Leafy and historic, this shoreside village an hour north of Chicago cherishes its small-town ambience.

By Elaine Glusac
March 09, 2009
Matthew Gilson

On the map, Lake Bluff looks like another Chicago suburb in a lakeside string stretching north from the city. In person, it’s a community for the community-minded. On the Fourth of July, service organizations hold neighborhood breakfasts and picnics. Halloween is as decorous as Christmas. Summer Sundays mean concerts on the village green.

“It’s a small-town atmosphere where you care about each other,” says Pat Quade, retired schoolteacher, historical museum docent, and 36-year resident. “We all know each other.”

Lake Bluff’s 1905 brick town hall overlooks the village green and gazebo. Its pocket commercial area was recently recognized as a National Register historic district. Originally founded as a Methodist camp in the 1870s, Lake Bluff was modeled after Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard and Chautauqua in New York as a place for religious contemplation as well as cultural education, social affairs, and recreation. Later, Chicago families found it a convenient waterside retreat from the city heat. An 1897 ad for the 500- guest Hotel Irving―printed the year the hotel burned down―hailed, “Chicago businessmen! If you cannot go away with your families, you can send them to Lake Bluff and be with them every night and Saturdays.”

By the early 1900s, industrialists including the Armour family (of meatpacking fame) began building permanent estates in the area. Abbott Laboratories settled into neighboring North Chicago in 1920, bringing resident scientists and engineers. The 1904 vintage redbrick train station with its castellated tower still serves commuters to Chicago and back.

Lake Bluff is nothing if not house-proud. Sprawling Tudor mansions, earthy Prairie-style dwellings, cozy Colonial Revivals, and towering Queen Annes mingle with modest homes that were the village’s original seasonal cottages. “The east side of town remains very much as it was laid out in the camp meeting days,” says Kathleen O’Hara, co-founder of the Vliet Museum, which is devoted to Lake Bluff history. Rather than large suburban estates separating residents from one another, “you still have family-size lots within walking distance of the beach,” says Brad Andersen, resident and real estate broker.

Those original lots were 25 feet wide, creating a close-knit community where you couldn’t help but know your neighbors. Plots that then went for $250 cost a bit more now, but the sense of community here remains alive, well, and―come summer― gathered on the village green.

For more information, visit lakebluff.org.

(published March 2009)