In the 19th century, two sylvan enclaves were developed to provide an alternative to smoky, gritty life in industrial Chicago.
To this day, the western suburbs of Riverside and Brookfield share more than a high school. They both retain a lot of their original charm, thanks to winding streets — say goodbye to the Chicago grid — old trees and views of the Des Plaines River.
As you bike along curving roads, you’ll see why people often say Riverside is one big park. The original 1868 layout of the town by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux — designers of New York’s Central Park, and later the 1892 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago — was an idealized landscape of people living surrounded by nature. Here, you’ll see everything from candy-coated Victorians to hard-edged, modern homes.
10 Pine Ave., Riverside
Immediately north of the station is this fanciful water tower, a colorful Swiss-inspired confection built in 1869 as a centerpiece for the new town. It was designed by William LeBaron Jenney, who designed many of the first homes in town and who, back in Chicago, designed the first skyscraper, the Home Insurance Building. Today, the water tour houses the Riverside Historical Museum.
Next: Go south on Riverside Road. Once you cross the train tracks, take an immediate right onto Bloomingbank Road.
281 Bloomingbank Road, Riverside
Here, you’ll get your first glance at the Coonley estate, a large complex that Frank Lloyd Wright designed in 1907 for Avery and Queene Ferry Coonley. It included a house, cottage and stables. One of the most interesting details you can see from the street is the color panel frieze that runs along the walls above the drive-through carriageway.
Next: Go around the block to see more of the complex on Scottswood and Coonley roads. From Coonley, turn left onto Bloomingbank Road, which becomes Fairbank Road.
350 Fairbank Road, Riverside
Another Wright building, the Coonley Playhouse, was built as the family’s own school in 1912 and turned into a residence in 1919.
Next: Take Fairbank Road to Millbridge Road, and turn right to go over the bridge. We’re leaving Riverside, but only briefly.
3910 Barrypoint Road, Lyons
Just the other side of the bridge is the Hoffmann Tower, eight stories of brick and crenellated at the top like a castle. In 1908, George Hoffmann built the tower as part of a recreation complex that included boat rides on the river and a picnic grove. It only lasted 12 years, but the tower still stands.
Next: Take 39th Street east (or walk your bike along the bank of the river on the trail through the woods). Turn north on Stanley Avenue, and ride a few blocks through scattered houses and then a wooded area.
45 Riverside Road, Riverside
Stop to enjoy the Swinging Bridge, a narrow, cable-hung bridge over the river that is only for bikes and pedestrians. There’s been a footbridge here since the 1880s; this one was built in 1940.
Next: Turn left on Burling Road.
27 Riverside Road, Riverside
The monumental Riverside Village Hall has served in that function since it was built in 1895. Designed by architect George Ashby, the building is in the chateau-style architecture with a steeply pitched, hipped roof and decorative finials.
Next: Take Riverside Road north, back across the tracks. Turn left on Forest Avenue. You’ll cross the Des Plaines River and into a stretch of forest preserve. Forest Avenue briefly becomes Ridgewood Road, and then Washington Avenue. Go south on Hollywood Avenue. The streets are curvy here, too, so pay attention to signs at intersections.
Hollywood/Zoo Metra stop, Brookfield
Hollywood Avenue ends at Brookfield Avenue, where you’ll see one of the oddest stations in Metra’s system, the Zoo stop, for the Brookfield Zoo. Here you’ll see hulky concrete pavilions originally designed to look like the abstract stone animal shelters in 20th century zoos. Those pavilions are now painted with murals of greenery and wild animals, to suggest the more naturalistic style of a 21st Century zoo.
Next: Ride a few blocks west on Brookfield Avenue.
8636 W. Brookfield Ave., Brookfield
Take a glance at the Brookfield North Riverside Water Commission, a handsome little Art Deco building from 1939.
Next: Construction on Brookfield Avenue requires a detour here. Take Brookfield Avenue to Arden Avenue and turn right. Turn left at Washington Avenue, cross the Salt Creek and then turn left on Forest Avenue.
