The Story of Oak Park
Oak Park is perhaps one of Chicago’s best-known suburbs, with an identity all its own. Originally the home of Potawatomi, Sac, and Fox Native Americans, it lies straight west of downtown Chicago at the end of the Green Line. The first known European settlers were Joseph and Betty Kettlestrings in 1835, whose home became a resting point for travelers between Chicago and the Des Plaines River. The construction of the Chicago & Galena Union Railroad in 1848 helped the settlement grow, while the exodus of people from Chicago after the Great Fire of 1871 led to a burst of development.
Watch: Oak Park
Oak Park gained its current name in 1872 and became a dry community that banned the sale of alcohol the same year (it remained completely dry until 1973). This restriction reflected the generally conservative outlook of Oak Park, which came to be dominated by white Protestants through World War II. As Frank Lloyd Wright, who lived and worked in Oak Park for a number of years around the turn of the century, characterized it, “So many churches for so many good people to go to.” Or as one popular quote frequently attributed to Ernest Hemingway puts it, “Wide lawns and narrow minds.” It is doubtful that Hemingway, who was born in Oak Park at the turn of the century, actually said it – but no one doubts that he was eager to leave the staid suburb, regardless.
From near the time of Hemingway’s birth in 1899 through the end of World War II, Oak Park continued to grow – and much of its lauded architecture, included many homes by Frank Lloyd Wright and his contemporaries, constructed during this time. (Edgar Rice Burroughs, the author of Tarzan, also lived and worked in Oak Park during this period.)
In the postwar period, Oak Park began to change as malls drew consumers away from its once-thriving downtown, and Catholic Italians and Irish, along with more Jews, began to move in, overtaking the Northern European Protestants in numbers. In the ’60s and ’70s, as another new group – African Americans – began to move in, Oak Park shifted away from the conservatism of earlier decades, adopting an open housing ordinance in 1968 in an effort to integrate black families into the suburb and ban the common discriminatory real estate practices that led to segregation. Oak Park thus skirted many of the problems seen in other changing urban areas, such as neighboring Austin. True racial equity is still an elusive goal, but the community is relatively integrated, a legacy of diversity that it proudly protects.
Today, Oak Park remains a proud and vibrant community that celebrates its illustrious history and architecture and is accessible for commuters via two CTA lines. The Harlem/Lake, Oak Park, Ridgeland, and Austin stops on the Green Line and Oak Park and Austin stops on the Blue Line service Oak Park.
Neighborhood Spotlight: Frank Lloyd Wright
Oak Park is home to the largest collection of buildings designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in the world, including Wright’s own home and studio in which he lived and worked off and on from 1889 through 1910 (after Wright ran off with the wife of a client, his wife Catherine and their children stayed there until 1918). The homes he designed and built for wealthy neighbors helped cement his early reputation and also illustrate the development of his influential Prairie Style.
In addition to homes such as the Arthur Heurtley House from 1902 and the Avery Coonley House from 1907, Wright also built one of his masterpieces in Oak Park: Unity Temple, which was completed in 1909 and was recently added to the UNESCO World Heritage List. For that building, Wright dispensed with most conventional architectural elements and rules for houses of worship. Some of its Prairie Style elements are similar to those of Wright’s iconic Robie House, while the bare concrete of the walls was at the time more likely to be found in industrial structures.
Wright’s time in Oak Park helped launch his career and allowed him to develop a signature style. The Chicago Architecture Center offers tours of some of his work in Oak Park, while the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust offers an annual Housewalk.
Things to Do
Try a slice of pie at Molly Svec’s Spilt Milk, right off the Oak Park Green Line stop, then visit Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Oak Park has plenty of unique shops to check out, too.