The Gilded Age was an era of intense economic change, when old-school values clashed with new ways of thinking about long-standing social and cultural issues. It was a period when massive fortunes were made—and lost—as the U.S. moved from an agricultural-based to an industrial economy. Extending from roughly 1870 to 1900, the “Gilded Age” was a term coined by author Mark Twain to emphasize the nation’s many social problems concealed only by thin, gold gilding.
The era’s over-the-top, conspicuous consumption extended into the vacation sphere, too: In the hit HBO series The Gilded Age, the New York social scene of the period moves to the posh resort town of Newport, Rhode Island, in the summer months, where extravagant mega-mansions still guard the seafront. The Midwest boasts a Gilded Age gem of its very own: Lake Geneva, Wisconsin.
Situated just 75 miles away from Chicago, Lake Geneva became a coveted vacation destination for the rich and famous in the late 19th century. Early Windy City magnates built enormous, magnificent summer estates along the picture-perfect lakefront. Typical of the era’s focus on climbing the social ladder at all costs, families tried to outdo one another, hiring the best architects and designers to build lavish homes, each one more grand than its predecessor (one recently sold for $36 million). Soon, Lake Geneva became known as the “Newport of the Midwest.”
It wasn’t until after the Civil War, when so many found fortune in the fast-growing city of Chicago, that wealthy families began constructing many of the mansions that now line the lake.
In 1871, train service launched from downtown Chicago straight to the Lake Geneva Depot. The same year, when the Great Chicago Fire destroyed 3.3 square miles of the city, including more than 17,000 homes and buildings, many Chicago families packed up and moved to the resort town.
“The start of the Gilded Age coincides with the Great Chicago Fire,” says Pamela S. Meyers, who penned a series of historical romance novels set in Lake Geneva. “Families were essentially looking to a place to keep their families safe while the city underwent a massive rebuilding effort.”
Many of the mansions are still standing today. Most are accessible via the Lake Geneva Shore Path, a 26-mile-long trail that circles the lake, passing through the magnificently landscaped lakefront gardens of the grand homes. It takes about 10 hours to walk the entire length of the trail, so it’s recommended to hike in segments. Public restrooms and water fountains can be found at path access points, including the VISIT Lake Geneva Information Center, Edgewater Park, Reid Park, and Big Foot Beach State Park. Wear sturdy shoes as the trail is only partially paved and can be slippery in some segments. Dogs are welcome to hike along, so long as they’re leashed. Use this downloadable map of the Shore Path from the Lake Geneva Visitors Bureau to get around.
1. Stone Manor
Located at 880 S. Lake Shore Drive, Stone Manor was built in 1899 by Otto Young, a German immigrant who found his fortune in Chicago real estate. The seven-level estate, now made up of six luxury condominiums, was the largest built on Lake Geneva and boasts a grand ballroom and rooftop garden complete with a swimming pool.
2. Black Point
Built in 1888 for Chicago beer baron Conrad Seipp, Black Point‘s elegant lakefront landscaping includes 74 different species of evergreen trees. The estate’s interior remains largely unchanged and still features much of its original furniture and decor; it’s open for tours from May 1 through October 31.
3. Alta Vista
The Italianate Alta Vista estate was designed by famed architect Howard Van Doren Shaw on a stretch of the lake nicknamed “millionaire’s row” for its especially opulent mansions. Built for Colonel William N. Pelouze, founder of the Pelouze Scale and Balance Company (whose scales were exclusively used by the USPS), Alta Vista was also owned by the Vick family (the makers of VapoRub).
4. Maxwell Mansion
Built in 1855 by prominent Chicago surgeon and real estate magnate Dr. Philip Maxwell, the Maxwell Mansion was initially named “The Oaks” in honor of the centuries-old trees surrounding the estate. Today, it’s a boutique hotel with its own bespoke cocktail lounge. “The Maxwell Mansion brings me back in time, to another era,” says Meyers. “I began writing books set in the area to highlight the rich history of Lake Geneva and its magnificent mansions. I lived in the Maxwell Mansion when I was a young child. Until it was restored to its original splendor, it was divided into apartments. Our family lived in the former servant’s quarters.”
5. Yerkes Observatory
In addition to the opulent homes, several other Lake Geneva attractions offer a glimpse of the Gilded Age. Considered the “Birthplace of Modern Astrophysics,” the circa-1897 Yerkes Observatory‘s 40-inch refracting-type telescope was the largest in the world when it was dedicated in 1897. Once operated by the University of Chicago Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics, the observatory closed in 2020. However, visitors to Lake Geneva can still stroll its porch, which lies just beyond the lakefront George Williams College of Aurora University.
6. Mailboat ride
Lake Geneva is one of the few towns in the U.S. where mail is delivered by boat via “Mail Jumpers.” Since 1916, when area roads were limited, dedicated USPS workers have been “jumping” from the passenger-carrying mailboat to the many shorefront mailboxes. Book a mailboat ride to experience this timeless and useful tradition. Cruises depart from the historic Riviera Boat Dock, a three-armed pier with an adjacent pavilion that houses shops; jazz greats including Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Duke Ellington, and Louis Armstrong once played at the dance hall upstairs.
7. Baker House
The circa-1889 Baker House hosts an afternoon high tea service that includes a tour of the mansion. At 17,000 square feet, the 30-room Queen Anne mansion features massive mantles and elegant stained glass throughout. The exterior shingles were made with wood from Californian redwoods.
8. Lake Geneva
The absolute gem of Lake Geneva, however, is the spring-fed lake. At 8 miles long, geologists believe that the 135-foot-deep lake is a filled-in kettle, formed from a receding glacier. The public Riviera Beach is conveniently located near the town center’s many shops and restaurants. Admission is only charged during business hours (9 a.m. until 6 p.m. every day from Memorial Day to Labor Day) when lifeguards are on duty.