Geoffrey's Journal: Lake Geneva & Me
This project took me back to George Williams College Camp in Lake Geneva - a place my family vacationed every year until I was nine or ten years old - and I haven't seen it since. Maybe you've had a similar experience, re-visiting a beloved place from your childhood. On the one hand, it's instantly familiar. And on the other hand, you see things as an adult that you didn't understand or pay attention to when you were a kid.
In the early 1960s at "College Camp," as we called it, we stayed in rustic cabins and ate in a cavernous, old dining hall. In a photo of me celebrating my seventh birthday there, you can see starched white uniforms on the waitresses (who were probably college girls but seemed like old ladies to me at the time). I remember the little beach strewn with toys where we splashed while our parents chatted with other adults on lawn chairs, occasionally glancing over to see if anyone was drowning.
What I didn't know back then was that George Williams was an Englishman who founded the YMCA. And the college in Lake Geneva was built as a training center for YMCA employees from across the U.S. Later, the college moved to Hyde Park (one of many Chicago connections in Lake Geneva as it turns out... keep reading for more) and College Camp became a retreat center and apparently a place where families like mine could vacation.
Today, it's part of Aurora University. The cabins are gone, replaced by modern buildings. But the dining hall is still there, albeit remodeled almost beyond recognition. And that little beach is still there, too!
In my childhood days at College Camp, I had no idea Lake Geneva was a hideaway for Chicago's ultra-wealthy. The lake was (and still is) lined with estates and huge mansions built by a who's who of Chicago industrialists with names such as Swift, Wrigley, and Schwinn. The Chicago and Northwestern even built them a train line for easy access from the city.
I suppose that when I was small my parents admired these places from afar. But when I returned more than a half-century later to tape Chicago on Vacation, we got VIP access to the largest one ever built! Stone Manor (née Younglands) is a 50-room, seven-level palace completed in 1901 for Otto Young, a real estate tycoon who made his fortune flipping property he bought in the wake of the Chicago Fire. He reportedly brought artisans from Europe to hand-craft and paint the ornamental ceilings and plasterwork, and outfitted the place with 14K-gold-plated door knobs and plumbing fixtures. There was a sprawling ballroom with crystal chandeliers and a dining table said to seat 100. Otto Young died just five years after building his dream house, and over the years it became a white elephant, used as a school, a restaurant, and Christmas tree museum before eventually being converted into condos.
A few years ago, Elmhurst native Tina Trahan began buying up the condos and converting it back into a single-family mega-home. And when we called to ask if we could film on the property, Ms. Trahan was not only home, she invited us inside! Her freshening up of the interior includes repainting every inch of plasterwork pure white. She said the old color scheme "looked like Marie Antoinette threw up" in the house. The classical ornament is complemented by modern furniture and ceiling fixtures. One room on the main floor now has six built-in bunk beds so her kids can throw the ultimate slumber parties. Despite spending millions, she said it's a bargain compared to buying in the Hamptons, where she and her husband, Starz cable channel CEO Chris Albrecht, previously rented homes.
Had my family continued our annual vacations to Lake Geneva for just a few more years, my rather protective parents would have been scandalized to learn that Hugh Hefner was building his first Playboy Resort nearby. It opened in 1968 with an airstrip serving regular commuter flights from O'Hare marked by a bunny head at the end of the runway. Who knows? Maybe we would have spotted Sonny and Cher or the Monkees tooling around in a speedboat between shows right past our little beach!
One of my very favorite memories of Lake Geneva was our visit to Yerkes Observatory to see a solar eclipse in the early 1960s. We were given little, smoked-glass slides to look through as the moon passed before the sun. Much later in life I learned that the observatory's namesake, Charles Tyson Yerkes, was a ruthless, transit tycoon who lied and bribed his way into building the Loop "L" structure in Chicago. In hopes of repairing his reputation, he accepted an offer of naming rights for funding the world's largest refracting telescope.
The observatory, built by the University of Chicago, has been called "the birthplace of modern astrophysics." Knowing what I now know about architecture, my revisit to the ornate building took my breath away. It was designed by the famous architect of the University of Chicago's Hyde Park campus, Henry Ives Cobb. Hidden in the ornament are astrological signs, phases of the moon, and images of U of C President Harper himself! The telescope was installed in 1897 after being shown at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, a World's Fair I've researched and written about extensively over the years. In 2018, the U of C announced it would discontinue using the observatory because it no longer contributed to the university's observational research mission. The university and local leaders hope to find a way to keep Yerkes open to the public.