By Leslie Mann
Special to the Tribune
August 30, 2012
The Winnetka beach is a teal-colored sheet of glass, sailboats gliding along the horizon. The shimmering water is 73 degrees, and the lifeguard's ponytail dances in a summer breeze.
Meredith Lovell's three children dash into the water with their friends while their moms settle into lawn chairs to supervise.
"Fortunate, very fortunate," is how Lovell describes her life in Winnetka, which she and her husband chose when he was transferred to Illinois from Michigan.
Even before she did her real estate homework, Lovell, a former teacher, knew of Winnetka's high-ranking New Trier High School.
"Half-hour commute to Chicago for my husband, door to door" is what sealed the deal for Barrington native Laury Kassine, who sits in a nearby lawn chair. "And the parks. We can walk to ice skating, soccer, swimming, tennis."
The tony North Shore village of about 12,200 residents is what newer Cook County suburbs aspire to be. Winnetka's canopied streets and pedestrian-friendly downtown are the real deal, not lifted from a New Urbanist's workbook. Its early 20th century home styles are what boxy new McMansions try to emulate.
According to Business Week, the village is among the top 15 richest ZIP codes in the country. Winnetka is especially popular among traders, executives and lawyers, who leave the grit and bustle of the Loop 16 miles behind when they commute home.
Winnetka's downtown (actually three small districts anchored by Metra train stations), is a hub of rush-hour activity that doubles as a daytime destination for stay-at-home moms and retirees. Its beach-glass-and-driftwood shops mimic those in New York's Hamptons, sans the celebrities.
Strip malls and big-box stores are absent, while Village Hall supports the "shop local" ideal. The Grand Food Center is a pre-beach snack stop for Lovell and Kassine.
While Green Bay Road links the business districts, Sheridan Road is famous for old-money houses with backyards that open to the lake. Parallel to Green Bay is a berm that hides the rail line, which the village lowered in 1943 after dozens of deaths at railroad crossings.
Winnetka 2020 is the village's comprehensive plan and mirrors the 1921 Winnetka Plan by intention.
"The vision is the same," said village President Jessica Tucker, an attorney by day. "We want to maintain our educational excellence, our vibrant downtown and the history that's our legacy."
As the village ages, tear-down debates continue to surface at Village Hall meetings when homebuyers apply for demolition permits of older homes. Some houses meet the wrecking ball when their defenders fail to prove their historical significance.
Last year, affordable housing initiatives stirred intense public debates after measures were proposed in April 2011 by the village's Plan Commission, which studied the issue for five years. Amid simmering opposition, the ambitious plan was soundly defeated in a March referendum.
The village has a low crime rate, though a string of summer burglaries on the northwest side might have some residents sleeping less soundly. Typical is the recent police log that included a high-end stroller swiped from a yard, a bicycle lifted from a downtown bike rack and a DUI.
Winnetka proclaimed Aug. 25 as Conor Dwyer Day during an event Saturday at Hubbard Woods Park. The Winnetka native won a gold medal as a member of the winning U.S. freestyle relay team at the London Olympics.
"'Winnetka' is a Native American word for beautiful place, and it's true," Tucker said.
The original Winnetka subdivision was platted in 1854 by Charles Peck, whose wife named the town. The village incorporated in 1869. It was built on a grid, with schools, churches and parks as its anchors.
Crow Island School is home to the first jungle gym. Its inventor, Sebastian Hinton, of Winnetka, received a 1924 patent after arguing in his application that it was a safe alternative to "climbing trees and the like."
Winnetka's history books highlight two tragedies. One is the collision of the Lady Elgin passenger ship with the Augustus lumber ship in 1859, which turned Winnetka homes into makeshift hospitals. The other is the 1988 shooting of six students at Hubbard Woods School by Laurie Dann. The name of one of the children lives on at the Nick Corwin Park.
Things to do
For such a small town, Winnetka has a well-furnished park district. It includes a 27-hole golf course, indoor ice arena, six ball fields, tennis courts and six paddle ball courts. The district also maintains a dog beach, boat launch/sailing center and three swimming beaches.
The ivy-covered Winnetka Community House features a fitness center and gym, and is a favorite venue for parties and weddings.
A variety of restaurants, from casual to white tablecloth, are sprinkled throughout the village. Favorites include the white pizzas at the Trifecta Grill and the waffle cones at Love's Yogurt.
Summertime events include farmers markets, monthly car shows and Music in the Park (Hubbard Woods).
Annual events include the 5K Firecracker Race in June, 9/11 Remembrance Ceremony in September and tree-lighting ceremony in December. Families flock to the daylong, all-village party on July Fourth, which concludes with fireworks.
Open your wallet wide to buy a house in this village, where grand homes dominate tree-lined streets.
The average sale price this year has been $1.32 million. The "Home Alone" house where the 1990 comedy movie was filmed sold earlier this year for about $1.6 million.
Recent sales range from a 1950s fixer-upper that sold for $290,000 to a 2002 four-bedroom house on the lake that went for $4.9 million. Winnetka's houses comprise a field guide to architecture, from Dutch Colonial to foursquare to Tudor.
"We get young families from the city because they're used to living in a pedestrian-friendly place and because of the trains," said Sherry Molitor, agent with Koenig & Strey Real Living in Winnetka. "And we get transferees who want their kids to go to New Trier."
Multifamily homes are scarce, scattered mostly along Green Bay Road.
"Rentals are very expensive and hard to find because some transferees want to rent until they've sold their old houses," said Molitor. The owner of the recently rehabbed Library Place found renters for its five units even though they started at $3,500 a month. The most affordable are over-the-store apartments downtown.
The village recently lifted its ban on renting coach houses, which will open more properties to renters.
Winnetka has three Metra train stations, so most homeowners are within walking distance of one of them. Pace runs two bus routes through the village.
The Winnetka Public Schools District 36 serves kindergarten through eighth grade at five schools that are grade-centered. Three schools serve grades K through 4, one serves grades 5 and 6, and one serves grades 7 and 8.
High-school students attend New Trier High School's campus in Northfield for 9th grade and the Winnetka campus for grades 10 through 12. Its list of alumni includes actors Rock Hudson and Rainn Wilson and politicians Donald Rumsfeld and Rahm Emanuel.
Private schools include North Shore Country Day School (pre-K-12), Sacred Heart School (pre-K-8) and The School of Saints Faith, Hope & Charity (pre-K-8).
The Hadley School for the Blind has been a North Shore icon since 1920.
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