Just beyond Chicago’s limits and only 10 miles west of the Chicago Loop, Oak Park is an elegant suburb celebrated for its architectural heritage.
Between 1888 and the 1910s, Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) left a lasting legacy in Oak Park, first working for the Adler & Sullivan firm and then as an independent practitioner.
Today Oak Park has more Frank Lloyd Wright buildings than anywhere else in the world, including his own home and studio.
Something thrilling about this heritage is the way you can trace the origins of Wright’s famous Prairie style through his 20s and 30s, while there are lots of marvellous contributions by Prairie School contemporaries like George W. Maher and Jens Jensen.
On top of all that, Oak Park is the birthplace of Ernest Hemingway, and you can tour the home in which he was born and spent the first six years of his life.
1. Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio
In 1888, at 22 years old, Wright borrowed $5,000 from his boss Louis Sullivan to build a home for his family.
This was first completed in 1889, but one of the exciting things about the property is that as Wright’s ideas developed, so did his home.
Wright made major changes in 1895 and again in 1898, the whole time testing out new concepts that he would later use in his commissions.
What you’ll see here are the beginnings of the Prairie School style, in Wright’s preference for natural materials, geometric forms and relationship with the land.
The interiors are wonderfully open and everything you see was designed by Wright, from the furniture and decorative items to the lighting and fixtures.
The most cherished space is the children’s playroom, added in 1895 and with a barrel vault lit at the apex by a long skylight.
2. Unity Temple
Wright came from a Unitarian family, so when Oak Park’s Unity Church was destroyed by fire after a lightning strike in 1905 he put his hat in the ring to design the replacement.
This extraordinary building, completed 1908, is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site of Wright landmarks.
The Unity Temple represented a huge leap forward in Wright’s career, and is often described as the first ever modern building, thanks to his aesthetic aims, emphasis on space and use of reinforced concrete for the entire structure.
The stark, grey exterior belies the warmth and intimacy of the interior, particularly in the sanctuary.
There you’ll be struck by the beautiful light created by the stained glass up in the clerestory, as well the 25 square, amber-tinted lights in the ceiling coffers. Wright’s goal here was to create the impression of sunlight within, even on a cloudy day outside.
3. Frank Lloyd Wright Walking Tour
We’ve seen that Oak Park has more buildings by Frank Lloyd Wright than any other place in the world. So on these streets you’ll have a rare chance to track the evolution of his work in the early part of his career.
In summer you can do this with an expert guide via the Frank Lloyd Trust on the Wright in the Neighborhood, Wright Around Oak Park and Pedal Oak Park tours.
One hotly anticipated event is Wright Plus Architectural Housewalk, when eight private residences open their doors to the public to view the magnificent restored interiors.
To conduct your own exterior tours it’s easy to find maps pointing out the Wright houses, and some of the many essentials are the Laura Gale House (6 Elizabeth Court), the Frank Thomas House (210 Forest Ave.), the Arthur Heurtley House (318 Forest Ave.) and the Edwin H. Cheney House (520 North East Ave.).
4. Ernest Hemingway Birthplace Museum
Another colossal 20th-century figure connected to Oak Park is the Pulitzer and Nobel Prize-winning author, Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961).
He was born, and spent the first six years of his life in a three-story Victorian house built by his maternal grandparents in 1890.
With fixtures that Hemingway would recognize, the house has been meticulously restored to its 1890s appearance.
On a 45-minute tour, led by a knowledgeable docent, you’ll see a wealth of Hemingway family heirlooms, like photographs and furniture, and the second floor bedroom in which he was born on July 21, 1899.
5. Oak Park Conservatory
An additional historic point of interest in Oak Park is this conservatory, founded in 1914 to house the plants collected in residents’ travels.
The current structure dates to 1929 and was rescued by community preservation efforts in the 1970s after years of neglect.
There are more than 20,000 plants inside, arranged in separate rooms for desert species, tropical plants and fragrant Mediterranean species like bay, lavender, sage and rosemary.
Also inside is a pond with goldfish, koi and turtles, while outside you can explore the Elsie Jacobsen Memorial Garden inspired by the elements, air, earth, light and water.
6. Pleasant Home
Among Oak Park’s many architectural masterpieces is this Prairie School-style residence by George W. Maher (1864-1926).
A National Historic Landmark, Pleasant Home, also known as the John Farson House, went up in 1897 and is held as the finest surviving example of Maher’s work.
It was commissioned by a prominent Chicago banker and broke the mould in a neighborhood dominated by Victorian and Queen Anne properties.
With 30 rooms, Pleasant Home is noted for its broad porch and use of motifs to unite the interior decor, with profuse art glass, tilework and woodcarving, as well as an outsized fireplace.
Restoration began in the 1960s and you can take a tour to savor the astonishing workmanship and innovative architecture, and to get a sense of upscale domestic life at the turn of the 20th century.
7. Downtown Oak Park
Threaded by Oak Park Avenue and Lake Street, downtown Oak Park is an endearing commercial district in great health.
Awaiting you on walkable, tree-lined streets are local businesses for cute, one-of-a-kind gifts, pottery, home design, flowers, fashion and footwear.
