Jun 8 2013
How many mansions circle the shoreline of Geneva Lake, near the Illinois border? It all depends upon your definition of “mansion,” of course, but the area’s “Newport of the West” nickname has stuck – for good reason – for 125 years.
On the lakeshore are many dozens of estates, and a growing number are monstrous, contemporary projects. They sprout among the well-preserved Gilded Age homes and tales that involved Chicago’s richest businessmen. This is where the Sears, Schwinns, Swifts, Maytags, Mortons and Wrigleys all chose to invest their money and spend their leisure time.
Much rarer along the Geneva Lake waterfront are cottages, although this also depends on how the term is defined. Back in 1888, a “cottage” included the three-story (plus turret) and 13-bedroom Black Point Estate, built for $20,000 as a summer family getaway for beer baron Conrad Seipp.
He discovered the area while hunting but wanted it for more, especially after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 left the city smoky and vulnerable.
Now the eight-acre and blufftop Black Point Estate is the newest of 10 state-owned historic sites. It is open for tours, which begin with a narrated boat ride from downtown Lake Geneva; this choice of transport is how the Seipp family reached the property before roads were established.
Everything that is original in the Queen Anne mansion – beams to billiard table – arrived by boat (or sled, when the lake froze in winter). It was a seasonal getaway, typically Memorial Day to Columbus Day.
The estate is unusual because five generations of the same family occupied it, and each left their mark with décor and furnishings, all of which were donated to the state of Wisconsin.
That means you’ll see a mix of furniture (some older than the Civil War), stained glass windows imported from Germany, green shag carpeting in a bedroom, an array of sailing memorabilia and a two-story dollhouse that is a furnished mansion in miniature.
Mary Kaye Merwin, interim site manager, describes the estate as “an amazing time capsule” with detail that sometimes “goes right down to the toothbrushes and razor blades” in bathrooms. On the main floor are four fireplaces and a dining table big enough to seat 40.
The Seipp family liked to entertain but also demonstrated a strong sense of family and responsibility. Their children didn’t just vacation; they had tutors and chores.
When Mary Kaye tells these stories, she is sharing a part of her own family history because she grew up on a nearby farm that sold eggs to the Seipps and invited the children to visit for pony rides. Her great-grandmother and Catharina Seipp were friends who would meet, by buggy, for tea.
Mary Kaye returned to her roots after retiring from administrative work at Cornell University. Although she swam at Black Point’s boat dock many times during childhood, she never got acquainted with the mansion’s interior until volunteering as a tour guide.
The property name acknowledges the area’s abundance of black oak trees. Public tours began in 2007, but state ownership didn’t kick in until this year.
“So many of these original homes on Geneva Lake were being destroyed or renovated to the point where they were unrecognizable,” Mary Kaye notes, to explain why the Seipp family wanted to make Black Point a historic site.
Some of the Seipps still own property in this town of Linn neighborhood of Walworth County. The patriarch, ironically, had no idea how much or long his family would enjoy the area: He only lived two years after Black Point Estate’s completion.
Tickets to tour Black Point Estate include roundtrip boat transportation, with narration, from Lake Geneva’s Riviera Docks, 812 Wrigley Dr. Reservations are booked through Lake Geneva Cruise Line (cruiselakegeneva.com, 800-558-5911).
The cost ranges from $36 for adults to $24 for children. The outing lasts three hours and includes the mansion’s lower two floors. Tours happen seasonally, May to October.
Visitors must be able to climb about 120 stairs between the pier and estate. Groups of 20 or more may arrange a visit by bus. Consult blackpointestate.org, 262-248-1888 for arrangements.
Most Geneva Lake mansions are just for gawking during a drive or stroll along the 21-mile lakeshore path. An exception is the restored 1885 Baker House, open for dinner, Sunday brunch, murder mystery parties and history tours with tea.
The 30-room Queen Anne building has an unobscured view of downtown Lake Geneva, the water and sunsets. Four suites are for rent; overnight prices begin at $295.
For more about the Baker House, 327 Wrigley Dr.: bakerhouse1885.com, 262-248-4700.