I accidentally when home today. Not the one I live in, but my home of the heart. I was born in Oak Park and lived there until I was 6. After that, it was where I when to be with family at my grandparents on holidays and during the summer. The way I got there truly was accidental. I mistook a phone call appointment for one that was to be in person. The place I went to for no reason was in Chicago but touched Oak Park.
Being still in the Chicago area, I’ve gone back to Oak Park on occasion. Not as much as I like, it’s not the easiest drive from where I live now. It wasn’t always looked as good as it did today. The town has had its share of ups and downs like most towns in America. It is definitely on an upswing right now. It looked great. Oak Park has its reasons for being known. Frank Lloyd Wright had his studio there. It has the largest collection of Wright’s houses in a community and his Unity Temple. Ernest Hemingway was born there and grew into an adult. Hemingway was not the only writer that called Oak Park home: Edgar Rice Burroughs of Tarzan fame own three homes there. Ray Kroc went to High school in Oak Park; I can remember my Gram taking me to the original McDonald’s. Homer Simpson (Dan Castellaneta) is an alumnus of Oak Park-River Forest High School as well as my Dad, uncle, aunt, and cousin.
Oak Park is where I got my love architecture. Architecture is one of my geeks. My grandparents’ house was built by my grandfather and was different than most brick and stucco houses on Oak Park Ave. It was wood and had a driveway; a white cape style home. When he built it, the road was dirt and there weren’t any others on the block. That didn’t last long. With commuters coming from the city, the town built up with a grand manor of houses. Prairie style, gothic, bungalow, art deco, modern salt the view now. Only in a few neighborhoods do you find houses that are built cookie cutter same. With Wright being in town, other architects came to work with Wright leaving their imprint on the houses in the town.
I would ride from my grandparents’ house to the nearest park and would go by Wright’s studio home. I was not old enough to know anything about Wright and Wright long gone. As I rode my bike by I would try and peek over the walls and through the windows curious to see what the inside looked like with such a wonderful outside. Now I have been in it. It is run by a society and they do tours of the house regularly. It is beautiful and very unique. Go if you can.
Oh, the churches, the grandeur, and style of the churches. So many of them. I can remember running to find my Gram in the gray stone gothic church’s kitchen making hot sticky peanut brittle to fundraise with the women’s club. At my church, a tan gothic, I sat with an awe as the choir floated up the middle of the main aisle and made their way to the altar. I was about 6 when I finally found out there were steps in the middle aisle so the choir wasn’t floating, just walking up them.
I was in Oak Park a while back and it wasn’t doing too good. At one point, the town cut off traffic to make the downtown area into a mall. That killed many businesses. They got smart and reversed the mall back into streets and now many little shops are doing well in the buildings there. I would like to see something special happen to the old Marshall Field’s building. It’s too wonderful to tear down, but too big to do much with it. It would make a great little hotel with a couple of fresh restaurants on the bottom floor. With the el train stop right in the middle of the town, how nice to be able to get away from the city without packing a car.
At the time I’m writing this, it is still spring. The houses are starting to bloom. The yards in some areas seem to be in a contest with each other for the best landscaping or most flowers in a small front yard. As I drove I enjoyed the scenery in the town, giggled at the adult commuters waiting for the bus like children going to school, and love seeing people out enjoying the weather. The commuters waiting for the bus may not be strange or giggle-worthy to you, but in my area, only the truly careless ride the bus and the stops are not on pretty street corners but in gray dismal areas you feel dirty just looking at.
It’s good that it’s been a while since I’ve seen my grandparents’ house. It was a cute little wooden fence now across the drive. The plants in the front yard are fuller and looked more of a comfortable part of the landscape. I no longer feel like banging on the front door and demanding they paint it back to white, the only color that it had ever been before my grandmother sold it. Yellow had been such a huge change that it felt grotesque the first time I saw it and cried for the loss of the beloved home. Now it’s someone else’s beloved home and I hope they know how special the house and Oak Park is.