Wheaton Town Focus
Old and new, harmoniously balanced
There is a tale of two cities in Wheaton, to borrow a phrase from novelist Charles Dickens. It’s not as much a contrast as it is a harmonious balance of old and new, from a skyline punctuated with church steeples and multi-story developments to a landscape dotted with farmland as well as shopping centers.
If you walk into an independent coffee shop in which a barista spends extra time making a decorative design atop a café mocha, you see a flyer for a “beer and hymns” night, featuring local craft beers and music inspired by faith. On a balmy summer evening, you can pack a cooler, spread out a blanket and listen to a hot new band under the stars, on the same sprawling grounds as a wartime tank display and mansion that was once home to a
publishing magnate. If you enjoy running, you’ll soon be able to find the newest shoes and gear at a new store located in the town’s converted historic train station.
Back to Dickens. If the brick-paved sidewalks, 19th-century buildings and eclectic mix of merchants, eateries and homes don’t give it away, the fact that downtown Wheaton hosts “A Dickens of a Christmas” celebration every year underscores the cozy charm of this community of more than 53,000 residents. Located about 30 miles due west of downtown Chicago, Wheaton also serves as the county seat for DuPage government.
Those who call Wheaton home agree that the town has an appeal that is part classic, part novel. Mayor Michael Gresk, who grew up in Wheaton and returned with his wife, also a Wheaton native, to make their home in 1976, says that his favorite places in his hometown include mainstays as well as new spots. “I like to think that what we do in Wheaton is hardly unique but truly special. It’s like coming home again, and that phrase epitomizes what Wheaton is about,” says, Gresk, adding, “The new things we’ve done are wonderful. As charming and quaint as a town may be, if you don’t grow and change, you are doomed to fail.”
Kerry O’Brien, executive director of the Wheaton Chamber of Commerce, was born in Wheaton, too, and says that like so many people who have stayed here, she is still drawn to the community for the evolving, yet endearing nature of the town and its people. “It’s still that same kind of town where families are neighbors and are involved in churches, schools and neighborhoods,” she says.
Another insight into Wheaton’s balance of old and new is the fact that the Chamber of Commerce is comprised of about half longtime members and half newcomers. According to O’Brien, “We have a lot of leadership who have been in town a long time, but we are ready to build on that foundation with new people.”
So progress continues. Visit Wheaton this spring and you’ll be able to see new projects and updates in the works at historic Cantigny Park and at the new Central Athletic Complex and its garden entrance to downtown Wheaton. Peer through the windows of the circa-1925 Wheaton Grand Theatre and you can chart the progress on the grassroots-funded renovation that has been going on for the last several years.
Downtown Wheaton: Shopping and Dining
This western suburb’s spirit of charm and inventiveness isn’t a façade — one can actually see it demonstrated firsthand by multi-generational, family-owned and operated businesses like the Carlson Paint, Glass and Art stores, which continue to service longtime customers alongside new businesses like Miroballi Shoes and Le Salon de Pooch, among others.
Gresk says that the three Carlson’s businesses mirror the investment that many merchants have in making Wheaton the best it can be. “Carlson’s has been in business 102 years now, and it has grown by leaps and bounds. If you want to talk backbone and support for the city, they epitomize that. There is a fourth generation coming up, and that’s hard to find these days,” he points out.
Paula Barrington, executive director of the Downtown Wheaton Association, says that a strength of Wheaton’s downtown is its distinct and often independently owned businesses. “The unique mix of shops and boutiques features fashion, home accessories and specialty gifts,” says Barrington, adding that “a variety of dining options can also be found downtown including French, Italian, Mexican and all-American fare.”
The appeal of the downtown business district is further affirmed by several new businesses that will be opening their doors in the coming months. Among them are the aforementioned Naperville Running Company, The Burger Social and Eyes on Wheaton. Other recently opened businesses include The Sipping Muse, Notable Notes Music Academy, County Farm Bagels, OMG Café and Choun’s Restaurant.
In addition to the Carlson stores, several other longtime retailers are part of the downtown Wheaton shopping scene, including Stone’s Jewelry, Midwest Cyclery, Sandberg’s Store for Men and Boys, and Toms-Price Home Furnishings, to name just a few.
