Circus tent kept lake home a surprise for owner's wife

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Ginny Hall | August 2, 2013

Building of The House in the Woods, on the north shore of Geneva Lake, began under a circus tent during the winter of 1905 so it could be a surprise for Adolphus C. Bartlett's wife. The tent came from the P.T. Barnum circus in Delavan. 

Bartlett was in the hardware distribution business in Chicago, a founding trustee for the Art Institute of Chicago and a trustee of the University of Chicago. He also was active with Beloit College and Chicago's Central Church.

The architect for The House in the Woods was Howard Van Dorn Shaw. Bartlett's son, Frederick Clay Bartlett, who was an artist/muralist, also had a hand in it. He not only helped with the architectural plans but also painted murals on the home's walls. These no longer exist, having been removed by later owners. 

Frederick was one of the first artists to be accepted into Munich's Royal Academy of Art.  He was awarded a silver medal at the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis. 

Richard Soutar was the local contractor for the building. He had to get his workers from Chicago because so many other mansions were being built in the area. The Olmsted brothers did the landscaping of the estate. 

In 1909 the Ladies Home Journal described it as “a house built around three sides of an inner court and on the fourth side stands a studio.” The outside walls were a natural cream gray concrete with blue-green trellis work, window frames and eaves. The sashes were white and the shingled roof gives an effect of weathered silver-gray. 

Bricks that were used for the piers, chimneys and paving were warm red with raked-out white joints. The magazine included a two-page collection of pictures of the home in its June issue.

The 45 acres of property on which it was built was purchased from L.Z. Leiter at $1,111 per acre. The land contained the Mallory Springs, famous for the water's purity and medicinal qualities. Some cures were attributed to its use.  

In 1936 the property was purchased by Col. William M. Spencer, a manufacturer of insulated railway cars. He sold it in 1972 when he was 80. 

The large C-shaped main house is 110 feet by 78 feet with the longest part facing the lake.  The house acquired its name because it is set back from the shoreline among the trees. The main house was originally only used during the summer.

The smaller studio building contained a studio, dining room, two bedrooms, bath and kitchen.  It was used by the family during the winter and as a guest house for the Spencers.

The house has been restored by the current owner and can be accessed by car from Snake Road. It is a delight to see from either the public shore path or from a boat.

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