If sitting creekside gazing at the splendor of fall foliage while listening to a rushing waterfalls your thing, then Oak Brook is a place for you. If strolling through a sleek, newly renovated outdoor shopping center, browsing the latest fashions and next-generation devices is your thing, Oak Brook is also the place for you. It’s a little bit city, it’s a little bit country and it’s a big draw for visitors all over the Chicago area for both its pastoral side and its contemporary offerings. The greater Oak Brook area, encompassing the village of Oak Brook and adjacent Oakbrook Terrace, draws about 100,000 visitors and business clients a day and millions of shoppers a year, according to the Greater Oak Brook Economic Development Partnership.
Oak Brook has long been a hub in the western suburbs. Settlers arrived in the 1830s after the departure of the Pottawatomie tribe of Native Americans, and the area was called Fullersburg by homesteader Ben Fuller. It was never incorporated by Fuller, though; Oak Brook was officially incorporated in 1958, thanks to prominent businessman Paul Butler, whose father, Frank, had amassed thousands of acres of land for his dairy and residences in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Paul Butler annexed some of that land into Oak Brook, around the same time as Marshall Field & Company bought a farm to build a west suburban location of its State Street store.
A small and heavily wooded community that reflected the equestrian interests of the Butler family — who founded the Oak Brook Polo Club highlighted later in this article — Oak Brook became the site of upscale homes built on sprawling acreage and later, in well-manicured subdivisions.
As the shopping center began to grow and with the construction of the expressway system in the Chicago area, Oak Brook soon became a sought-after locale for businesses and organizations, among them McDonald’s, which located its corporate headquarters and training center in the village. Although the fast food conglomerate recently pulled up stakes to move back to the city, Oak Brook is still home to many corporations including Ace Hardware, TreeHouse Foods, and Federal Signal Corp.
Today, the millions of people who visit Oak Brook each year do so because they have something to do or see. On that note, there’s no shortage of attractions in the western suburb of nearly 8,000 residents, 15 miles west of Chicago.
It won’t be long before headlights and tailgates will snake in and out of Oakbrook Center, as the holiday shopping season begins. Oakbrook Center, also commonly known as Oakbrook mall by many area residents, has been a major retail destination since it first opened in the early 1960s. Today, the open-air shopping center is owned by Brookfield Properties Retail Group (formerly GGP) and continues to thrive, with new stores set to open soon, like Vans, and longtime merchants, such as Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom and Gap, faring well.
Indeed, in an era when it seems online shopping has led to a noisy death knell for brick and mortar stores, one wouldn’t know it on a given day walking around this mall. It’s often a busy place from end to end, with patrons checking out the nearly 160 stores and services that are officially part of the center.
There are signs, of course, of the evolving ways of shopping. Anchor store and original tenant Marshall Field’s was bought by Macy’s several years ago, the signature Sears store shuttered last year and it was announced this year that Lord & Taylor will ring up its final sale in Oak Brook in January. But Oakbrook Center has rolled with the changes in its approach to modern retailing. The mall has continued its renovations and is home to stores that cater to the interests and demands of today’s shoppers, from the always-bustling Apple store to stores popular among teens and tweens, like Forever 21 and Lush. Longtime anchor Nordstrom recently underwent a renovation and Crate & Barrel just announced the addition of a new in-store full-service restaurant slated for a spring 2019 opening.
Even as Sears closed its three-level department store last year, that space is being utilized, with a scaled-back Sears location set to open soon in a new building on that same footprint, along with several other boutique-style stores, like L.L. Bean and Ballard Designs.Oakbrook Center also has responded to the ongoing customer clamor for "retailtainment" with "The District," its new indoor/outdoor food court, offering everything from trendy Stan’s Donuts to authentic Greek Kitchen fare. Last year also marked the opening of a 12-screen AMC movie complex adjacent to the second-level food area. Part of the new retail space occupying the former Sears building will be devoted to a children’s experiential learning and entertainment center called KidZania, the second U.S. location for that business. As evidenced by part of a Boeing 737 attached to the side of the building, KidZania will offer the use of flight simulators.
Oakbrook Center offers several special events throughout the year to enhance the experience of visitors, including a perennially popular classic car show on Father’s Day and a fine arts fair in September. One of its biggest events is coming up during the holidays, when a large open area is transformed into a space for family entertainment and mini shopping kiosks.
