Wilmette, Illinois: Images of Childhood

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Growing Up In Wilmette

Wilmette, Illinois: Images of Childhood

The memories of Wilmette that stick with me most are images of the physical environment: Lake Michigan, prairies and the architecture of Chicago. Lake Michigan is the most prominent of these for its sheer size, containing as it does all the majesty of the ocean without the salt and tumult.

For us, Lake Michigan was for sailing. My mother had inherited her grandfather’s leaky sunfish, and on summer’s windy days we would wrestle the boat out to the water. I viewed this activity with a mixture of anxiety and excitement, spending most of the boat ride imagining myself sucked out into the expanded Lake Michigan of my mind never to find my way home. Despite this, Lake Michigan is like an old friend. It was always there, summer or winter, as a reminder of the larger world.

To the east, nature reserves surround Wilmette, many of which cultivate large sections of prairie. These preserves were another big part of summer – the site of dog walks, evening drives to look for deer and the occasional morning spent removing invasive buckthorn plants. The prairie has an immensity that is not felt in a forest; forests constrain the site, but prairies are expansive. The rustling of the grass is loud enough to drown out the sound of the highway, even in our relatively small reserve, and I always tried to imagine how it would have felt to look out at the endless fields of the Great Plains of old (the plains were once huge carbon sinks, but sadly only 3% of the original prairie remains).

It was the horizontal expanse of the grasslands that inspired Frank Lloyd Wright’s prairie school architecture. Oak Park, near Wilmette, has a large number of Frank Lloyd Wright homes, as well as his old studio, now a museum, and Unity Temple (which I had to model in my early years of architecture school). I visited most of these homes while in architecture school, but my earlier architectural memories are mainly of Louis Sullivan’s buildings. Sullivan had a love of detail that the modern style of architecture would later spurn, and his wrought iron entryway on the Carson Pirie Scott building defines architectural luxury to me. Surrounded by so many great buildings in Chicago, it’s easy to fall into the architectural profession. I owe a lot to the city for that.

Nowadays, I feel a soft homesickness thinking of these things. Chicago as a whole feels kinder than New York, both in temperament and cost. Say what you will about Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Sullivan, but their buildings give Chicago a humane touch. And if you still need to escape the concrete jungle, the lake is always there. So too are the prairies.



I was raised in a tight-knit Midwestern family with a strong commitment to service. An architect by training, I currently work in affordable housing finance. Prior to moving to NYC, I lived in Nicaragua for two years and have also spent time in West Africa and the Middle East. I started this blog as a way to catalog musings on travel and everyday life around the world.