Wheaton Town Focus
This historic community is home to an abundance of resources and attractions, from museums to county government to the college that bears its name
"It’s like coming home.”
If you’re not looking closely, you might miss that line etched into some subtle signage in downtown Wheaton. After all, there’s a lot to see there, between charming storefronts, vintage buildings, churches, schools, homes and welcoming open spaces.
They say home is where the heart is, and if that’s the case, then Wheaton has captured the heart of many who live in, attend school in, work in and visit this western suburb of more than 53,000 residents, that is also the county seat of DuPage County.
“As I’m fond of saying, I don’t think we’re necessarily unique, but I do believe we’re special,” says Wheaton Mayor Mike Gresk, who has been a town leader since 2007.
According to Gresk, Wheaton continues to put the home in hometown. “We have that 150-year plus history, yet we remain a very welcoming community.”
In addition to the evocative references to home, another meaningful word that is part of the vernacular in this community is “friends.” Stroll around the campus of Wheaton College, check out the Hurley Gardens, or peek in a downtown restaurant window, and you’ll spot gatherings of people enjoying one another’s company.
In a larger sense, the notion of friendship extends to the support of many in-town treasures and resources. “There are so many ‘friends of’ groups here, like Friends of Adams Park, Friends of the Library, Friends of Danada and many others,” Gresk explains. “They are auxiliary organizations that work to raise funds and do good deeds for their favorite organization. That groundswell of support typifies the spirit and the focus we have in this community.”
Even for those who don’t call Wheaton home, the community draws many people from around and beyond the Chicago area for its many amenities and resources — including Wheaton College — as well as its spirit of friendliness and kinship.
As the new year opens, there are plenty of new things to do and see in Wheaton as well as many venerable institutions and sites which have defined the community throughout its history dating back to 1825.
Downtown Wheaton exemplifies the combination of modern and traditional elements that give Wheaton its homey feel and welcoming vibe. “Downtown offers a very attractive mix of great restaurants, boutiques, gift shops and home interior shops,” says Paula Barrington, executive director for the Downtown Wheaton Association. These shops are complemented, she says, by “a variety of service-oriented businesses all within a few blocks, from salons to drycleaners to printer, tailor and medical offices.”
On the streets of Downtown Wheaton, one can find stores that have been in town for nearly 100 years as well as signs heralding the grand opening of new businesses. Longtime downtown stalwarts include places like Carlson True Value Hardware, Carlson Paint, Art & Wallpaper, Carlson Glass & Mirror —which, as their names imply, were founded by the same family — Stones Jewelry, The Little Popcorn Shop, John’s Shoe Repair, Wheaton Meat and Holstein’s Garage, among others.
On the other end of the spectrum, new merchants are hanging a shingle in town as well. “Over the course of the past few years, despite the economy, Downtown Wheaton has attracted a variety of new shops and eateries with several more expected to open during the first few months of 2014,” reports Barrington.
One of the newer businesses in Wheaton that is located at the gateway to the downtown area is a Mariano’s grocery store, built on the site of a previous middle school.
Other soon-to-open or just-launched businesses in Downtown Wheaton include Kilwins Chocolates, a French-style bakery called Pample Mousse and a coffee shop called River City Roasters.
One project in the works in Downtown Wheaton is close to the heart of many in town, and embodies the “Friends of” nature of its residents: the renovation of an old-time movie house, called the Wheaton Grand Theater on Hale Street. According to Barrington, the owner’s plan is to restore the theater and offer live entertainment and special events. The effort is being funded privately after an earlier referendum for public funding didn’t pass. Various fundraisers have been held over the last year or so, including a recent talent contest.
Downtown Wheaton is also home to a variety of eateries — from steaks and chops at places like Ivy and The Bank, to sushi at Sushi Mono, to crepes at Suzette’s Creperie, to contemporary American fare at nearby Adele’s, to name just a few.
Wheaton’s homey charm is also readily evident in the many vintage homessurrounding the downtown. Several of these historic residences have been transformed into local businesses, lending another touch of small-town quaintness to the community.
The walk-to-town-and-train appeal of this western suburb isn’t just for those who own homes in the historic district. “The variety of housing options that are within easy walking distance of Downtown Wheaton include townhomes, apartments, condos and classic vintage single family homes,” says Barrington.
If you’ve driven through Wheaton lately, you might have noticed a sprawling new development at Front and Cross streets. The apartment complex has already opened several units, with others available soon.
Future improvements are on the mind of the city’s leaders, too. A new 20- to 30-year strategic plan is in its final stages and is being reviewed by the city council. Among its recommendations are a major updating of the Main Street corridor from Roosevelt Road to downtown.