There’s also a diversity of dining options, from pizza to sushi, Vegetarian, Thai, Italian (Cucina Paradiso, Il Viculo), Contemporary American, BBQ, Greek, Latin American, along with a Brazilian bakery.
Then there is a brewpub, cafes, a tea shop and an ice cream parlor. And you won’t need to leave downtown for entertainment, as the seven-screen Lake Theatre is one of the finest examples of an Art Deco movie palace and dates back to 1936.
8. Oak Park Farmers’ Market
The village of Oak Park has one of the longest-running farmers’ markets in Chicagoland, now coming up for half a century.
Typically held in the parking lot of the Pilgrim Church at 460 Lake Street, the market operates from late May to late October.
It’s the ideal opportunity to get hold of local, farm-fresh fruit and vegetables as it comes into season, as well as cheeses, honey, salsas, jams, jellies, pickles and tempting baked goods.
A hallmark of the market is the stand making delicious fresh donuts with all profits going to charity.
9. Columbus Park
You can continue your Prairie School odyssey at this sumptuous public park, by Wright’s contemporary, Danish-American landscape architect Jens Jensen (1860-1951).
Over 135 acres, Columbus Park is considered the high point of Jensen’s career and bears the signatures of his Prairie School approach.
The park emphasizes the natural beauty of the land, and uses native as opposed to exotic plants.
Jensen drew inspiration from the rocky outcrops of the Midwest for the park’s stone paths and waterfalls, as well as the Council Ring, a communal stone circle evoking the Viking and Native American traditions.
The park’s northern portion is occupied by a nine-hole, links-style golf course, embedded in prairie-like meadows.
10. Scoville Park
Right by the Unity temple and fronting Oak Park Public Library is another park by Jens Jensen.
Scoville park goes back much further, and the land was bought by the area’s first Euro-American settler, Joseph Kettlestrings in 1833.
This parcel was then purchased in 1855 by James Scoville, for whom the park is named. The foundations of Scoville’s mansion have been discovered under the war memorial, Peace Triumphant near the very center of the park.
Jensen worked on Scoville Park in the 1910s and although the layout drifted from that design over the intervening century, a renovation in 2012-13 brought back many of the features of his open landscape.
Scoville Park is a venue for concerts in summer, and has ample lawns, tennis courts and a children’s playground with artificial turf. Peace Triumphant is inscribed with Hemingway’s name, among 2,445 other Oak Park residents who served in WWI.
11. Oak Park River Forest Museum
Charting 180+ years of local history, this museum is run by the Historical Society of Oak Park and River Forest, which was founded in 1968. The museum relocated to its current premises on Lake Street in 2017.
This handsome Richardsonian Romanesque building is a former firehouse, dating back to 1898 and boasts a restored interior updated with energy-efficient LED lighting.
The museum is filled with hundreds of artifacts, from vintage costume to tin signs, illustrating the rich history of Oak Park and River Forest.
You can also view compelling temporary displays on topics as diverse as the Pleasant Home, WWI in Oak Park and the local history of Scouting, while there’s also a dedicated area for children.
12. Hal Tyrrell Trailside Museum of Natural History
Just west in River Forest is a captivating natural history museum in a Victorian mansion. The Hal Tyrrell Trailside Museum of Natural History borders the expansive Thatcher Woods on the Des Plaines River, and is run by the Forest Preserve District of Cook County.
The impressive building dates back to the 1870s, while the museum was established in 1931 and goes into detail on native ecology.
You can check out a variety of wild animals, including birds of prey and coyotes, and enjoy the gorgeous wildflower displays on the grounds.
Afterwards you can set off on a walk in Thatcher Woods, mixing tranquil oak woodland and floodplain forest.
13. Rehm Park
This well-appointed neighborhood park has a wonderful attraction beloved by families for more than 60 years.
Free to the public, although you’ll need a member of park district staff present to use it, is a miniature railway for children, hand-powered by an ingenious winch system.
The railway is part of a large playground that also features a sand pit and age-specific play equipment.
When we made this list, Rehm Park had just been given a thorough renovation, and offers a community pool and a new game area by the main entrance, with ping pong, baggo and a GaGa pit.
14. Mills Park
After a tour at the Pleasant Home you can step out into the surrounding Mills Park, a lush sweep of tree-shaded lawns and charming flowerbeds.
On the edge of downtown Oak Park, Mills Park is on a gentle slope and bustles with squirrels in spring, summer and fall.
There are wooden benches throughout, as well as some chairs carved from stone. One lovely detail is a path with engraved stepping stones recounting the story of Oak Park, from prehistory to the present.
15. Wonder Works Children’s Museum
Designed for children up to the age of eight, this attraction is ideal for energetic and curious kids.
Wonder Works is an engaging, open-ended and educational environment in which children can climb, build, create, play musical instruments, solve puzzles and roleplay every situations like shopping and doctor visits.
The museum is laid out with open lines of sight for easy supervision, while parents or caregivers are welcome to join in and play.
There are six permanent exhibits, along with temporary exhibits that are renewed every few months. The museum also organizes a variety of special events, from storytimes to spooky fun at Halloween.