Located 22 miles west of Chicago, Downers Grove is a shining example of a town that has succeeded in maintaining its original character while opening up to the future, figuratively and literally.
Stroll around downtown and you’ll notice that many historical buildings have been renovated or added to in some way. There are boutiques that carry hip clothes and gifts in storefronts that were built in the 19th century. Angelo’s Pizza, the oldest pizzeria in town dating to the 1950s, has recently added a charming new patio and exterior features. And then there’s the soon-to-open Pierce Tavern, a restaurant and bar named for town founder and namesake Pierce Downer, housed in a historic stone-façade building that has been painstakingly updated over the past several months. (Downers Grove has been dubbed "apostrophe free since 1873" — curiously, no one seems to know why there is no punctuation mark after the founder’s surname.)
That spirit of authenticity-meets- rejuvenation extends to a variety of destination shops, amenities and the overall community feel in this suburb. As you stroll along Main Street — of course, there is a Main Street — perhaps headed for a pint of just-brewed beer at Emmett’s Brewing Company, or in search of a new pair of jeans at Jeans and a Cute Top Shop, you walk past Main Street Cemetery, smack dab in the downtown shopping and dining district.
"We have a great community of people who like to keep the historical presence here, while also making it livable for today," says Linda Kunze, executive director of Downtown Downers Grove Management Corporation.
A Suburb to Come Home To
That livability is evident in the number of native-born residents returning to their hometown of "Downers," as the suburb is referred to, including the much-buzzed-about-Millennial generation. "We get pleasure from the fact that so many of our children’s friends are getting married and wanting to move back to Downers Grove," says Kunze, a Downers Grove resident of nearly 38 years. "They love the convenience of the town and the quality of life here."
One of these boomerang residents is her colleague, Erin Venezia, marketing director for the Downtown Downers Grove Management Corporation. "I grew up in Downers Grove and am now raising my family here. My husband is from Downers as well, and I have a lot of friends coming back," says Venezia, noting that it’s more than just nostalgia that brings people back to where their own families put down roots. "Downers Grove has historic charm, but it’s so vibrant, too."
Village mayor, Martin Tully, agrees, maintaining that the village "preserves the balance between tradition and being progressive. It isn’t always easy, but we know it’s important to maintain future vitality while respecting and protecting history."
Tully has a personal history with the community: he attended high school in Downers Grove, as did his wife — one at Downers Grove North (DGN) High School and one at Downers Grove South (DGS) High School. He has been known to wear a half-DGN, half-DGS jacket that a local tailor made to wear during football games between the in-town rivals. The tailor loans it out to whomever is mayor at the time.
The nesting instinct in Downers Grove is exemplified in the new luxury apartments and condominiums being built in the center of town. The developments are designed for those who are just starting to make a home, such as millennials, or empty nesters who are downsizing, like baby boomers.
Of course, in a community that melds vintage and new, the housing mix is decidedly eclectic. On a typical residential block, you might see a contemporary home, a Victorian, a four-square, or one of the village’s Sears-Roebuck catalog homes, built between 1908 and 1940.
The latter is another of Downers Grove’s historic claims to fame — the village is home to more than 60 of the Sears homes, one of the largest concentrations in the Chicago area. Buyers of that era chose a design from the Sears catalog and the ready-to-assemble house — which typically came with anywhere from 30,000 to 40,000 numbered pieces — was shipped by railroad boxcar to be put together by the homeowner or a local contractor.
In addition to its more than 49,000 permanent residents, Downers Grove is a destination for others, some coming to town for jobs and some for recreation or leisure. "We have a nice mix of residents, employees and visitors. In the daytime, our population during the week almost doubles, from nearly 50,000 to 100,000," says Michael Cassa, president and CEO of the Downers Grove Economic Development Corporation and the Downers Grove Visitors Bureau. The combination of visitors bolsters the local economy, as more people dine in restaurants, shop in stores and stay in the community’s hotels, including Hilton’s DoubleTree Suites and Conference Center and the Chicago Marriott Suites Downers Grove, among others.
