Name: Melanie Wilcox
City: Oak Park, IL
Why should we visit your town?
Established in 1902, Oak Park, Illinois brims with literary and architectural history. This village neighbors its big sister city—Chicago—and has the world’s largest collection of buildings and homes designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. The unversed passerby senses the antiquity radiating from the original Prairie-style Wrights and their modern replicas integral to this community’s roots: English immigrants Joseph and Betty Kettlestrings staked out a farm in 1835 where downtown Oak Park is now located. Its architectural history complements the town’s literary history: while Wright designed buildings for 20 years in Oak Park, writer Ernest Hemingway spent the first 20 years of his life there (born smackdab in the middle of Wright’s tenure).
Where should we stay?
Built in 1916, Bishops Hall is a bed-and-breakfast situated among the highest concentration of Frank Lloyd Wright commissioned homes. The Georgian-style B&B is named after its original purpose of serving as the residence for the bishop of the Orthodox Church. Understated on the outside, the Harvey House Bed & Breakfast exceeds expectations on the inside. The various suites—Golden Chest, Jimmy Stewart, and the Garden—make this converted home feel comfortable and personable.
If you’d prefer the Airbnb route, I can personally recommend this charming garden apartment in an ideally located historic building.
Where should we eat?
Craving pasta? Try the pumpkin ravioli at the sophisticated Cucina Paradiso—homestyle cooking with homestyle service. For a more relaxed atmosphere, try the burrata at Lake Street Kitchen + Bar—an apt location for people-watching on Lake Street. in downtown Oak Park (and trivia every Monday night!)
For dessert, order a hot fudge sundae at Petersen’s Ice Cream. Built in 1919, Petersen’s is practically an Oak Park institution!
Which coffeehouses are the best and why?
What sites should we see?
A visit to Oak Park would not be complete without taking a guided tour of the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio. You don’t have to be an architectural expert to enjoy this tour of this American icon’s home and studio. Learning about how he incorporated nature into his homes (like treehouses), his fondness for geometric designs, and his complicated personal life will surely entertain. If you are killing time waiting for your tour to start, take an audio tour of the 10 homes he designed on Forest Ave. and Elizabeth Ct. Be sure to do this at the beginning of your stay so you can appreciate the homes he designed—and be sure to book in advance!
Many architects consider Wright’s Unity Temple, a Unitarian Universalist church, to be the first modern building in the world and, thus, one of Wright’s most important buildings. Streaming until November 23, Lauren Levine’s film Unity Temple: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Modern Masterpiece features the history of the building, as well as Wright’s philosophies (narrated by Brad Pitt).
Tour the Ernest Hemingway Birthplace Museum, where the writer spent the first six years of his life. The beautifully restored Victorian home was the first in Oak Park that had electricity. The tour guides share insights into his family life—his grandfather who owned a cutlery firm; his artistically inclined mother; his alcoholic uncle; and his father, a physician who taught him how to hunt and fish.
While Wright often overshadows other architects’ creations, the Pleasant Home, designed by architect George W. Maher, on Home Street is one of the most distinguished examples of Prairie School Architecture in the United States. Also known as the John Farson House (Maher designed the home in 1897 for investment banker and philanthropist John Farson), the opulent two-story, 30-room mansion broke away from the traditional Colonial Revival architectural style.