Befitting its central location and broad attraction, downtown Wheaton is the site of many special events throughout the year including a wine and cultural arts festival in September, an annual chili cook-off, as well as the popular “Dickens of a Christmas” celebration during the holidays.
Perhaps the most popular event in Downtown Wheaton is the French Market, which this year was extended through December. Located at the intersection of Main Street and Liberty Drive, the French Market offers fare that one would find at a local farmer’s market, in addition to a variety of other items that evoke French outdoor marketplaces, from foodstuffs like baked goods, natural meats and cheeses, to local wares like artworks, jewelry, scarves, gifts and other specialty items.
One local attraction that is practically synonymous with the town of Wheaton — and has been for the better part of a century — is Cantigny. The 500-acre recreation area and public park once belonged to Colonel Robert R. McCormick, an early publisher and owner of the Chicago Tribune. McCormick gifted the land and buildings to the community, asking that the estate be used for recreation and education.
Today, true to that vision, Cantigny is a hub of activity for visitors and residents alike. “Cantigny is simply a one-of-a-kind place,” says Jeff Reiter, senior manager of communications for both the park and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation. “Kids, parents and grandparents can all find something to enjoy. Families like to come here, and those same families like to bring their out-of-town guests. Some of our older visitors remember climbing on the tanks when they were a kid, and now their kids or their grandkids are climbing on them, too. We love stories like that.”
Reiter says that Cantigny appeals to all types of people because of its plethora of things to do and see. “For some, it’s the gardens or museums. For others, it’s the picnic grounds, concerts or special events,” he says. “And everyone seems to appreciate the low cost.” Indeed, Cantigny’s two museums — the McCormick Museum and First Division Museum — are both free, with only a minimal parking fee.
Looking ahead to this year — and n keeping with the what’s-old-is-new-again improvements in Wheaton — there are some changes coming to Cantigny. A new front entrance will be added on Winfield Road, designed to allow visitors to enter and exit more easily. Also, this summer, Cantigny will host the Chicago Sinfonietta for the first time for a concert. The West Suburban Symphony will return to the park to perform as well. As Reiter notes, “We are the ‘little Ravinia’ of the western suburbs.”
Cantigny, which is closed in January except for some private events, re-opens for weekends in February and resumes its daily schedule in March. “The season really ramps up in April and May when the gardens come to life,” says Reiter. Highlights of the year include a two-day Art in Bloom festival in June, Sunday afternoon concerts and vintage baseball games in the summer, Revolutionary War and Civil War weekends in the fall, a 5K Run/Walk in November and a popular LEGO train show in December.
Wheaton is home to tens of thousands of people, but thanks to the Cosley Zoo, it’s also home to an array of domestic farm animals and native Illinois wildlife — from cows and sheep, to woolly llamas, to foxes and bobcats, to hawks and herons. The zoo grounds also include an antique railroad caboose, a barn that dates back more than a 125 years and a scenic duck pond.
In addition to the wildlife exhibits at the five-acre, nationally-recognized zoo, visitors can take advantage of Cosley Zoo’s many educational programs offered throughout the year. The zoo also offers a popular series of camps for kids and a junior zookeepers program for young adults in seventh to twelfth grades.
While many people have or will put down roots in Wheaton, some do it for a shorter time as students at Wheaton College. The four-year private Christian school is not only a part of the physical landscape of Wheaton, but has become part of its intrinsic character.
“The relationship we have with Wheaton College is special, and I think it’s because the two grew up together. The first president of the village — one of the Wheaton boys — was on the board of directors for the college,” says Gresk of the town’s founding family’s ties to both the city and the school.
LaTonya Taylor, director of media relations for Wheaton College, says that strong relationship continues. Citing the variety of academic lectures, concerts and conferences on campus that are open to the public, she maintains that the college is a great resource for lifelong learning.
The College also offers a Community School for the Arts, with professional instruction in fine arts for students of many ages. The school serves 1,500 students from 50 area communities, offering music lessons for violin, viola, cello, piano and flute, preparatory music lessons, early childhood music, special needs music, and training in the visual arts. In addition, the school’s Community Outreach for Developing Artists program provides access to young artistically underexposed talents who might not otherwise have an opportunity to grow.
Another of the college’s resources is the Billy Graham Center Museum, which focuses on the history of Christian evangelism and its impact on American culture. The family-oriented museum features a variety of exhibits and religious art.