While the mall is evolving, so too are the areas around it. Dave Carlin, president and CEO of the Greater Oak Brook Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development Partnership, reports that a team of developers is proposing a 22-story luxury condominium building called — naturally — The Butler right across from Oakbrook Center, designed by famed architect Lucien Lagrange. "It will offer a promising solution for residents who want an upscale lifestyle without the upkeep of a large estate," says Carlin.
As one might expect, there is no shortage of dining options in a shopping area as sizable and popular as Oakbrook Center. In addition to The District food court and several dining options inside stores like Neiman Marcus (Zodiac), Nordstrom (Ruscello), Macy’s (a lower-level Marketplace food court) and soon, Crate & Barrel, there are several stand-alone restaurants within the mall, including the newer Roka Akor, Perry’s Steakhouse, Old Town Pour House and longtime favorites like Wildfire, Antico Posto, Mon Ami Gabi, The Clubhouse, Maggiano’s, Stir Crazy and Season’s 52, to name some examples.
Several other restaurants rim the greater mall property and cater to a variety of tastes. For example, that really is a basketball you see when driving along 22nd Street as a beacon for Michael Jordan’s Restaurant that opened last year. Other close-by dining establishments include RockSugar Southeast Asian Kitchen, Gibson’s Bar & Steakhouse and The Cheesecake Factory. The stretch of 22nd Street in Oakbrook Terrace just west of Oak Brook is also lined with places to catch a bite or a drink, such as Ditka’s Restaurant, Devon Seafood + Steak, Bar Louie and more.
Hospitality in Oak Brook extends from food and entertainment to lodging. Given the suburb’s location as a headquarters or large branch of many businesses, the village has several hotels frequented by business travelers, tourists and local visitors, including the tall, glassy Le Meridien, Chicago Marriott Oak Brook, Double Tree by Hilton and the Hilton Chicago /Oak Brook Hills Resort and Conference Center, among others. A couple of miles beyond the mall, the classic Drake Hotel was re-opened by new owners a couple of years ago, and continues its legacy as a spot for weddings, special events and special occasion brunches.
If the stores, eateries and entertainment businesses represent the more "city" part of Oak Brook, the community is just as known for its recreation and sporting areas.
The Sports Core in Oak Brook is aptly named, not only because it’s a core of the village activities but because it reflects the early sporting interests of Paul Butler. Run by the village of Oak Brook, the Core includes the Oak Brook Bath and Tennis Club, Oak Brook Golf Club and several large athletic fields.
The Sports Core is also home to Oak Brook Polo Club, founded by Paul Butler. It’s one of the oldest polo clubs in the country — once luring Prince Charles for the Prince of Wales Cup in 1986 — and has surged back into one of the hip places to be on summertime Sundays.
Danny O’Leary, managing director of the Oak Brook Polo Club, says that the uniqueness of the experience makes it a fun outing, whether you’re a seasoned polo fan, an equestrian lover, or just someone looking for an enjoyable weekend outing or wanting to check out something new. "We focused on areas that help make polo more accessible, affordable, inviting and engaging," says O’Leary, noting that the inclusive events cater to families, children, and couples and that the games have an accessible ticket price.
"We do a lot to make our events fun and interesting the best way we know how given the size of our venue. Some of the biggest highlights include the Pimm’s Chukker, Oak Brook Polo’s official cocktail and long-time favorite," explains O’Leary, who also cites the tradition of divot stomping. "It’s a half-time ritual where patrons go out on to the field and stomp back the divots created by horses. Guests receive a complimentary glassof champagne, popsicles for the kids and can dance to popular music to help with their stomping." Guests are also encouraged to dress up "Derby style" and many visitors also tailgate on the grounds.
Many other spaces for athletics and recreation fall under the purview of the Oak Brook Park District, which also runs a large indoor recreation center, a family aquatic center with new inclusive family locker rooms, and a tennis center. The newest amenity is a universal playground called the Sandlot, which opened in September. "The concept of Universal Play considers the physical, social and emotional needs of all users, so that everyone can experience the benefits of outdoor play, and no one is left on the sidelines," explains Laure Kosey, executive director of the Oak Brook Park District. The group’s programs cover a lot of ages, backgrounds, interests and needs, according to Kosey. "The Park District is proud to offer a wide range of recreational opportunities designed to help our community be its very best and feel its very best," she says. The Park District extends resident rates on all programming and services to anyone currently employed within Oak Brook’s village limits, she adds.