As in many western suburbs, Wheaton has broadened the appeal of its downtown by cultivating a thriving dining scene. To be sure, there are restaurant options for every taste, from crepes to steaks, from breakfast to dessert, and from A to Z, or at least from Adelle’s to El Zarape.
They include longtime favorites like Suzette’s Creperie, Il Sogno, Ivy, The Cellar Bistro and Front Street Cocina as well as popular newer establishments like Gia Mia, Fire It Up and Emmet’s Ale House which have opened in the last few years.
“I can’t say enough about the restaurants and the diversity we have. Take your pick,” says Gresk, adding that downtown Wheaton has also become a hot spot for cool treats. “I think we’ve cornered the market on premium ice cream. In the downtown area, you have Kimmer’s Ice Cream, Graham’s and Kilwins.”
Downtown Wheaton: Events and Attractions
Eating and shopping aren’t the only things to do in the central business district. You can also take a step back in time at the DuPage County Historical Museum, located in the heart of downtown in a grand stone building that once housed the village library. Run by the Wheaton Park District and owned by DuPage County, the museum preserves and collects history and offers a variety of public exhibits. Through March 10, “Changing America: The Emancipation Proclamation, 1863 and the March on Washington, 1963” highlights key events in the nation’s history with local ties. Through the end of July, “From Flame to Fluorescent” sheds light (pun intended) on the history of lighting, from candles through the advent of artificial lighting. To support the non-profit DuPage County Historical Museum, a Casino Royale event will be held on Saturday, March 11, featuring charity chips, a martini bar, appetizers, silent auction and raffle.
Barrington also points to the entertainment and cultural offerings available downtown. “Wheaton Drama presents year-round live shows, and improvisational theater and comedy is offered by the Westside Improv Studio. And many of the downtown restaurants feature live music throughout the year,” she notes.
Upcoming performances by Wheaton Drama include Outside Mullingar (March 24 - April 15) and The Producers (May 26 - June 18).
Visitors to downtown Wheaton can also get a cultural experience at the DuPage Art League gallery, which offers classes, workshops and other programs.
Across the street from the DuPage County Historical Museum is Memorial Park, the site of a variety of outdoor events, festivals and concerts. Among the most popular is the annual two-night Shakespeare in the Park production each August.
Beyond the museum and park, downtown Wheaton is the setting for a variety of other events throughout the year. The French Market opens in March and runs through November, and is considered the area’s largest and most authentic markets of its kind.
Other upcoming events include a celebration of spring and Easter on April 15, a Fun Run in Color on April 22 and Taste of Wheaton slated for June 1 through June 4. Various series are held through the summer, including Vintage Ride nights beginning in mid-May and continuing through the end of August; Wheaton Municipal Band concerts from mid-June through mid-August; and Music Mondays in the park staged weekly in July. Rounding out the year: a Brew Fest and Wine Walk in August, the Bike Wheaton festival in August, the Light the Torch Night Run in September, Boo-Palooza in October, a Chili Cook-Off in November and, for the holidays, A Dickens of a Christmas, featuring a parade, horse and carriage rides, visits with Santa, a holiday stroll, a reindeer run and a gingerbread house contest.
Visitors to downtown Wheaton may notice a lot of young adults, thanks to nearby Wheaton College. “Students can be regularly found patronizing the downtown coffee shops and eateries, giving downtown Wheaton a college-town ‘vibe,’” says Barrington.
With about 2,400 full time students, Wheaton College is a private Christian liberal arts college and graduate school that dates to 1860. Among its alumni is William “Billy” Graham, namesake for the school’s Billy Graham Center for Evangelism, which includes a museum that provides visitors with an overview of the Christian faith.
The Wheaton campus is also home to the Marion E. Wade Center, which houses a major research collection of the works of seven prominent British authors including C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. The museum section of the center displays a variety of the authors’ manuscripts and memorabilia, most notably C. S. Lewis’ writing desk and family wardrobe, the latter of which played a prominent role in his Chronicles of Narnia series of fantasy children’s books.
Local residents and visitors can take advantage of many other aspects of having an institution of higher education in town. “Wheaton College offers a rich, cultural experience for both students and local residents with its Artist Series, lectures and other programs open to the public,” says Barrington.
Those programs include performances by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at the school’s Edman Memorial Chapel on March 17 and April 21.
