May 1831: The Kinzies and their party, having traveled from Fort Dearborn in Chicago, Illinois to Fort Winnebago in Portage, Wisconsin, had been hard on the trail on this their fourth day of their trip. Since since the crack of dawn and through the better part of a splendid May morning, the going was easier than anyone could have predicted; after all, they were entering lands no white man had ever seen. The little party made good time on winding, well-marked trails, and noon found them making better time than they had in the first two days since leaving Chicago.
Somewhere ahead lay the shining jewel the Indians had spoken of - Big Foot Lake - and somewhere nearby would be the Potawatomi chief whose name the lake itself honored. The path led ever northward through clearings and meadows and thickets of every description. In her memoirs, Mrs. John Kinzie, the wife of the party's leader, described her first view of what would later become the Village of Fontana, as seen unexpectedly through a grove of trees:
"We descended a long, sloping knoll and by a sudden turn came in full view of [a] beautiful sheet of water…. Bold, swelling hills jutted forward into the clear expanse, or retreated slightly to afford a green level nook… On the nearer shore stretched a bright gravelly beach through which coursed here and there a pure sparkling rivulet to join the larger sheet of water.
A shout of delight burst involuntarily from the whole party; as this charming landscape met our view. What could be more enchanting?"
Though she traveled many miles afterward, Juliette Kinzie never forgot that first look at Geneva Lake. It came from a bluff along the southwestern shoreline at what is now the Glenwood Springs area of Fontana.
Down in the hollow, near the lakeshore, lay a tidy collection of Indian wigwams. Chief Big Foot, leader of three bands of Potawatomi Indians who had been living in the area for many years, had his headquarters here at Fontana, near the Seven Sacred Springs of the Potawatomi (a system of brooks and pools located at what is now Big Foot Country Club).
For many years before the white travelers arrived and eventually relocated them, the Native Americans enjoyed the area's abundant wildlife - everything from plants, grasses, deer and wolves to the fish they speared in Kishwauketoe, or "clear water." They lived in tribes all along the lake's shore and, in traversing the path around it, created the shore path that is still in use to this day.
Though much has changed, many still experience a similar sense of awe when they arrive in Fontana for their stay at The Abbey Resort and Avani Spa since its opening in 1963. Its name was chosen in honor of Europe's famed abbeys, who were regarded as havens of hospitality and good food throughout the Middle Ages.
In addition to countless individuals and families seeking rest and rejuvenation, United States presidents and vice presidents, entertainment and sports celebrities, and business leaders have flocked to The Abbey over the years for high-profile gatherings and quiet personal retreats. Back to Top
In the Beginning
From the day in 1839 when Dr. Henry Clark of Otsego, New York, acquired much of Geneva Lake's west end from the government land office for $1.25 per acre, the property that The Abbey resides on has been recognized for the treasure it is. Clark's land-developing partner Matthias Mohr named the area "Fontana" because of its wealth of springs and fountains. In fact, the many springs are thought to be the largest source of Geneva Lake's water supply.
Chicagoans N. Kellogg Fairbank and Levi Z. Leiter purchased the land that would eventually become the Big Foot Country Club and The Abbey in the late 1800s.
In time, the apple orchards and ranging cattle spanning the land gave way to recreational pursuits when, in September 1923, the Geneva Lake Improvement Association purchased 690 acres from the Leiter estate. Three tracts of land made up the 690 acres that now form three distinct entities: Big Foot Country Club, Country Club Estates and The Abbey. Back to Top
The Early Years
The "low, marshy slough lying between the club and the lake" was dredged less than 40 years later to create the spot where The Abbey now stands. Wisconsin Gov. Gaylord Nelson presided over the July 1962 groundbreaking ceremonies and Lt. Gov. Jack Olson was on hand for the opening ceremonies 11 months later when he threw The Abbey's key into the harbor, signifying the year-round operation of the resort. As one newspaper put it at the time: "During the past 11 months, a swamp area has been transformed into a luxurious resort."
When it opened, The Abbey Resort was not only the Midwest's newest resort, but also its largest - and it remains the only resort located on the shores of Geneva Lake. The resort also sported a mascot, Abbey, the St. Bernard, whose paw prints were placed in the first cement poured on the property.
Absolutely nothing was spared in the $4-million undertaking. This had more than one journalist tabulating what had gone into the architecturally stunning 225-room hotel with convention facilities, a 250-slip marina on a 20-acre manmade lake, and indoor and outdoor swimming pools. One 1960s chronicler noted that 1,068,000 board-feet of lumber were used to construct The Abbey and that 4,644 gallons of paint were applied. "This is enough lumber and paint to build and decorate 71 three-bedroom homes," the writer marveled.
And that's not all. "The Abbey's manmade lagoon was excavated by hydraulic dredging of 242,000 cubic yards of earth, which in turn was pumped back onto Abbey property, raising the land six feet higher. If the lagoon pilings were laid end to end they would extend 17 miles, the distance from Fontana to Woodstock, Illinois," continued the awestruck writer.
