception hall. Other highlights of Shaw’s design for Villa Hortensia included a large, vaulted entry gallery, a spacious sunken living room and a circular staircase to the second-floor gallery and bedrooms.
In 1921, Swift sold the home to Interstate Iron and Steel Co. President J.S. Llewllyn and his wife, Mary, who renamed it Pen-y-Bryn. In 1929, it changed hands again, this time to flamboyant professional gambler John J. Lynch. When Lynch was famously kidnapped for ransom in 1931, the first place he went after securing his release was his Geneva Lake estate.
THE EDGEWOOD YEARS
In 1948, Villa Hortensia was purchased by Globe Corporation President George F. Getz, Jr. and his wife, Olive, who renamed it Edgewood. The Getzes initially lived in a frame house just a few doors down from the property before purchasing Villa Hortensia. Getz’s son Bert remembers that local real estate agent (and future state senator) William Trinke encouraged Getz to make an offer on the estate, as the owners were eager to sell. Getz was not immediately convinced that his family of four needed a 13-bedroom lake house, but ultimately, he ended up purchasing the furnished home, along with the estate’s sizable amount of acreage and several outbuildings, for around $60,000.
Bert Getz still holds fond memories of his childhood and teenage summers at Edgewood. “I loved it,” he says. “I loved everything I did there. It was a big part of my life.” He distinctly remembers a game his parents liked to play with guests and their children, which involved each person sitting on a bowling ball and navigating through the home’s enormous open spaces in a unique race- meets-scavenger-hunt competition. Another of Bert Getz’s favorite memories involves a decommissioned Army Duck amphibious truck owned by their neighbors at the lake. When guests were visiting, the neighbors would invite them out on the Duck, splashing down into the lake from their own front lawn, and emerging on the front lawn of Edgewood for evening cocktails with the Getzes.
George F. Getz, Jr. had been actively involved with the Geneva Lake Water Safety Patrol since the 1920s and served as the president of its board of directors from 1949 to 1966. During the Getzes’ two-decade-long ownership of Edgewood, the estate served as an unofficial Water Safety Patrol site, where boats gassed up at the pier’s private pump. Getz offered to store patrol equipment like life jackets and safety buoys in his boathouse, and frequently responded to rescue calls in his own boat, the Olive A. Many Patrol employees remember the annual employee appreciation breakfasts hosted by the Getz family at Edgewood.
In the 1950s, Getz also began a passionate hobby of collecting antique fire engines and firefighting equipment dating back to the 18th century. As his collection grew, Getz set up a modest museum of firefighting history in an outbuilding on the Edgewood property, where he would give tours to friends and visitors. Eventually, the collection outgrew the space. Today, Getz’s firefighting collection constitutes the bulk of the exhibits at the Hall of Flame Museum in Phoenix, Arizona, which contains more than 130 antique and vintage fire engines.
LATER YEARS: A LABOR OF LOVE
By the 1990s, the estate had become one of the most recognizable historic homes still standing on Geneva Lake. It was situated along a section of the lake’s north shore that still contains some of the most opulent and historic estates, including still-extant Green Gables, Wadsworth Hall (later Glanworth Gardens) and Flowerside Inn, as well as House in the Woods and Alta Vista, the latter two homes also designed by Howard Van Doren Shaw.
The last family to live in Villa Hortensia bought the property in 1997, and spent the next 20 years updating and renovating the historic home through diligent research and restoration. “When my parents first purchased the property, it was in a difficult condition,” the previous homeowner acknowledges. After taking over the property with his own family, he says maintaining and updating the home as a year-round family residence became a labor of love. “Every update we made was to maintain the historic integrity and ensure the long-term preservation of the home,” he explains.
He says that the home became a beloved gathering spot for his extended family during the summers, as well as a year-round residence for his immediate family. “That made us a little different from many of the other lakefront owners,” he points out. Favorite activities included big family game nights in the Great Hall (“Bananagrams was a favorite”), and hours spent enjoying the property’s grounds, including a bocce ball court, a huge croquet court and a clay tennis court he was told was “one of the best in southeastern Wisconsin.”
Over 23 years, the homeowner says his family completed many restoration projects and updates to the home’s plumbing, electrical, drainage, exterior and interiors, among other elements. However, over the years, it became much more difficult to find the skilled tradesmen capable of repairing and maintaining Villa Hortensia. “The tradespeople in the area who were trained in these historic materials started retiring, and no one came along to replace them,” he says. “Then you’re faced with having to bring people in from Chicago or New York, at enormous expense.”
By 2021, the owners were ready to sell the estate originally known as Villa Hortensia, and they put the property up for sale at an initial listing price of $20 million. However, due to the increasing challenge and expense of maintaining an historic home of its size, as well as the skyrocketing price of the lakefront land upon which it sat, the home struggled to attract a buyer.
THE END OF AN ERA
In 2022, the property finally sold for $17 million to owners who have opted to build a new home on the coveted site. And so, Villa Hortensia, the house that had been a favorite of so many admirers for more than a century, began to come down. Before that happened, however, volunteers from the Geneva Lake Museum undertook an extensive project to visually catalog the interior and exterior details of the home and grounds for posterity, ensuring that generations to come would be able to appreciate and study Shaw’s architecture and what remained of the landscaping plans developed by the Olmsted Brothers and Jens Jensen. “The opportunity to photo-document the estate in its entirety was a crucially important project for the museum, aligning to our mission statement: ‘preserving the past for the future’,” explains Sonja Akright, a member of the museum’s board of directors. “Villa Hortensia was historically significant, architecturally significant and horticulturally significant. It had been an easily recognized part of Geneva Lake history for over 100 years.”
Although Villa Hortensia — with its elegant, Mediterranean Revival style — is now gone, it remains an indelible part of the memories of many people who appreciated its beauty on the shore of Geneva Lake for 114 years. The Geneva Lake Museum is currently designing an exhibit about the estate so that visitors can experience and remember the property. “The loss of Villa Hortensia/ Edgewood has evoked many different emotions,” Akright says. “A loss like this is always difficult for those in the historic appreciation sphere. Many people have shared nostalgic stories and fond memories they have.”
For Getz, who spent the summers of his most formative years in the home, the estate will always have a special place in his heart. “There couldn’t have been a greater spot,” he says wistfully, summing up the opinion of everyone who mourns its loss.
Special thanks to the Geneva Lake Museum for providing photos and historical information for this article.