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Batavia and Geneva, Illinois

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Once upon a time (about 180 years ago) along the banks of a river called the Fox, settlers (many from New York State) began to arrive in the vicinity of what would eventually become the cities of Batavia and Geneva, Illinois (New York namesakes). Maybe dissatisfied with inadequate crop yields from the rocky soil of the Niagara Shelf or encouraged by the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 which promised statehood for Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin and Michigan, and/or relieved by the defeat of Blackhawk in 1832, farmers, timber men and land speculators made their way west to these future Fox River cities. Abundant farm land (once cleared), timber and water power derived from the Fox, provided not only the necessities for sustaining life, but the ingredients for future industry. Completed in 1825, the Erie Canal no doubt provided further impetus.batavia1 According to John Gustafson’s Historic Batavia, Batavia was originally known as Head of the Big Woods and first settled by a couple named Christopher and Elizabeth Payne in 1833. The name change occurred in 1840 when Judge Isaac Wilson renamed it after his hometown, Batavia, New York. (Batavia is a Dutch name and it’s derived from Batavi, the Roman name for Holland.) The origins of Geneva, Illinois are similar to those of Batavia. Like Batavia, settlers began to arrive in the early 1830’s, many no doubt coming for the same reasons, land and water power. At various times in its early development Geneva was called Big Spring, Herrington’s Ford, LaFox and Campbell Ford, but in 1836 its name was formally changed to Geneva due to the influence of Dr. Charles Volney Dyer who was from (guess where?), Geneva, New York. Not unlike its Batavia neighbor, Geneva thrived as an early center of commerce because of the Fox River and its close proximity to Chicago and eastern markets, where ready customers for farm and dairy products, timber, flour, paper and building materials (especially Batavia limestone) were abundant. By the 1850’s both Batavia and Geneva were also well on their way to being bastions of manufacture. Batavia had its windmills and Geneva had the Danford Reaper & Mower Works, along with W.D. Turner’s Geneva Hand Fluter (look this one up!).

While on trips to the Garfield Farm and Inn Museum in LaFox and St. Charles in early ’07, the Getaway Guys did a once over of Batavia and Geneva. They wrote about the former in their March 2008 article E-I-E-I-O and decided to do a later article about the latter once they had a chance to return for a closer look, which they did in the fall of ’08.

batavia2Much of Batavia’s wealth based on natural resources and the Fox is gone, eclipsed by deforestation, greater wheat production elsewhere, the obsolescence of quarried stone as a building material and the availability of more dependable energy sources. Left behind is a rich history and a plentitude of unique domestic and industrial architecture. In addition to buildings built in the 19th and 20th centuries from local stone and their adaptive re-use in the 21st century, the star attractions of today’s Batavia are its Depot Museum (, its windmills (11 downtown and 6 along Randall Road) and its Art Deco Compana Soap Company building. Not unlike many local history museums visited by the Getaway Guys, Batavia’s Depot Museum is a professionally designed repository of local history located in an adaptive re-use building. A former Chicago, Burlington and Quincy passenger depot, it’s filled with fascinating artifacts related to Batavia’s history. An icon of today’s Batavia, the windmills are a story in themselves. When Daniel Halladay brought his U.S. Wind Engine and Pump Company to Batavia in 1863, little did he know his machines would become objects of enchantment. Last, but not least, is the former Compana Soap Company building (1937) just north of town. An imposing edifice of brink and glass block, this vintage (relatively unchanged) Art Moderne building is a stark reminder of largely unrealized, Depression era dreams of improved work spaces through good design.