3601 Forest Ave., Brookfield
A third school built by Queene Ferry Coonley is a fine Prairie Style building in white and wood. This one was also designed by William Drummond and built in 1911. It’s a private home now.
Next: Continue south on Forest Avenue, back to Brookfield Avenue.
8820 1/2 Brookfield Ave., Brookfield
The site of the Brookfield Historical Society is a Disney-esque building with a long front porch and colorful wood trim. The 1889 structure was the train station for Grossdale, the town developed by prolific Chicago developer Samuel Eberly Gross and that later changed its name to Brookfield.
Gross developed thousands of homes in Chicago and the suburbs, in at least 21 different locations including Lakeview’s Alta Vista Terrace and a section of East Garfield Park around Fifth Avenue.
Next: Head a block west, Brookfield Avenue meets Grand Boulevard at one of the first multi-corner intersections that diagonal Grand cuts.
8921 Fairview Ave., Brookfield
Before going northwest on Grand, look west and you’ll see a vision of the 1980s: a now-vacant commercial building in pink, yellow and green, with zigzags of glass block windows.
Next: Turn left onto Grand Boulevard.
3713 Grand Blvd., Brookfield
In 1916, this red-brick building was built by the Seventh Day Adventist Church as the Pacific Press (you can still see the name over the door), where the church published its foreign language newspapers in Danish, Swedish, Russian, German, Italian, French, Bohemian, Hungarian and Yiddish. It’s been a residential building since 1992.
Next: Continue on Grand Boulevard.
3632 Grand Blvd., Brookfield
This historic home was a model created by Gross, the architect who designed the Brookfield Historical Society we saw earlier. The house next to it, while not a model home, is also beautiful.
Next: Continue 1 minute on Grand Boulevard, stopping at the intersection.
3541 Park Ave., Brookfield
Brookfield’s new library building just opened this year. Designed by Product Architecture + Design, its glassy ground floor supports a second story wrapped with multi-toned tiles and large bands of windows.
Head north on Park Avenue, then take a right on Washington Avenue. Turn left on McCormick Avenue, and go one block.
McCormick Avenue and Rockefeller Avenue
This junction is a vestige of the intersection of two great fortunes of the 19th and 20th Centuries: when Edith Rockefeller, of the oil dynasty, married Harold McCormick, of the Chicago family whose reaper revolutionized agriculture, later becoming the Chicago-based International Harvester company.
Rockefeller received a tract of land outside Chicago as a gift from her father. In 1919, she gave the 83 acres to create the Brookfield Zoo, which opened in 1934.
Next: Bike east on Rockefeller Avenue. After about a block, the street ends. Go onto sidewalks abutting the south parking lot of the zoo.
Brookfield Zoo, south entrance
At the zoo’s drive-in entrance, you can skip the gate and ride your bike through the lot to the south entrance pavilion. Designed by Edwin Hill Clark in the Renaissance style, the pavilion features tall columns, archways and iron filigree for gates.
Next: Ride south out of the lot along Golf Road. Turn left on Ridgewood Road, which turns into Forest Avenue on the other side of South 1st Avenue. When you’re near Riverside’s water tower again, turn left on Longcommon. Follow Longcommon Road as it curves to the right. (Don’t follow Woodside, curving to the left.)
The historical homes of Riverside
Now you’re seeing some of the great historical houses of Riverside, built in the 1880s, such as 41 and 45 Longcommon Road, and 225 Longcommon road. They’re picturesque houses, made more so by the curving street with a new surprise around every bend.
It’s easy to get lost in Riverside’s meandering curves — a good kind of lost. If you have time to roam and your legs aren’t tired yet, you’ll spot all sorts of houses to enjoy, everything from candy-coated Victorians to harde-edged modern homes.
Next: From Longcommon Road, turn right on Shenstone Road. Turn right again on Crowley Road, then right on Lawton Road. Lawton ends at Riverside Road, where you can turn right and go back to the Metra station.
Dennis Rodkin is the residential real estate reporter for Crain’s Chicago Business and Reset’s “What’s That Building?” contributor. Follow him @Dennis_Rodkin.
Mary Hall designed and produced the web version of this story. Follow her @hall_marye.