Late this summer, it was Cruzn with girlfriends Missy, Cele, and Kathy O. in the Fox River town of Geneva, Illinois about 36 miles west of Chicago. We decided to check out the Fabyan Villa Museum and Japanese Garden that sit amongst 235 acres of the Forest Preserve District of Kane County. It’s an inviting area with paths for walking and bicycling, along with the historic sites.
It all began around 1905 when millionaire George Fabyan and his wife, Nelle, bought a farmhouse and ten acres of land on the west bank of the Fox River. Over time they purchased more surrounding land until they had nearly 300 acres. They named their estate Riverbank. It featured a Japanese garden, private zoo, Roman-style swimming pool, greenhouse, gardens, wind mill, and a lighthouse.
In 1907, George and Nelle hired Frank Lloyd Wright to remodel their 1800s farmhouse. Wright added a south wing and other characteristic elements to make it a Prairie-style house. Today the home showcases the Fabyans’ collections of natural history and animal specimens, sculptures, and history and photos about the couple and their life.
George Fabyan was interested in research and built a private laboratory for various studies. He is credited with being a pioneer in the field of modern cryptography – his findings were helpful during World War I in breaking codes used by the Germans.
Located a short distance from the house is a working windmill. In 1914, the Fabyans purchased this windmill from a farm in nearby Elmhurst and had it re-constructed on their property. It was used to grind grain for the surrounding community during war-rationing. The windmill was originally built in 1851.
On the way to the windmill you also see other structures that the Fabyans had built, including a random column with an eagle at the top and a lighthouse.
The Japanese Garden was designed for the Fabyans by Taro Otsuka, a well-known landscape architect in the Chicago area. This type of garden was fashionable among the wealthy in the early 1900s. Some of the plantings seen today can be traced back to 1910 when the garden was originally installed.
George and Nelle Fabyan passed away in the 1930s. The Forest Preserve District of Kane County then bought 235 acres of the Riverbank estate and opened it to the public.
After a visit to the Fabyan Villa, be sure to stop in downtown Geneva at Third Street for some more local history, lunch and shopping. The Geneva History Museum is a fine facility to learn about the community and the importance of the Fox River.
For a hidden treasure, walk across the street to the Kane County Courthouse and take a look at the murals on the second floor. They were painted in the early 1900s by Aurora artist Edward Holslag and depict scenes of early Kane County life.
My favorite place to shop in Geneva is the Little Traveler at the corner of Third and Fulton Streets. I’ve enjoyed going there for years with family and friends. It’s a Victorian era Italianate house that’s been added on to over the years and now contains 36 rooms. There’s everything from clothing to home décor, gourmet foods and local wines, and a tea shop for lunch.
The blocks around the Little Traveler have lots of historic homes and other buildings of note. For a small fee, the Geneva History Museum sells self-guided walking tour maps so you can stroll around the area and appreciate all the architecture.
Geneva has a lot to offer, and I would certainly agree with their description – “this charming hamlet, nestled on the banks of the Fox River, is truly a picture postcard.” It’s worth your time to visit.