Judge builds lake home, lumber baron doubles its size

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Ginny Hall | July 3, 2014

Another house you can view if you walk the public path around Geneva Lake or take a boat ride on that lake is the Bonnie Brae, built in 1881 for Judge Thomas J. Withrow. He named the house for his only daughter, Bonnie, who was married at the house Sept. 30, 1896.

Withrow was an attorney for the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad.  The house, which is of Swiss chalet architecture, was designed by C.A. Alexander with O.T. LaSalle acting as the contractor. At one time the estate was 98 acres with 1,250 feet of lake frontage.

Withrow died Feb. 3, 1893. In 1897, the house was purchased by Martin A. Ryerson, who owned the only lumberyard in Chicago that survived after the Chicago fire of 1871. Ryerson joined his father's lumberyard firm in 1880. At age 36, Ryerson was named the richest man in Chicago.

Ryerson's father, Martin L. Ryerson, was born in New Jersey in 1818. At age 16, he traveled to Detroit to work with Indian traders. He bought a sawmill in Michigan, then in 1851 he headed to Chicago and founded the lumberyard of Williams, Ryerson & Co. He had yards at  Fulton and Canal and another on Beach Street. Martin L. died in 1887.

Bonnie Brae was deemed one of the finest houses on the lake when Martin A. bought the property. He used his wealth to double the size of the house. His remodeling project cost about $70,000 as he added to the house and to the acreage. 

Ryerson was a personal friend of Claude Monet and John D. Rockefeller. During his lifetime he collected artwork, especially that of the Impressionists. Much of his art collection was donated to the Art Institute of Chicago. The house remained in the Ryerson family until 1939.  

The home has a three-sided front porch and a two-story balcony. It is a light green with a red roof and porte-cochere. 

The Ryersons' boathouse, which housed the family's steamboat, was built before 1900. It is now a private home. 

In 1986 Bonnie Brae was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. 
Ginny Hall, a historian from Delavan, is author of the “Walking around ...” and “Meandering ... ” books, which highlight the history of Walworth County communities.

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