Location, Location, Location
Geography plays a big part in the appeal of Downers Grove for both day trippers and day-workers. "Downers Grove is really easy to get to — it’s in the heart of DuPage County and the road network, which makes it really convenient," says Cassa, noting that I-88 and I-355 intersect in Downers Grove, major thoroughfares like Ogden Avenue and Butterfield Road cut through town, and three Metra stations serve the community.
The suburb is more north-south in its geographical layout and stretches from Butterfield Road south to 75th Street. It is adjacent to communities in Lombard, Westmont, Lisle, Darien and Woodridge, all within an easy commute.
Between the convenient location, diversity of places to live, and the deft fusion of history and progress, Downers Grove has put itself on the map of notable suburbs. This year, the town was ranked 46th in the nation as a great place to live, according to Livability.com. "We are the only Illinois community that finished in the top 50 two years in a row," says Cassa. Downers Grove was also recognized several years ago by Forbes as one of America’s 10 Friendliest Towns.
Downtown, A Hub of Activity from Morning through Night
Anchored by the railroad tracks that ferry commuters to and from Chicago, downtown Downers Grove has enough to do and see for those who want to spend the day in town, including shopping, dining, entertainment and creative art, along and near the charming stretch of Main Street.
"You can spend the whole day here — get breakfast at Egg Harbor, for example, then paint pottery at Glazed Expressions or go bowling at Tivoli Bowl," says Venezia.
When it comes to dining, Downers Grove has a culinary offering for virtually every palate, budget and time of day. Want a quick breakfast? Check out Paradise Café. Looking for ethnic fare? There’s Irish (Ballydoyle Irish Pub), Italian (Capri and Gatto’s), Mexican (Mia’s Cantina), Cuban and Dominican (Caribbean Corner) and Asian (Sushi House) to get you started.
If you’re in between lunch and dinner and have a hankering for, oh, some Devonshire cream and cute tea sandwiches, you can order up high tea at Pinecone Cottage Tea House. If you have kids, you can get food with entertainment at All Aboard Diner, where meals are served via toy train. If you’re in the mood for drinks and fun, quench your thirst at Another Round Bar & Grill.
"We have 22 restaurants downtown, with three new ones on the way," reports Kunze. Among the soon to open eateries: Great Harvest Bread Company, Cadence Kitchen (located in the space previously occupied by Lemon Tree Grocer) and the aforementioned Pierce Tavern.
In addition to sit-down and take-home restaurants, downtown Downers Grove includes snack-worthy spots. Every Day’s a Sundae has the scoop on ice cream, while Wells Street Popcorn serves up Chicago-style popcorn, and Louisa’s & Millie’s Chocolates is a sweet spot for candy lovers. Ingram’s Busy Bee Bakery is one of those beloved local treasures, a business that has been in town for decades and offers a trove of homemade sweets, including signature smiley face cookies. For coffee, you can get your fix at Peet’s, Starbucks or Lemon Tree Grind in the train station. If you prefer tea, you can savor a cup at Culinary Teas.
Don’t forget the pet: Happy Dog Barkery sells a range of goodies for four-legged friends.
Given that downtown Downers Grove is pretty sizable when compared to some suburbs along the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Metra rail line, the town is home to several merchants. You can find apparel, accessories and more at boutiques like Bangle Boulevard, Jolie Boutique, She’s Boutique, Style Studio, Evelyn Jane Boutique and Charlie & Grace children’s consignment boutique, to name a few. Hobbyists visit downtown Downers Grove to find specialty items, whether at Pete’s Coin and Currency, Timberline Train Shop or Humidor, among others. Wine lovers can collect their own kind of treasure at Cellar Door.
Anderson’s Bookshop is both a hometown favorite and a draw for visitors looking for interesting books, magazines and gifts. Among the younger crowd, My Special Toy Store is another especially popular spot in the center of downtown.
Perhaps you like to make your own gifts or home decor accessories. In that case, you can put your creativity and artistic sense to work at Glazed Expressions or pick up knitting supplies (and expert advice) at Knitche, Inc. Another unique option is the Center for Creative Arts Therapy, an inclusive open art studio that provides healing through the arts.
