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History

Remembering the past, moving into the future

The Abbey Resort & Marina

History of The Abbey Resort

More than 50 years of timeless charm and superior service

For more than fifty years, The Abbey Resort has been providing excellence in hospitality to year-round vacationers, corporate groups and family parties who come to enjoy the 90-acres of pristine natural beauty on the sparkling shores of Geneva Lake. Known for its long history as a vacation destination for wealthy Chicago-based industrialists as well as its quaint and historic homes, the Lake Geneva area has been a prime Midwestern vacation retreat for more than a century.

With its iconic A-frame exterior, The Abbey Resort was named for Europe’s famed abbeys, which were regarded as havens of hospitality and good food throughout the Middle Ages. Since its opening as a year-round resort in 1963, The Abbey has been the vacation destination of choice for dozens of celebrities, dignitaries, presidents and household names. A natural treasure located right in the heart of the Midwest, the natural beauty of the sloping hills and sparkling waters of Lake Geneva on which The Abbey Resort is set have always been and will continue to be recognized as a natural treasure.

black and white Abbey resort photo from the past

Discovering a timeless national treasure

John and Juliette Kinzie were on a U.S. Military expedition, traveling from Fort Dearborn to Fort Winnebago, when they stumbled upon the waters of Lake Geneva. In her memoirs, Juliette describes her first view of what would later become the Village of Fontana.

"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?" - Juliette Kinzie, May, 1831


For many years before their visit, the shores of Lake Geneva, or what was then known as Kishwauketoe or "clear water," were inhabited by bands of Potawatomi Indians. Led by Chief Big Foot, the three bands enjoyed the abundant wildlife and clear stream-fed pools, and traversed a path around the lake to hunt and fish and move from village to village. The main village was located just minutes away from the resort's entrance, and the path is still in use today.
 
This portion of the land on the west end of Geneva Lake was purchased by Dr. Henry Clark in 1839 at just $1.25 per acre from the government land office. It was then named "Fontana" because of its wealth of springs and fountains, which are thought to be the largest source of Geneva Lake's water supply. By the late 1800's, the land was purchased by Chicagoans N. Kellogg Fairbank and Levi Z. Leiter. In 1923, the Geneva Lake Improvement Association purchased approximately 700 acres from the Leiter estate, and this low, marshy land would be transformed into an iconic place of relaxation and rejuvenation for all.

Though much has changed since the days of the Potawatomi and the arrival of the Kinzies, the property on which The Abbey Resort resides has always been and will continue to be recognized as a natural treasure located right in the heart of the Midwest.

Building a legacy

Construction of the resort in the 1960s was anything but simple. The Abbey Harbor was excavated by hydraulic dredging of 242,000 cubic yards of earth, which in turn was pumped back onto the resort’s property, raising the land six feet. The official groundbreaking in 1962, presided over by Governor Gaylord Nelson, was the beginning of a $4 million undertaking. Plans included a 225-room hotel, convention facilities, a 250-slip marina in the manmade harbor, and indoor and outdoor pools.

One journalist calculated that over 1,068,000 board-feet of lumber were used in construction and 4,644 gallons of paint applied. To complete what was the Midwest's largest resort at the time, it took approximately 105,000 man-hours by carpenters, masons, laborers and others; 12,000 man-hours by plumbers; and another 9,900 hours by electricians. In all, 65 firms from Wisconsin and Illinois had a hand in the successful completion of the project.

The Abbey Resort opens

The name The Abbey Resort that is still so well known and revered today was chosen in honor of Europe’s famed abbeys, which were regarded as havens of hospitality and good food throughout the Middle Ages. Upon completion, the resort's design was celebrated for its blend of influences. The sweeping Polynesian roofs and deep angles of the northern European chalet style were both aesthetically pleasing to the eye and practical in preventing the accumulation of snow. The design received national praise, and the 80-foot A-frame was even named Outstanding Wood Design of 1963 by the National Lumber Manufacturers Association.
 
Guest rooms were designed to create an atmosphere reminiscent of "luxurious yet simple country estate" guest quarters with the influences of French provinces. Amenities included The Blue Grotto which included a heated indoor pool, a thermal hydrotherapeutic pool, and The Roman Baths, a health club that had steam baths, a sauna and heat lamps. Tour de Bois, French for "Wooden Tower," was the resort’s private dining club housed in the A-frame, open to members only for an elegant, fine-dining experience that featured popular dishes of the time such as duck pâté, baked onion soup, beef wellington, bananas foster and bread pudding.

The resort opened in May of 1963 with a ceremony attended by Lieutenant Governor Jack Olson and other state and local dignitaries.

Committed to continuous improvements

Throughout its more than fifty years of continuous operation, the resort has preserved a great sense of its historic legacy and timeless tradition while continuing to welcome improvements. The Abbey Resort seeks to provide its guests with outstanding accommodations and service, and as one of the most esteemed resorts in the area is committed to staying ahead of the curve when it comes to renovations and resort improvements.

In 2005, the now 90-acre, 334-room resort underwent a $40 million redevelopment to modernize the property. The final phase was completed in 2008 with the introduction of Avani Spa, one of the largest and most complete full-service spas in the Midwest.

In 2013, The Abbey Resort celebrated 50 years of continuous operation with the completion of a $50 million renovation, including major external renovations such as the transformation of the famed Abbey A-frame, as well as interior renovations that included major remodeling of the entryway, lobby, meeting spaces and grand ballroom.

Dining amenities underwent major renovations in 2014, including the remodel and relocation of Café Latte to the lobby area and the debuts of Bar West providing guests with an intimate bar and cocktail setting, and 240° West, the resort’s signature restaurant. Additional renovations were completed at Avani Spa in 2014, including an overhaul of the women’s locker room and showers, and enhancements made to the spa’s steam and inhalation rooms. In 2015, the resort renovated secondary meeting space facilities and guest room lounge areas and corridors. In 2016, The Avani Spa pool and additional meeting spaces were renovated, and the Wedding Sales Office was created.
 
Improvements completed more recently include refreshing the guest rooms, remodeling the resort’s more casual restaurant and bar, Waterfront, expansion of Café Latte, enhancements to the outdoor pools and the creation of Immersion Virtual Entertainment Center including a café, a virtual reality gaming center, and Immersion Cinema which features a big-screen and theatre-style seating all completed in 2017, and a new outdoor event venue, West Shore Pavilion, which provides all the comforts and amenities of an indoor space in a natural and relaxing outdoor setting.

The Abbey Resort prides itself on staying ahead of the hospitality curve, and its continuous renovations are a testament to its commitment to moving forward while maintaining its timeless traditions and its historic legacy as the only full-service resort on the shores of Lake Geneva. 

Throwback Thursday blog entry from Epstein

Designed by Epstein in the 1960s, the design and construction company recounts its role in the development of The Abbey Resort’s historic legacy in a throwback blog entry.

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