When Wilmette was the ‘Coney Island of the North Shore’

Before Wilmette was Wilmette, there was also Gross Point and No Man’s Land.

May 6, 2013

Odette Yousef and Andrew Gill

Wilmette is known as the home of Walker Bros Original Pancake House, which for 50 years has challenged even the heartiest of appetites (although WBEZ’s Andrew Gill managed to polish off an entire apple cinnamon pancake on his own). Long before then, however, the northern suburb had a reputation for gobbling up not just pancakes, but whole communities. On a recent day-long hunt for stories in Wilmette, we learned how the small village grew aggressively in the early part of the 20th century, often from a desire to preserve existing social morés.

Catholics to the West, Protestants to the East

One sign of Wilmette’s early growth can be seen in its streets: the village has 13 miles of red, brick-paved roads. Coming off a week of intense rains in the Chicago metro area, we wondered if this was a deliberate choice to mitigate flooding or potholes. In fact, it’s a bit of the North Shore community’s history that they’ve chosen to hang onto for aesthetic reasons. But you’ll only find those brick pavers on the east side of Wilmette, we were told. West of Ridge Road, everything’s asphalt.

“Up until the 1920s, Wilmette just went from the lake west to Ridge Rd. And then west of Ridge Rd. was a different community called the Village of Gross Point,” explained Kathy Hussey-Arntson, Director of the Wilmette Historical Museum. “And they were two very different communities. Gross Point was largely a farming community. And they never paved their streets, they were more like country roads if you look at the early pictures and so forth, because they were farms.”

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Hussey-Arnston told us that Gross Point was founded in the late 1830s by German Catholic immigrant farmers, who settled just west of the more urbane community of Protestant transplants from the east coast, most of whom ran businesses. The communities worked together at times, such as when they created New Trier Township.

But the two communities also had their differences. For one thing, Wilmette was dry, and Gross Point was not. In fact, leading up to the 1920s, a significant portion of Gross Point’s revenues came from its 15 taverns. This cultural clash between neighboring villages was conveniently resolved, said Hussey-Arntson, as a result of Wilmette’s avid interest in the prohibition movement. When Prohibition was set to become the law of the land, Gross Point realized its tax base would soon be wiped out, and its residents voted to dissolve their government. Wilmette then annexed the land.

No Man’s Land

Wilmette residents were none too happy with the antics of their brethren to the north, either. In particular, they were concerned about the development of a small triangle of land along the lake, sandwiched between their village and Kenilworth. The area was known as No Man’s Land.

“No Man’s Land was a development in the 1920s, and the two structures that initially went up in the mid ‘20s were the Teatro del Lago Movie Theater, and the set of shopping [stores],” said Hussey-Arnston. The complex along Sheridan Avenue, now known as Plaza del Lago, still retains its kitschy Spanish-themed architecture, though the tiled roofs now sit atop a Jewel-Osco and a CVS, among other stores.

“This is one of the very early shopping centers in the country,” said Hussey-Arntson, “cars were relatively new in the ‘20s, so the idea that you could drive to the shopping mall and you could park your car and then go shop at a number of stores was a new idea.”

Hussey-Arntson explained the original idea was to develop the lakeside community, with high rises across the street and a posh dance hall, as a playground for the wealthy. But construction stopped when the Great Depression hit, and the businesses went bust. Instead of high-end shopping, Plaza del Lago became a hub for cheap hot dog and hamburger joints, and fireworks stands. This didn’t sit well with the residents of Wilmette according to Hussey-Arntson.

“They had very nice houses around there, and in their backyard were these little beachfront shanty cottages that were selling fireworks and that kind of thing, and they had no control over the zoning and whatever happened there,” Hussey-Arntson said. “They also showed movies on Sunday, which was forbidden in Wilmette, but the Teatro Del Lago wasn't under that jurisdiction so they played movies on Sunday and people came, of course.” The Village of Wilmette embarked on a long court battle to annex No Man’s Land, finally winning in 1942.

The Bahá'í

While Wilmette may have had issues with their drinking neighbors to the west, and their low-brow neighbors to the north, nobody knew of any problems that residents had with the followers of Bahá'í within their own village borders. Founded in Iran in 1844, Bahá'í is a monotheistic religion that believes humanity is a single race and the day has come for humanity’s unification into one global society.

Last year marked the 100th anniversary since the laying of the cornerstone for the Bahá'í House of Worship near the lake in east Wilmette. The remarkable white structure is the only Bahá'í temple in North America. It’s an unexpected find in this small village of 27,000 people, where 85 percent of residents are white.

“Around 1900 or so, most Bahá'ís in the United States lived either in New York or in the Chicago area,” said Joyce Litoff, a communications assistant for the Bahá'í National Center. “When they decided that they wanted to build a house of worship, there was a conversation about where it should be, and it was decided that this space was really more in the heartland.”

Litoff told us that the Bahá'í faith was first mentioned in the United States at the Columbian Exposition of 1893, held in Chicago. The religion drew some particularly well-heeled Chicagoans, which perhaps accounts for the lack of opposition among neighbors to the towering structure. Today, the temple is the main visitors attraction in Wilmette, drawing 300,000 people each year.