For entertainment, Two Way Street Coffee House has featured live music for nearly 48 years on Friday nights. In addition to those performances, the venue also hosts informal "sing arounds," song circles and open-mic nights for high school and college-age students.
If you’re not sure where to get started in your dining and shopping trip — or for any time spent in this suburb — you can stop by the Visitors Bureau in downtown Downers Grove, located in a newer building along Mochel Drive.
Tivoli Theater/Tivoli Bowl
In 1928, when downtown Downers Grove was expanding with an increasing population base, enterprising brothers Gustave and George Bunge thought it was a great place to build one of the new movie palaces that would show silver screen favorites. The building was one of the first movie theaters to show "talkies." Today, the Tivoli Theater is one of the oldest original movie palaces in the state. It’s also unique, because in a time of multi-theater cinemas, this facility has only one big screen.
That gives viewers a chance to enjoy the original look of a motion picture, which is why the Tivoli is especially popular for showings of much-anticipated films like those in the Star Wars series.
Tivoli is operated by Classic Cinemas, which runs 13 theaters in the Chicago area and is based in Downers Grove as Tivoli Enterprises.
Next door to Tivoli Theater is Tivoli Bowl, which can be a destination of its own or an add-on before or after a movie. Tully, who went to high school in Downers Grove, says that he still enjoys a good game at the bowling alley that was part of his own youth. "In high school, we had bowling as part of gym class at Tivoli Bowl," he says.
You can also grab dinner at the adjacent Aurelio’s Pizza, another longtime favorite.
The Main (Street) Event
Now that the weather is warmer, the event season is also starting to ramp up in Downers Grove, in and beyond the downtown district.
On April 26, a new wine walk will kick off spring. Guests can sample an array of wines as they check out participating shops and boutiques in the downtown district. The tastings are provided by Cellar Door.
Another upcoming event, Founders Day, celebrates the history of Downers Grove. Presented by the Downers Grove Historical Society, the May 5 event focuses on the community’s heritage and educates people in a fun, interactive way on life in the 19th century here.
Once summer arrives, there are a number of ongoing events in Downers Grove including the downtown farmer’s market — held on Saturdays from May through October and sponsored by the YMCA Indian Boundary — and Summer Nights Classic Car Shows, which take place every Friday evening from May through August.
Venezia says that one of her favorite summer outings is to a local park. "The Park District does a concert every Tuesday in Bishop Park in the summer," she says, "and it’s a great place for events where you can let your kids run around and have fun."
As with many western suburbs, summer parades and festivals are big here, including the Memorial Day and Independence Day parades. One of the most popular events of the year in town is Rotary GroveFest, set for June 21 to 24.
Later in the year, other events that draw a number of visitors include the 41st Annual Fine Arts Festival in early September, Girls Day Out in late September, Halloween Window Painting in October and a Living Cemetery event around Halloween — only fitting for a village with grave sites in the center of town.
"People can interact with living historians who bring to life our early settlers, Civil War soldiers and others who have contributed to the history of Downers Grove," says Kunze, noting that this event is one of her personal favorites.
In addition to events affiliated with the village of Downers Grove, there are other activities sponsored by various community organizations and groups.
Downers Grove Public Library, conveniently located downtown, offers a variety of things to do. In April, the library is putting on several activities for National Library Week from April 8 to 14, including a children’s celebration and a "Love Your Library’" chalkboard.
Downers Grove Park District plans several events throughout the year. On April 14, it is teaming with local park districts, including Bolingbrook, Lisle, Naperville and Woodridge to host the 32nd Annual Road Rally, in which teams of adults participate in a car-based scavenger hunt.
Did someone say "warmer weather?" That gets the attention of golfers, many of whom hit the links on the first temperate day of the year. Downers Grove Golf Club is the site of the nation’s first 18-hole course. Today, it’s a nine-hole, par-36 course with a 24-station driving range and a large practice putting green. Greens fees are just $19 for residents during the week ($21 on weekends) and $23 for non-residents ($25 on weekends)
"It’s said that the Downers Grove Golf Course is the oldest public golf course this side of the Mississippi," says Tully. "But it’s also just a good course."
