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Thursday, 05 December 2013 15:55

Preacher’s historic Geneva Lake mansion preserved

Written by  Lisa M. Schmelz
Marie Kropp maintains Swinghurst as a historic estate. The home was built in the late 1800s by the Rev. David Swing of Chicago. Swing gave sermons and performed baptisms from the lakeside estate. Marie Kropp maintains Swinghurst as a historic estate. The home was built in the late 1800s by the Rev. David Swing of Chicago. Swing gave sermons and performed baptisms from the lakeside estate. Terry Mayer

WALWORTH COUNTY SUNDAY — On the eastern shore of Geneva Lake, not far from Big Foot Beach State Park, is a simple yet significant home, built by a simple yet significant man. Known by many as Swinghurst, the vision behind this multi-gabled Queen Anne home was the Rev. David Swing. Born on Aug. 23, 1830, in Ohio, Swing would teach before he would preach.

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Ultimately, he would become one of the most influential ministers of the mid-19th century. Those said to be moved by his sermons, which were published weekly in Chicago newspapers, included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Ward Beecher and Mary Todd Lincoln.

The home he built on Geneva Lake, which he initially named Six Oaks for the towering trees gracing the property, served as both a refuge for the fiery preacher and as an extension of his ministry. Interior and exterior balconies allowed Swing to deliver lakeside sermons. A stair-stepped landing on the second floor, overlooking the main living room, accommodated not only Swing and his pulpit but a choir. A large sunken tub on the first floor is where Swing was said to have regularly performed baptisms.

 Swing was introduced to Lake Geneva through Nathaniel Kellogg Fairbank, as a guest at his Butternuts lakefront estate in 1880. The following summer, Swing returned as a guest of Levi Leiter at the Leiters’ Linden Lodge. Leiter, it is said, would prove instrumental in Swing’s decision to purchase lakefront property of his own.

As lakefront estates go, Swing’s place was on the plain side and little here has changed over the past 130 years. Strolling its rooms, it’s not hard to imagine Swing close by.

Certainly, his lakefront home must have been a true sanctuary. Baptized in water, and then later by metaphorical fire when he was charged in 1874 with heresy, Swing’s biggest crime seemed to be making faith more accessible and relatable to the masses. His liberal theological leanings hardly would cause notice today, but being ahead of his time earned Swing enemies within the Presbyterian faith.

Accused of being a Unitarian, he was ultimately acquitted after a highly publicized trial. But when he learned of the Presbytery’s efforts to appeal his verdict, he left the church. Many in his congregation followed him when he founded Central Church, and he continued to preach until the end of his life, and continued to make sojourns to Geneva Lake, where his “morning habit to row” was as much a constant as the sunrise.

Swing died Oct. 3, 1894, and was preceded in death by his wife, Elizabeth.  When his daughter, Helen Swing Starring, and her husband, Mason, assumed ownership of his Geneva Lake home, they renamed it Swinghurst, living here until 1934.

Now fast-forward 60-some years to the present day, where Marie Kropp now tends to the Lake Geneva landmark.

Kropp never intended to own a historic lakefront estate. But sometimes fate makes decisions for us, and if we get out of the way long enough to cooperate, we get to weave our history into something bigger than we ever could have planned ourselves.

At least that’s what’s happened for Kropp. A first generation Italian-American, she grew up in Niagara Falls, N.Y.  After a successful career as a blues and jazz singer, she made her way to the Midwest, settling in Lake Geneva in 1977, where she operated a music store and worked as a preschool teacher.

Like the Reverend Swing, she loved “drifting, dreaming and musing along the shores of Geneva Lake.” Men who showed interest in her needed to also show as much interest in the lake as she did. She wasn’t sure if she’d ever find someone like that, but then she met Charles Kropp, or Charlie, as his friends and family called him.

Charlie’s upbringing could not have been more different from her own. His family owned Kropp Forge, and he went on to purchase Waukegan Steel Sales. What Charlie and Marie lacked in shared background, however, they made up for in their approach to life and love of Geneva Lake.

Charlie was twice-widowed and the father of two, including a daughter, Carrie Ann, who died of leukemia in 1983. He had lots of reasons to be sad, but equally as many to embrace life. Purchasing Swinghurst in 1974, Kropp said, was one of the many ways he embraced life.

“This was his idea of heaven,” she said, motioning around her home and toward the water. “He loved this.”

Charlie also loved Marie, and the pair would wed on the lakeside porch here in 1988. Looming over their love was Charlie’s diagnosis with leukemia. Blessed with the financial resources to explore every possible treatment, the couple did just that. What had been a six-month to two-year timetable grew to 16 years.

“He was someone if you met him, you’d never forget. We set out to do and be everything everyone should be,” she said. “In one moment, your life changes. So what would you want to feel an hour from now if something happened to your loved one or family member? I was sorry for what he had to go through, but grateful for what it did for us.”

While they fought his leukemia together, they also spent lots of time helping others fight cancer, using much of their own fortune to do it. They also spent a lot of time at Swinghurst.

Charlie died in 2004, and Marie spends most of the year in Florida now. She’s doing what Charlie would want her to do: living life. She performs in an improv troupe; she paints, a hobby he urged her to take up because he thought she should have a quiet hobby to balance her musical interests; and she continues to run a number of charities they started together.

She’s not at Swinghurst as much as she used to be, but it’s never far from her heart or mind.

“It is a magical place. It has a spiritual feeling,” she said, gliding up the stairs from which Swing used to preach. “It’s been a labor of love. It’s been a summer home that’s now a home.”

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