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Thursday, 14 August 2014 00:00

Performances enhance experience at historic Lake Geneva mansions

Written by  Lisa Schmelz/For Walworth County Sunday
Actors and guests participate in a murder mystery dinner theater at the Maxwell Mansion in Lake Geneva. The next murder mystery performance is Aug. 22, 2014. Actors and guests participate in a murder mystery dinner theater at the Maxwell Mansion in Lake Geneva. The next murder mystery performance is Aug. 22, 2014. Kristen Westlake/ for Walworth County Sunday

LAKE GENEVA -- When Bethany Souza and Andrew Fritz bought a lakefront mansion in 2010 and turned it into five-star lodging, complete with private butler service, they wanted it to be more than luxury lodging on historic Geneva Lake.

"One of the phrases that Andrew and I like to use a lot is that we’re servicing an experience economy," said Souza, who lives with Fritz and their three children on the top floors of Baker House, built in 1885 by Emily Baker. "People are not just looking for food or a place to stay. They’re looking for an experience."

Initially, Souza and Fritz confined that experience to just one mansion.  But when the neighboring Maxwell Mansion two blocks east became available, the couple began tapping even further into what they deemed an artistic and cultural experience void.

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This summer, visitors have been able to extend that experience to both live cabaret as well as a murder mystery performance.

Dinner is held at the Baker house, with performances a short distance away at the Maxwell Mansion. The next cabaret show is Aug. 2, and the next murder mystery theater is Aug. 22. 

Think "Downton Abbey" (the British TV drama series) meets Lake Geneva.

"These great mansions have created the perfect backdrop for these experiences, whether they be cabarets, murder mysteries, historical lectures, house tours or afternoon teas," Souza said. "If you’re going to have an afternoon tea, you can have it in a restaurant. But isn’t it so much better when you put it in an antique-filled ballroom of an 1850s mansion? It just takes on a whole other layer of depth."

Layering some of that depth is its artist in resident. What Alastair Bruce is to "Downton Abbey," Abraham Renko is to Baker House and Maxwell Mansion, where he does everything from source doors to plan details for Maxwell’s clandestine basement speakeasy.

"The idea behind the speakeasy," Renko said, "is we’re looking at pre-Prohibition and Prohibition-era cocktails and also there’s an imagining of what the cocktail would have been if Prohibition had not been, which is an interesting thought."

Renko is pondering that interesting thought in the parlor of the Maxwell Mansion. Across from the parlor is the 158-year-old home’s ballroom, where a troupe of performers from Chicago’s Cabaret Project are getting ready to do a test run of a murder mystery program. First offered to private parties last year, the murder mysteries opened to the general public in mid-June.

In the ballroom, Tiffany blue walls, with original gold leaf moldings, a marble fireplace and a glistening chandelier transport guests to another time. Like every room in both mansions, Souza, a former HGTV designer who owned a turn-of-the-century hotel in Woodstock before setting her sights on Lake Geneva, has left nothing to chance. Every room is intentionally arranged to set the scene as it would have been when the home’s first occupants lived here.

Wherever possible, period furniture -- not replicas -- are used. Mansion staff dress the part, and guests -- whether they’re here for a cocktail, meal, show or as lodgers -- are offered period hats.

"How come we don’t wear hats anymore?" asks a woman here for the murder mystery dress rehearsal, as she selects a small chapeau from the center of the table. "I miss hats."

The man with her doesn’t reply. He merely nods, adjusting a Sherlock number onto his own head. When he gets it just right, he faces the woman directly and they smile at one another.

For a few moments, they are lost to the bustle of the performers entering the room. Immersed in the experience, surrounded by elegance, they seem to have found what they were looking for before the show even starts.

Up close: The Baker House

Built in 1885 as a summer residence for Emily Hall Baker, the wife of Robert Baker, the Baker House is a 17,000-square-foot, 30-room, Queen Anne mansion. Its exterior shingles were made from old growth California Redwoods, giving the home its first name: "Redwood Cottage."

The land the house was built on was gifted to Charles Minton Baker, Robert Baker’s father, in 1838 by the city of Lake Geneva as part of a "compensation package" for his work as the first district attorney of Walworth County.

Robert Baker was born and raised in Lake Geneva. A graduate of Beloit College, he moved to Racine and became an early partner in the J.I. Case Company. He also served as Racine’s mayor and completed two terms in the Wisconsin State Senate. He died in 1882 at age 43. In 1885, his widow, Emily, began building this summer home as a tribute to her husband and the community he loved.

After housing Emily and her five children, the home served as a sanitarium for wealthy Chicagoans battling addiction and mental illness. During Prohibition, it was known as the Lakeside Hotel, with a popular speakeasy. For a number of decades, it operated as the St. Moritz Hotel. Most recently, it was Gilbert’s Restaurant.

In 2010, Fritz and Souza purchased it, renaming it the Baker House. Today, the couple live on the top floors with their three children. The home is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Up close: Maxwell Mansion

In the spring of 1855, prominent Chicago surgeon and real estate prospector Dr. Philip Maxwell started construction of a large, handsome summer dwelling in Lake Geneva on land he had acquired years earlier, which at the time was "lakefront" property. The estate was named "The Oaks" in honor of the centuries-old trees surrounding the mansion. He and his wife, Jerutha, moved into their summer home the following spring.

Dr. Maxwell was a fixture in Illinois politics and assumed the office of Illinois state treasurer in 1853. His office, though, was declared vacant when he relocated to Lake Geneva, leading him to "renounce" his Illinois citizenship.

Cabaret and murder mystery performances are held at the Maxwell Mansion 1856. Pre-show dinners are at the Baker House 1885.

Aug. 2, 2014, 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m., live cabaret show
Aug. 22, 2014, 6 p.m. and 8:30 p.m., musical murder mystery dinner theater

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