Fabyan Villa holds secrets to family's place in American history
"Some rich men go for art collections, gay times on the Riviera or extravagant living. But they all get satiated. That's why I stick to scientific experiments. You never get sick of too much knowledge." - Colonel George Fabyan
There are few walking tours that include a stroll past a bear cage, through a Japanese garden to a farmhouse remodeled by Frank Lloyd Wright. Discussions on Shakespeare, cryptology, an anti-gravity machine and the validity of an Egyptian mummy only add to the perplexing story of Colonel George and Nelle Fabyan, an eccentric couple who called Geneva their home in the early 1900s.
For a generous donation, the curious traveler can catch a glimpse into the world of this high-society couple who spent both their time and money on strange and eclectic pursuits.
While some of these pursuits seemed absurd, others played an important role in the history of America. Either way, there's plenty to learn from a walk around the grounds affectionately known by the Fabyan's as "Riverbank."
The estate was originally a summer home for Fabyan, a cloth dealer who made Geneva his permanent residence after leaving both Boston and Chicago. Soon, Fabyan would use his estate for various science and research projects, including a massive undertaking to prove that William Shakespeare was a fake.
Visitors to the Fabyan Villa will find remnants of the gardens, fountains, grottos and personal zoo that George and Nelle had on the grounds, a zoo that at one time included bears, monkeys, alligators and exotic birds. They'll also discover an 1864 Dutch Windmill, an authentic Japanese garden and a lighthouse nestled against the Fox River.
A quiet walk around the Fabyan Villa will easily beg the question, who were these people and why have I never heard of them?
While the property offers plenty of visual appeal, it's the strange pursuits of George Fabyan that seem to capture the imagination of those who tour the villa. The colonel enjoyed collecting abandoned express packages from train freights hoping he might find anything of interest. He spent a great deal of his wealth collecting ancient artifacts including an Egyptian mummy that was discovered years later to be a fake. Fabyan used his property to conduct acoustic studies and test military strategies. He even hired scientists to attempt to create an anti-gravity machine.
His greatest claim to fame might be hiring a man named William Friedman to come live on the estate and work on various projects. Friedman had a natural talent for cryptology and became a key figure in Fabyan's mission to prove Shakespeare was a fake. Although the project never quite panned out, Friedman became such an expert on cryptology during his time spent at Riverbank that he ended up being the nation's top military code breaker and played a pivotal intelligence role during WWI and WWII.
Lynn Dransoff, director of the Fabyan Villa and Japanese Garden, says sharing this unique story with visitors who believe the villa is "just a run of the mill old house" is one of the most rewarding aspects of working at the museum.
"Watching people's interest grow as they listen to the story of George and Nelle Fabyan is amazing especially when most visitors initially just want to have a quick look around," Dransoff says. "Intriguing is the connections that George and Nelle had to history-making people and to major events and changes in American society and history that led to all of their accomplishments."
Dransoff says most visitors want to know how George made his money and why he and Nelle were interested in such eccentric hobbies.
"It's difficult to explain as we can only offer conjecture as to their motivations. We are unaware of any diaries or journals, and they did not have children," Dransoff says.
The unusual story of the estate as well as the interesting artifacts remaining from the Fabyan's personal museum tends to surprise guests who believe they're simply walking into another Chicago-area architecture tour on Wright.
The Fabyan Villa first opened in 1940 as a natural history and Fabyan legacy museum. If you're interested in a tour, you'd better hurry. The museum stops individual tours for this year on Wednesday, Oct. 15, though group tours are available through November. If nothing else, you'll come out of the tour with a new appreciation on how this millionaire tycoon spent his money and how he played a significant role in the history of our country.
Rt. 31 and Fabyan Pkwy. Geneva
Guided tours: Every 30 minutes from 1 to 4:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays
Suggested donation: $2 adults, $1 children
Contemporary and classical Japanese music will be played in the garden at 3:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 5. Takako Bassett will play the Koto, a 13-string instrument that originated during the seventh century in Japan. Bring a lawn chair or blanket to relax on. Suggested donation: $5.
While you're there
"Geneva is a shopping and history mecca in the Fox Valley," Lynn Dransoff, director of the Fabyan Villa and Japanese Garden, says.
"The Geneva History Center has great exhibits, Fermilab grounds have prairie trails and bison to see, and Peck Farm Park has authentic farm buildings to explore."
For those looking for a great place for lunch or dinner, check out the Urban Grille, located at 524 W. State St. in Geneva.
This upscale restaurant features a variety of unusual appetizers including Philly cheesesteak egg rolls, fried pickles and sweet potato fries. The restaurant's claim to fame is the customized burger options including a two-pound hamburger that will get your picture on the "Burger Wall of Fame" if you can finish every bite.
If you've left room for dessert, head down to Graham's Fine Chocolate and Ice Cream located at 302 S. Third St. in Geneva. Converted into an ice cream shop from a country house, Graham's has the look and feel of an old ice cream parlor. I recommend the Italian fountain drinks, though people were really talking up the chocolate during our visit.
If antique stores are your thing, the main streets of downtown Geneva have plenty to offer. Shops, bars and restaurants are spread throughout the main strip of town as well.
For upcoming events in Geneva, visit genevachamber.com. For information on the Fabyan Villa and Japanese Garden, visit ppfv.org.