The Park District also sponsors several events throughout the year, including a summer Walk in the Park Wine Tour, Aqua Egg Hunt, The Pink 5K and, for this fall, a Haunted Forest on Oct. 12 and 13 and a Turkey Dri Tri on Nov. 23.
For a community that began as bucolic countryside, this suburb is in touch with its roots. It isn’t as much about getting back to nature here, because much of the village never left that state.
Fullersburg Woods and Nature Center, located along a winding road that wends between 31st Street and York Road, is an expansive area for walking, running, cycling or, in the winter, cross-country skiing on paths that encircle Salt Creek. The nature center on the grounds — a popular stop for school and scouting groups — provides an opportunity to learn more about Salt Creek, the surrounding area and its wildlife.
You can walk along the trails at Fullersburg Woods and wind up at Graue Mill & Museum, a historic waterwheel grist mill that is a visual icon in the western suburbs. Those who grew up in this area may remember school field trips there that included samples of grain; the museum still sells that grain with cornmeal recipes and still hosts outings for kids as well as special events for people of all ages.
As mesmerizing as it can be to gaze at the waterwheel in motion, Graue Mill and Museum is also historically significant because it was a stop on the Underground Railroad. Owner Frederick Graue made it a station before and during the Civil War, and the museum includes an exhibit with documents and photos.
Oak Brook Park District also oversees nature attractions, says Kosey. "You will definitely want to explore the 40 acres of restored open space at the Dorothy and Sam Dean Nature Sanctuary," she says, noting that area is a unique combination of ecosystems, with oak savannah, wetland, pond and prairie habitats living. The sanctuary features six interpretive gardens, a canoe launch for access to Salt Creek, crushed limestone pathways, prairie trail pathways, a fishing pond and pier and nature observation shelter.
Meanwhile, more open land and nature areas may be part of Oak Brook’s future. "The relocation of McDonald’s corporate offices to Chicago presents the Oak Brook Park District community with an opportunity to secure critical open space and park land," reports Kosey. In July, the Oak Brook Park District Board of Commissioners passed a resolution to place a referendum question on the Nov. 6 ballot asking for $17.9 million in general obligation bonds to purchase the 34-acre open space at Jorie Boulevard and Kensington Road, which have been known for years as the McDonald’s soccer fields.
Those who drive through Oak Brook may be guided by visual icons — the 31-story Oakbrook Terrance Tower and the steeple of Christ Church at 31st Street and York Road.
If you’ve recently driven by Christ Church — which sits on land donated by Paul Butler — you might have seen a lot of activity. The church and its campus are undergoing an expansion that reflects the needs of its members and visitors, says Rev. Dan Meyer. "In recent years, the growth of the church has been with younger families who value a more contemporary style of worship. We developed service in our fellowship hall that accommodated that community, but we’ve outgrown that," he explains. "So we’re building a state-of-the-art contemporary worship auditorium that supports services on the weekend, conferences during the week, and a whole variety of special events for the community, including speaker series and concerts.
And attached to that is a spacious light-filled atrium with wonderful seating and new technologies." An open house is set for Thanksgiving weekend to showcase that new space to church members and community members.
Christ Church’s community includes those in the village of Oak Brook, but extends well beyond that. "Today eight to 10 percent of our members live in Oak Brook and more like 90 percent come from other surrounding communities and from as far as Chicago, Indiana and Milwaukee," says Meyer.
Christ Church hosts or sponsors events for its member and the general public throughout the year, such as a Domestic Mission Fest in October that focuses on needs within the surrounding community, a concert by international composer and jazz musician Marianne Kim in October and an annual Veteran’s Day concert on November 11 that features a brass band and large choir.
Mayslake is a 90-acre area that includes a large forest preserve and the historic Tudor-style Peabody Estate that offers a variety of programs and hosts special events, including an upcoming holiday art and craft market. Mayslake is the home venue for First Folio Theatre, which also stages a series of outdoor performances in the summer.