For nice and not-so-nice days alike, Downers Grove Rec Center offers a host of workout and recreational opportunities. The 69,000-sq-ft facility features a fitness center, walking track and three gyms.
Meanwhile, there are a variety of parks in Downers Grove for other pastimes and pursuits, whether it’s running, walking, biking or strolling. Downers Grove Park District oversees 600 acres, including the flagship Patriots Park, complete with a small lake; McCollum Park, for horseshoes and mini-golf; and Doerhoefer Park, basketball, tennis and batting cages.
Dawn Hartman, manager of marketing and creative development for the Downers Grove Park District, cites some other outdoor jewels. "Belmont Prairie and Walnut Park are two naturally beautiful sites to explore," she says, noting that Belmont Prairie is one of the last original prairies in Illinois.
Lyman Woods Nature Center
Sometimes, hidden gems in a community are overlooked and sometimes, they are just off the beaten path. Lyman Woods Nature Center in Downers Grove is set back in the woods, which makes it a little harder to get to but no less a destination.
Set in a forest preserve along 31st Street not far from Highland Avenue, Lyman Woods Nature Center is home to the William F. Sherman Interpretative Center, which features rotating exhibits and programs for all ages, from summer camp to scout programs to birthday parties. Visitors can explore Lyman Woods to just appreciate native plants and nature, or to find ideas in the rain gardens and butterfly gardens.
But there’s more, according to Hartman. "Lyman Woods is also home to an educational bee apiary and offers beginning to advanced beekeeping courses," she says.
Another hidden gem in Downers Grove actually has "hidden" in its name: Hidden Lake Forest Preserve. The preserve, just off Route 53, spans almost four acres and boasts a lake where people can fish, boat or paddle. It’s also known for the sound of spring peepers, seasonal birds with a signature song.
Past in the Present
In a community replete with historical markers and reminders, it should come as no surprise that Downers Grove has historical points of interest, many located on the same museum campus.
Conveniently located downtown on Maple Avenue, the compact campus includes the Downers Grove History Museum; the relocated Pioneer Blodgett House, which spotlights the Underground Railroad; and the Victorian Blodgett House, built as a family home in 1846.
Through August, the main museum has a special exhibit called "Are We There Yet?" It focuses on the ways in which residents have vacationed in places around the world and, in turn, how people have traveled to Downers Grove. Other historical structures on the campus include the Homestead Barn and a 1929 pumper fire truck.
Business as Usual
To Cassa’s point, the daytime population swells in Downers Grove due to the number of businesses in town. The local economy is doing well — new restaurants and shops have recently opened or are slated to open soon, many run by single owners and entrepreneurs.
"We recently had the opening of our second craft microbrewery," says Cassa. Alter Brewing Company, located just off Belmont Road, offers a range of craft brews and hosts events such as trivia nights and wooden sign-making classes.
In addition to smaller businesses that comprise the retail, service, restaurant and entertainment industry, this western suburb is the corporate home to a variety of companies including Heartland Food; FTD, the flower delivery service; and the Dover Corporation, an $8 billion manufacturer of equipment and components.
Other Upsides to Downers
• You can get your kicks on this part of old Route 66, otherwise known as the stretch of Ogden Avenue that passes through Downers Grove. A wide range of businesses line this busy corridor, including Fresh Thyme Farmers Market, Wannemakers Home and Garden center and an assortment of auto groups, from Ford to Lamborghini.
• Other notable retail districts are located on Fairview Avenue, 63rd Street and at Finley Square Shopping Center on Butterfield Road.
• The 105-acre campus of Midwestern University, located on 31st Street on the far northern edge of the village, specializes in the health sciences including programs in osteopathic medicine, optometry, pharmacy, physical therapy and dentistry.
• Avery Coonley School draws academically gifted students from throughout the area, with curricula for preschoolers through eighth graders. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the school’s original structures were built in 1929 and its grounds were designed by famed landscape architect Jens Jensen.