Historical Lake Geneva Public Library renovated with history in mind

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President Franklin D. Roosevelt once wrote; "I have an unshaken conviction that democracy can never be undermined if we maintain our library resources and a national intelligence capable of utilizing them."

Public libraries have been a central part of American life for centuries, including in Lake Geneva, a historic building which was recently renovated.

"People will think it's a really special spot they love to sit here and read work, look at the lake and just sort of enjoy the building," said Library Director Emily Kornak.

At the height of the pandemic, Kornak oversaw the renovation of the library on the shore of Geneva Lake.

"We wanted to improve ease of use accessibility, safety after the lessons that we learned out of COVID but also keep the architecture that we have in place and actually highlighted a little bit more," said Kornak.

The building is a mid-century modern construction built in 1954.

Kornak said special care was taken to protect the historic design by Wisconsin Native and Frank Lloyd Wright protégé James R. Dresser, uncovering characteristics long covered up by shelves of books.

"This fireplace," said Kornak referring to the fireplace in the lobby, "was an original part of this building, but it had been actually hidden"

Life-long Lake Geneva resident, historian, and library trustee Chris Brookes says this all wouldn't be here without the generosity of women, including Mary Delafield Sturges.

"She came up here as the Chicago fire was burning," said Sturges.

According to Brookes, Sturges rented a room with her family at a small home where a civil war widow lived.

Eventually her family bought the home and surrounding property.

"She decided after her husband was gone that she would donate the property to the city in perpetuity for a library and a park," said Brookes.

That small home became a library with help from a committee of women.

"They printed the newspaper to raise money because the city didn't give them any money. The city board was all men," said Brookes, "they made this great effort to to raise money and then they raised money to buy books."

From 1885 until 1954 the small home held those books.

"Because the deed said until a fireproof building could be built because she was so afraid of fire after living through that experience," said Brookes.

That's when James R. Dresser was brought in to design what you see here.

A classic example of mid-century architecture, with it's clean, organic, and simple look.

Dresser passed away in 2011.

Kornak said when it came time to remodel, the community was heavily involved.

"Even the fundraising was a community effort," said Kornak.

When they ran a 6 month campaign to raise $500,000 dollars for the building, the community gave $800,000.

Renovators took note.

"They knew that it was very important to our community to preserve the architectural integrity of this building," said Kornak.

Like these stained-glass dividers.

"Those were designed by Gilbertson studio of Lake Geneva, which is a stained-glass art studio," said Kornak, "the design is actually a replica of the Geneva Hotel windows."

The Lake Geneva Hotel, a Frank Lloyd Wright designed building, was torn down in 1970.

"And we have one of the original windows from the second floor of the Geneva Hotel right above our lobby window."

Kornak says people often mistake these new ones as originals.

"I think it looks like it's always been there and which which is a sign of good design I think," said Kornak.

Another aspect was re-arranging the shelves.

"If you look through the building from the main street side, you can see right through to the lake, which was an intentional Dresser feature of the original library," said Kornak.

Brookes says this displays even more characteristics of the building.

"Even in little corners, you'll see how around the corner that you can see out and see a brick and then come in and see the same brick and features that you have outside inside," said Brookes.

Brookes says the thinner than normal bricks are another Frank Lloyd Wright-esque characteristic.

"Frank Lloyd Wright and James Dresser were very close," said 

Dresser even met his wife through his studies under Frank Lloyd Wright.

Brookes says the library means a lot to her.

"I had my kindergarten picture taken at the new library when it was built," said Brookes.

The table CBS 58 News interviewed Brookes at was a table with the same design by Dresser where her picture was took so long ago.

She says seeing people visit the library now that it's reopen is her favorite part.

"They walk in and just wondering, and I just love to see that reaction," said Brookes.

She said it's all thanks to library staff, and especially Kornak, that it all came together.

"She was the glue she kept it all together," said Kornak.

Kornak said it's the community that made it happen.

"It's a really special place. And one of the really interesting things I think about both this library and this renovation project is that it feels like this is this is a community building and it's, there's a great sense of ownership and pride by residents," said Kornak.

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