The estate built by the late George and Nelle Fabyan has played many roles: a country getaway, a renovation project for Frank Lloyd Wright, the nation’s first private research lab, and, most recently, a public park.
Fabyan Villa isn’t just any old home. Located at 1511 S. Batavia Ave., in Geneva, it’s the former estate of George Fabyan, a wealthy businessman who founded a private research laboratory in Geneva, and his wife, Nelle. The beautiful home was redesigned by architect Frank Lloyd Wright in 1907 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
At one time, the estate included a Japanese garden, private zoo, Roman-style swimming pool, lighthouse, country club, quarry, farm, gardens, grottoes, greenhouses and an amphitheater.
Today, the couple’s estate is part of the Forest Preserve District of Kane County (FPDKC) and is open to the public. The villa is home to the Fabyans’ private library and museum.
“The Fabyans were very social people,” says Hannah Walters, museum director. “They definitely enjoyed getting out and being with people. But they loved their home more. They spent most of their time there, and it’s reflected in how they expanded it over the years. These changes didn’t just happen overnight.”
The Fabyans’ estate began when the couple bought 10 acres along the west bank of the Fox River in Geneva. They eventually expanded it into a 300-acre country estate, called “Riverbank,” which spanned both sides of the river.
From 1908 until Nelle’s death in 1939, they owned and maintained the eclectic estate; George died in 1936. Because the couple had no children, 234 acres of Riverbank were sold in 1940, by the executors of the will, to the forest preserve district for $70,500. In 1995, the FPDKC enlisted the help of the Preservation Partners of the Fox Valley (PPFV) to operate the museum. As part of its mission to offer heritage education and to promote the area’s architectural and historical resources, the nonprofit PPFV oversees the Fabyan Japanese Gardens, which were designed in 1910 and have been extensively renovated twice since 1974.
Many of the Fabyans’ original installations are gone, but plenty of vibrant reminders remain. For example, the Fabyan Windmill, located on the east side of the river, off Illinois Route 25, has stood at its current location for 100 years.
The 68-foot, five-story structure was built by German craftsman Louis Blackhaus between 1850 and 1860. Fabyan bought the Dutch windmill in 1914 for $8,000 and spent about $75,000 restoring it. In 1979, the windmill was listed as the Dutch Mill on the National Register of Historic Places. The following year, it appeared on a U.S. postage stamp. It underwent complete restoration in 2003 and 2004.
An Estate Built on Industry
Born in Boston to George and Isabella Fabyan, George was the eldest son of five children. His father owned the textile business Bliss, Fabyan & Co., and the family lived in the wealthy Beacon Hill area of Boston.
“George went to the best schools and the expectation was that he would settle along the East Coast,” says Walters. “His parents wanted him to attend Harvard and become a doctor like his grandfather, who was also named George. But he wanted to go into business, instead.”
George left home at age 17 and ended up in Spokane, Wash., where he started working for Union Pacific Railroad as a timber and tie sales agent. He traveled throughout the West and the Midwest. He met Nelle Wright in Minnesota, and after they married in 1891, they moved to Chicago, where George became a Midwest representative for his father’s company. The coupled lived on South Michigan Avenue.
In 1905, the Fabyans bought land in Geneva that encompassed a Victorian-style farmhouse. “This was a vacation home for them,” says Walters. “A lot of wealthy people did that at the time. If you could afford it, you could have riverbank-adjacent property.”
Two years later, the couple hired Frank Lloyd Wright to redesign, remodel and expand the house. The southern addition included Nelle’s master suite, the butler’s pantry and guest room.
“I think some people come expecting to see the Guggenheim Museum or Fallingwater,” says Walters, referring to some of Wright’s best-known homes. “He was a busy guy in 1907. This was a redesign. This wasn’t a huge project for him.”
The villa, however, bears all the markings of Wright: flatwood trim, prairie-style design, three verandas, open floor plan, a privacy screen, earth tones on the interior and exterior of the home, along with built-in furniture, diamond pane windows on the first floor and cathedral-style windows on the second.
“Think of it as a hallmark for Wright at the time,” says Walters. “It encompasses things he was doing architecturally in 1907. If you’re familiar with early Frank Lloyd Wright, this makes a lot more sense.”
In 1910, the Fabyans hired Taro Otsuka, a well-known Japanese landscape architect, to design a Japanese-style garden below the villa. The one-acre garden was developed over the next several years, and from 1918 on, it was maintained by Susumu Kobayashi, a Japanese immigrant gardener. “Japanese gardens were popular amongst the upper class, and it was a popular attraction throughout the 1920s and 1930s,” says Walters.
The garden was neglected for decades after the Fabyans died, but renovations started in 1974 helped to restore its original charm. Currently, the garden has many restored and replicated elements that resemble the original, such as a pond, waterfall, moon bridge, oversized lantern and teahouse.