Also on campus is the Marion E. Wade Center, known for its collection of books and writings by several British authors, including C.S Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and more. Fans of Lewis’ popular Narnia books will be interested in knowing that the center’s museum showcases the authors’ family wardrobe.
Another big deal — literally and figuratively — is the restored skeleton of “Perry” — an Ice Age mastodon discovered in Glen Ellyn in 1963 that is on display at the college’s science center.
Those visiting any of the sites at Wheaton College can get a bite to eat at one of the three cafés on campus that are open to the public. Expect more than the typical college fare, as the Princeton Review ranked Wheaton’s campus food the sixth best in the country. You can even take the food home with you through a program called “From Our House to Yours,” designed to give families a break from cooking dinner.
Wheaton College isn’t the only institution of higher education in town. The Illinois Institute of Technology also has an extension site in Wheaton — the Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Campus — targeted toward meeting the needs of professional graduate and upper-level undergraduate students.
On other learning levels, three high schools serve the Wheaton community —Wheaton-North, Wheaton-Warrenville South and St. Francis.
DUPAGE COUNTY HISTORICAL MUSEUM
Just as Wheaton College and the village of Wheaton share a history, so does the building that currently houses the DuPage County Historical Museum, operated by the Wheaton Park District and owned by DuPage County.
The stately stone building — which was the original site of the Adams Memorial Library — is in the center of the downtown area. When visitors open the wooden doors, they’re transported back in time, as they browse rooms of exhibits featuring a wide range of historic artifacts and photos.
One of the exhibits planed for the coming year will be “Fashion Accessories In Vogue and Out,” with displays of fashions from the 1800s through today’s times.
Beyond artifacts and guided tours, the museum offers a “living history” experience, with hands-on activities that appeal to different ages and interests as well as ongoing special events.
While its holdings are extensive, the county historical museum is just one of several places in town that celebrate local history. Among others is the DuPage Heritage Gallery on County Farm Road, which highlights the history and lives of DuPage citizens, through its own collection of artifacts and photos. There is also the Center for History, which seeks to preserve the historic heritage of Wheaton and also has special exhibits on slavery and the Underground Railroad.
In keeping with the notion of Wheaton as a place to come home to, some residences in town are true destinations. One example is Danada House, a popular 19-room mansion that serves as a site for weddings, receptions, and other special events. Though the facility is owned by the DuPage Forest Preserve, true to the town’s reputation for community support, an organization called Friends of Danada operates Danada House.
The property originally belonged to Daniel and Ada Rice — hence the name, Danada. The Rices raised thoroughbred horses — including 1965 Kentucky Derby winner Lucky Debonair — which is why the grounds still include an equestrian center. A variety of programs are offered, from riding classes and camps to trail rides to horse-drawn hayrides in May and June and sleigh rides in the winter.
In all, the Danada property and preserve spans more than 800 acres of woodlands, wetlands and prairies. Fishermen (and women) take advantage of Rice Lake, while hikers and bikers can be found along the preserve’s three miles of multi-purpose trails.
The Danada site is also home to the headquarters of the DuPage Forest Preserve, which oversees the county-wide forest preserve system including Herrick Lake in Wheaton.
THE DUPAGE COUNTY FAIR
As the county seat, Wheaton is a destination for those needing to do business — legal or otherwise — that involves county government. The busy courthouse and government buildings on County Farm road are a testament to that.
The fact that Wheaton is the hub of the county also makes it the site for the annual DuPage County Fair, which in 2014 will run July 23rd through 27th.
The event attracts thousands of attendees, drawn by traditional county fair activities like 4-H contests, carnival rides and daily entertainment including concerts. Family-friendly contests are offered, too, like a hay bale toss for young men, a haystack treasure hunt for younger kids, a husband calling contest for married women over 18 and a pie-eating contest for all ages.
Beyond the fair, the fairgrounds are used for a variety of other events during the year as well, from dog training classes to winter tennis programs to model railroad shows.
Long before green space became a buzzword, Adams Park was a jewel in downtown Wheaton. Spanning a square block, the park was originally the property of early Wheaton resident John Quincy Adams — and yes, he was a relative of the father-and son- John Adams and John Quincy Adams who were U.S. presidents.
Today, the park is a respite for many in the busy downtown area, a spot to savor a quick outdoor lunch on a sunny summer day or a quiet stroll under a winter blanket of fresh fallen snow. A large fountain that once graced the front of the Adams’ home is a hallmark of the park.
Once again reflecting the community spirit, there are plenty of friends of Adams Park as well. Volunteers help tend the garden throughout the year and a special Adams Park Preservation Council is dedicated to caring for the site.