To build this beauty on the lakeshore, it took 105,560 man hours by carpenters, laborers, masons and others; 12,202 man hours by plumbers; and another 9,942 by electricians. In all, 65 firms from Wisconsin and Illinois had a hand in the project. Back to Top
Building a Legacy
The Abbey Resort design was the brainchild of Wayne Bryan, who was described as "a gifted young architect" in the Chicago architectural firm of A. Epstein & Son, Project Fontana's president, Frederick C. Gartz of Elkhorn, and Kenneth Zinzow, vice president of the company that built the resort. The new resort, with its 80-foot A-frame, was named the Outstanding Wood Design of 1963 by the National Lumber Manufacturers Association.
At the time of The Abbey's opening, much praise was heaped upon the blend of treatments that drew from northern European chalets and sweeping Polynesian roofs, aesthetically pleasing and practical for the deep angles, which prevented snow from piling up on the roof.
Inside, "The Blue Grotto" offered a heated indoor pool overlooking the lawn, a thermal-hydrotherapeutic pool, and "The Roman Baths," a health club that had both steam baths and a hot room. Guest rooms were originally designed to create "an atmosphere reminiscent of guest quarters in a luxurious yet simple country estate" with "influences of the French provinces." The tone was set by interior designer Carl Litton, head designer of Morton Textile and Furniture Inc., Chicago.
Litton, who custom-designed and color coordinated every piece of furniture at the resort, had a distinct vision: "I don't want the guest to notice one particular thing at The Abbey on his arrival. Rather, I want him to appreciate it as warm, comfortable and inviting… It seemed to me in keeping with the quiet dignity of The Abbey to choose toiles, tweeds, woolens and even blanket plaids to complement the country effect."
Chad Wallin, a columnist for Chicago Construction News, thoroughly endorsed the results, calling The Abbey "one of the loveliest" hotels in the United States, citing its "elegance - so simply and beautifully expressed in wood that you scarcely realize that it surrounds you, permeates everything, giving you a feeling of lazy luxury." Back to Top
The Abbey Reborn
Since 1963, The Abbey Resort & Avani Spa has been the vacation destination of choice for dozens of celebrities, dignitaries, presidents and household names. Members of this illustrious group have crossed The Abbey's legendary A-frame threshold to experience the many offerings of Lake Geneva's only full-service resort and spa. From Dave Matthews to Mike Ditka to former President Ronald Reagan, the collection of past guests includes some of the world's most famous faces in sports, entertainment and politics.
Throughout its history the resort has preserved a great sense of tradition while continuing to welcome change. In the early part of 2005 a $40-million redevelopment of the 90-acre, 334-room resort lead by the award-winning architectural firm Environ Harley Ellis was completed. The final phase of the total refurbishment was accomplished in 2008 with the introduction of the all-new Avani Spa.
In 2013, The Abbey Resort celebrated 50 years of hospitality with the completion of the final phase of a $50 million renovation. The Abbey's exterior renovations included the major outdoor focal points and elements of the famed Abbey A-Frame. The interior renovations included updates to the meeting spaces including the grand ballroom.
Enhancements to The Abbey Resort and Avani Spa continued in 2014, with upgrades to the Avani Spa. These upgrades focused primarily on the women's locker rooms including the showers, steam and inhalation rooms, along with new makeup stations.
2015 saw a transformation and relocation of Café Latte and its offerings and hours were extended. In May 2015, The Abbey Resort opened a new restaurant, 240° West, and a new bar, Bar West!
Additionally, this phase of renovations focused on the resort's meeting space facilities, guest room lounge areas, and a new monument sign that welcomes guests and draws them in from the moment they arrive on the property. The three Marina meeting rooms were updated with new lighting, flooring, wall and window coverings. The hallway areas where buildings connect into miniature lobbies were updated with a modern and comfortable vibe. The newly renovated guest lounge and corridor areas feature new carpet, wallpaper, artwork and furniture and provide ample gathering space for guests and event attendees to use for collaboration and socialization before and after formal events and meetings are scheduled.
In 2016, The Abbey Resort completed a renovation of its lower level meeting spaces including the property's wedding sales offices, Sand Bar Meeting Room, Waterfront Board Room, Walworth Meeting Room and The Shore Meeting Rooms. Renovations included new lighting and sconces, wallpaper and carpeting throughout these area. Additionally, The Avani Spa completed renovations to the pool and pool deck as well as updates to the guest lounge areas including new contemporary styled spa pool furniture.
Continuing in its tradition of continuous improvements, The Abbey and Avani Spa has additional updates scheduled for early 2017. These renovations included updates to the guest rooms, a complete remodel of the Waterfront Restaurant, expansion of Café Latte, additional lobby enhancements and an all new activities center.