A Man of Many Interests
It’s no secret that Fabyan used his father’s business success to amass his own wealth, but the younger Fabyan also possesed entrepreneurial talent. He started his own company, Riverbank Laboratories, the first privately owned research facility in the United States. It was conveniently located across the street from his home, on Illinois Route 31.
In 1918, Fabyan built the nation’s first reverberation chamber for Harvard physicist Wallace Clement Sabine, a pioneer researcher in architectural acoustics. The laboratory also housed a cryptology team that deciphered codes from the works of Sir Francis Bacon, William Shakespeare and enemy military communications during World War I. In fact, the National Security Agency has recognized Riverbank Laboratories as the birthplace of cryptology and has honored Fabyan for his associated services.
“That’s where George spent a lot of his time, money and effort,” Walters says. Today, the laboratory is a private residence.”
Although Fabyan worked hard, he and his wife also enjoyed their free time. “We know they went to theaters, and were involved with Chicago’s elite,” Walters says. “They definitely ran with some influential people.”
Fabyan was known to many as “Colonel,” a title given to him by Illinois Governor Richard Yates, who appointed the businessman to his military guard in 1901, despite Fabyan’s lack of military experience. The Colonel was one of 35 men invited to march in President McKinley’s inauguration parade.
Early in his career, Fabyan had spent some time in Japan, developing relations with government and business representatives there. He also was appointed as a liaison to General Kuroki Tamemoto during the Russo-Japanese peace negotiations held in Maine in 1905. Four years later, Fabyan was awarded the Order of the Rising Sun by the Japanese government, an honor given to those who’ve made distinguished achievements in international relations or promoted the Japanese culture. Between 1907 and 1910, Fabyan served as a host for General Kuroki and others during their visits to Chicago.
“George was the more gregarious of the two,” says Walters. “He was more than OK with publicity. He was a showman and had a commanding presence, while Nelle was the quiet one.”
Nelle was a lover of plants and animals. She raised West Highland terriers and English bulldogs on the Geneva estate, and owned monkeys named Mike, Molly and Patsy; brown bears named Tom, Jerry and Mary; and four-foot Cayman alligators. On the farm, she raised Jersey cattle, including a stud named Ocean Blue, in addition to ducks, goats and turkeys. “It was never dull at Riverbanks,” says Walters. “There was always something going on.”
Nelle was equally passionate about flowers and plants. She maintained two banks of greenhouses that included a conservatory. Nelle grew two types of roses and sold fresh flowers in neighboring communities and in Chicago. The Fabyans’ landscape included plantings in the shapes of crescent moons and stars. Gazebos, benches, a fire pit and hammocks dotted the sprawling property. With so much going on, the Fabyans employed 60 to 100 people as chauffeurs, cooks, maids, farmers, animal handlers and gardeners.
Friends of Fabyan
The Fabyan Villa is alive and well, thanks to the commitment of many dedicated volunteers.
In the 1970s, Friends of Fabyan formed with a purpose of sprucing up the property. Darlene Larson and Mary Jean McCleary are today’s co-presidents.
“We provide knowledge, preservation and restoration of this historic site,” says Larson, who first got involved with the Japanese Gardens as a member of the Geneva Garden Club.
Since its inception, the group has done research, interviewed family members of former employees, and made renovations to the Villa and gardens. The Friends have refurbished parts of the property, including a garage built in 1912, and have held annual fundraising events to support other property needs. “No one was telling the story until the Friends got involved,” says Walters.
The Fabyans’ private collection of artifacts from the laboratories are held in the villa, and are on public display. “It’s a good way to get a feel for who they really were,” says Walters.
Larson fondly remembers Riverbanks from her childhood. She was 10 when she first visited the property as a member of a local Brownie troop. She got involved as an adult in the early 1970s.
“I had a Japanese foreign exchange student stay at my house, and I took her to see the gardens,” Larson recalls. “I was embarrassed with its condition. Something needed to be done.”
Now, she’s proud of nearly everything about the estate. “We should all be proud,” she says. “It’s still an important part of the area and beyond. I hope it helps people remember the past.”
Visitors to the estate can learn about the Fabyans for themselves. On the self-led villa tour, they’ll see many of the Fabyans’ personal artifacts. There are Japanese and Chinese ceramics, wood carvings, and items made from porcelain and jade. Animal mounts include bison, alligators, lizards and caribou. There’s a large marble statue from the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, and a “dummy mummy.” Most of the Fabyans’ furniture was sold following their deaths.
Last year, 5,000 guests visited the gardens and 2,000 toured the villa. “We’ve had visitors from China, Australia, Ukraine and virtually every state in the country,” says Walters. “The tour helps to give context and interesting facts to think about.
“The property was owned by wealthy people, but there’s so much more to the story. It’s an interesting and intriguing story on many levels. Whether you’re a history buff, lover of art or a Frank Lloyd Wright fan, there’s something to interest you.”