batavia3Among the exhibits at the Depot Museum are the furnishings from Mary Todd Lincoln’s private quarters at Bellevue Place, a mental hospital for women established in 1867 and still located on Union Avenue in Batavia. A hulking example of mid-19th century architecture (limestone), Bellevue Place is now a residential complex. The accoutrements displayed are perhaps more elegant than those typically associated with patients confined to mental institutions in the 19th century, but after all, Mary was the widow of a President. The Depot Museum also serves as a repository of archival records related to Batavia’s development. Probate records, correspondence, diaries, business records and batavia4manufacturer’s catalogs reside within an up-to-date, climate control environment and are used by a variety of individuals doing research about the history of the Fox River Valley. From its collection of 5,000+ objects, the museum mounts at least four temporary exhibits each year. The windmills of Batavia are not of the Dutch variety (there’s such a mill on George Fabyan’s former property). Batavia’s windmills were ingenious contraptions made of steel, especially those designed to be self regulating. When wind conditions were too strong, these machines adjusted themselves aerodynamically. Not unlike plows designed to “bust” the prairie, Batavia windmills (prior to rural electrification) helped to make the prairie productive by pumping much needed water from depths as deep as 900 feet. batavia5Commonly associated with cowboy movies, today they look quaint. Spindly and creeky, Batavia windmills played an essential role in America’s development as a preeminent agricultural nation. Virtually unaltered, the Compana Soap Company building is perhaps one of the best preserved examples of Art Moderne to be found in the Chicago area. Designed by Frank D. Chase, this structure has survived the demise of its original purpose, but a good example adaptive re-use and a must see to appreciate.

A hop, skip and a jump north of Batavia is Geneva (not Switzerland) with a less evident former industrial base. Within its confines are numerous examples of prosperous residential architecture dating from the mid 19th century and the early 20th,, all pretty much intact and significant. Whereas Batavia is in the process of re-inventing itself by capitalizing on its remaining factory architecture, Geneva appears to have resigned itself to tourism. West State Street is a fairly well preserved enclave of late 19th century commercial architecture, but the South 3rd Street area with its interesting mixture of residential architecture (converted to private enterprise) is somewhat devoted to tourists, especially during the summer. South of West State Street on 1st (Route 31), 2nd, 3rd and 4th Streets and South River Lane, the Getaway Guys found numerous examples of residential architecture dating from the 1840’s to 1900.

In addition to downtown, a visit to Geneva must include a tour of the Fabyan Villa and Japanese Garden ( batavia8Revamped by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1907 for George and Nelle Fabyan, the Villa is now owned by the Forest Preserve District of Kane County and operated by Preservation Partners of the Fox Valley. It is open to the public. Along with Mission Style furnishings (some designed by Wright) and a collection of curiosities collected by Col. Fabyan, the House contains an intriguing display of material related to the breaking of Japan’s super-secret Purple Code prior to World War II. The breaking of this vital code wasn’t achieved in Geneva, but the seeds of this accomplishment are embedded in Fabyan’s interest in and support for research into codes, specifically his quixotic search for the real author of Shakespeare’s works within the works of Sir Francis Bacon. While employed by the Army’s Signals Intelligence Service, a team led by a Fabyan protégé, William F. Friedman (1891-1969) succeeded in deciphering Japan’s diplomatic code in 1940, a 1915-‘18 effort with its roots in Geneva’s Riverbank Lab.

batavia8Originally a late 19th century farm house, the Villa looks deceptively plain, but once inside evidence of Wright’s hand is abundantly clear in its redesign and details. Its rearrangement of spaces and the inclusion of signature Wright nuances (windows, etc.), clearly make the Villa a genuine FLW project from his Oak Park studio. Unlike the Villa, which was restored in 1998, the Japanese Garden and the rest of the former Fabyan grounds are still works-in-progress. At its height, Fabyan’s estate was larger and more complex in its overall design than it is today. Key elements have either fallen into disrepair or in the case of the Roman swimming pool on/in the Fox River have washed away by flooding.

Both Batavia and Geneva are fascinating communities to explore and very good maps of each are readily available via the Internet. Armed with maps and good walking shoes, the Getaway Guys recommend parking and proceeding on foot. Much of the best residential architecture is along busy Route 31, so don’t get run over. While doing their research, the Guys tried several restaurants and liked FoxFire in Geneva the best. The food is nicely prepared, the service good and the atmosphere very interesting. Originally a buggy factory dating from the early 20th century and later a butcher shop, FoxFire has character. Even penny pinching Alan thought the cost acceptable. March 2009


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