Mention Wheaton as a destination in the Chicago area, and people likely will bring up Cantigny. This 500-acre former estate of Joseph Medill and his grandson, Colonel Robert R. McCormick, longtime publisher of the Chicago Tribune, draws visitors from all over the world for its beautiful gardens, sprawling park grounds, 27-hole golf course, nature trail and the First Division military museum and the McCormick home and museum.
Exemplifying Wheaton’s celebration of history and simultaneous push for improvement, Cantigny just launched an upgrade plan, Project New Leaf. “It is a multiyear revitalization effort designed to enhance our already beautiful grounds, improve the visitor experience, and make sure Cantigny is enjoyed by future generations,” explains Matt LaFond, executive director of Cantigny Park. “While some of the gardens and grounds may be temporarily closed, there are still plenty of open areas and a full calendar of events and activities.”
One of the earliest and most visible parts of the project is work on the First Division Museum. “In updating the museum, we’ll be able to tell the story from the Gulf War to the present and into the future,” says LaFond. The grand re-opening is planned for late August.
Within Cantigny, there are several pleasant surprises, including the fragrant, colorful gardens and associated horticulture classes and programs. According to LaFond, the gardens are also part of Project New Leaf, with the installation of new flower beds, lighting and a new ADA-accessible playground.
Those looking ahead to late spring and summer can also plan for some special events at Cantigny, such as a woodcarving and woodworking show on April 23 and 24, a greenhouse open house on May 7 and a fine arts festival on June 18 and 19. Music and theater performances are held here, too, including more than two dozen evening symphony and Shakespeare events. Many other programs and activities are held during the weekdays, when it’s a little less crowded.
Danada and Other Green Spaces
The historic 19-room Danada House, which belonged to commodity trader Daniel Rice and his wife, Ada (hence, Danada) is owned by the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County and operated by the not-for-profit Friends of Danada. The stately brick house, which is just part of the 780-acre property, is a popular site for weddings and other special events.
The Forest Preserve District also maintains the Danada Equestrian Center, which offers a variety of programs tied to the property’s history as a horse farm. A model farm is on site as well, showcasing the area’s agricultural roots. People can take advantage of hiking trails and fishing spots on Rice Lake on the sprawling Danada property.
Those who enjoy the respite of green spaces can visit other natural settings in Wheaton. Margi Wilhelmi, director of marketing for Wheaton Park District, shares some examples. “Lincoln Marsh Natural Area has beautiful trails and boardwalks overlooking the natural areas. There are environmental education programs and an outdoor ‘challenge course’ option, plus a newly added climbing wall. Northside Park is a beautiful spot to hold a family picnic,
take the kids to the playground, fish in the summer, and sled in the winter. It offers canoeing as well. And Seven Gables Park has a fantastic walking trail and includes a playground and shelter that people can rent for family reunions or birthdays.”
Other Wheaton Highlights
• The Wheaton Park District runs Cosley Zoo. In addition to farm animals, native wildlife, exhibits and year-long programs, the five-acre property hosts several special events. On Earth Day, April 22, the zoo’s Party for the Planet will offer various activities and include vendors who support conservation. For adults, the zoo will hold a wine event in July, featuring wine stations, food, live entertainment and raffles.
• Beyond downtown, there are several other areas for shopping and dining in Wheaton, including Rice Lake Square, Danada Square (West and East) and Town Square Wheaton, which boasts a number of national retailers, including Banana Republic, White House-Black Market, Bath & Body Works, Chico’s, Gap, Charming Charlie’s, Victoria’s Secret and Talbots.
• Wheaton Public Library in downtown Wheaton has been named as one of the country’s top libraries. Recently, the library added a new café.
• Wheaton is the county seat for DuPage, with a courthouse and administration building on County Farm Road. The town is also site of the DuPage County Fairgrounds and, accordingly, the DuPage County Fair each summer.
• Downtown Wheaton isn’t just home to businesses. Residential developments, including the newer Wheaton 121, bring people close to the community. Also, having single family homes surround the downtown commercial district “allows residents to stroll into downtown for dinner, ice cream, concerts in the park and other community activities,” notes Barrington.
• Wheaton remains a vibrant community of faith, with upwards of 45 churches and houses of worship. “I think one of the underpinnings of the community is and will continue to be our church community, which was part of the founding of the city back in 1859,” says Mayor Gresk.Edit Module