Chicago Local Life

Examining the Rich History of Oak Park: Frank Lloyd Wright, Ernest Hemingway, and More

Oak Park, a suburb located to the west of Chicago, was once known as the “World’s Largest Village,” according to Oak Park.com. The village grew from a single sawmill on the Des Plaines River to a major settlement. Following the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, the village and its neighbor River Forest experienced a population boom. Today, the suburb proudly honors its history, which includes one of the largest collections of Frank Lloyd Wright homes, Ernest Hemingway’s birthplace, a historic movie theater, and more. Take a tour of Oak Park’s heritage.

Frank Lloyd Wright Homes

Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio photo by Shutterstock

Oak Park is home to a group of buildings designed by famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright. The architect lived in the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio from 1889 to 1909, according to Visit Oak Park, and the home remains open to the public. Other notable examples of his work include the Unity Temple, the Arthur B. Heurtley House, the Peter Beachy House, the Laura Gale House, the Frank Thomas House, the Hills-Decaro House, and the Nathan G. Moore House. Stroll past the houses to get a glimpse of their striking architecture, or take a guided walking tour for more insight into the buildings’ design and the life of Frank Lloyd Wright.

Ernest Hemingway’s Birthplace

Ernest Hemingway's birthplace photo courtesy of Teemu008

In addition to Oak Park’s claim to famous architecture, the suburb has ties to a beloved literary figure. Ernest Hemingway, famous for works like “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and “A Farewell to Arms,” is one of America’s most treasured authors. While he’s well known for his expatriate lifestyle, he was born in Oak Park on July 21, 1899 and lived there for six years. You can still visit the Queen Anne home that dates back to 1890, according to The Ernest Hemingway Foundation of Oak Park.

Lake Theatre

Lake Theatre photo courtesy of Brian Crawford

A night out at the movies in Oak Park is not your average popcorn-eating experience. Moviegoers can enjoy the big screens at Lake Theatre, an Art Deco-style movie theater that dates back to the 1930s. When you walk through the front doors to catch the latest blockbuster, you’ll hardly be able to miss the towering marquee. While the original theater has undergone a number of expansions, the grand, dazzling marquee and facade are original.

Oak Park Conservatory

Oak Park Conservatory photo courtesy of IvoShandor

This western suburb is home to the Oak Park Conservatory, a glass Edwardian style building. The conservatory, built in 1929, houses thousands of different plants from across the world. While thriving today, the building almost met an end in 1970. Plans were made to knock the historic building down, but a group of Oak Park residents banded together to save it, according to the conservatory website. Today, the conservatory is on the National Register of Historic Places. Come to walk through the greenery, or keep your eye out for the events regularly hosted at the conservatory.

 Oak Park River Forest Museum

Former firehouse photo courtesy of The Historical Society of Oak Park and River Forest

The Historical Society of Oak Park and River Forest has been dedicated to preserving the history of its two suburbs for the past 50 years. The society is responsible for opening and operating the Oak Park River Forest Museum. The museum, opened in 2017, is housed in a former firehouse that dates back to the late 1800s. See artifacts from the village’s history and explore the museum’s rotating exhibits.

Pleasant Home

Pleasant Home photo courtesy of Fifth World Design

Frank Lloyd Wright is not the only famous architect to have left a legacy in Oak Park. Architect George W. Maher designed Pleasant Home in 1897, and it still stands in the village today as a National Historic Landmark. The home, an example of the Prairie School of architecture, is open to the public. Take a walk through this 30-room mansion that has been expertly preserved.

Austin Gardens

Typical greenspace

Not all history is contained within four walls. Visit Oak Park’s Austin Gardens for a breath of fresh air. Henry W. Austin Jr. donated the land to the village in 1947, and it remains a public greenspace. Located within a quiet, residential area of the suburb, the park has hundreds of trees and a peaceful walking path. The park is also home to a field house, indoor ice rink, and picnic area.

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