Chicago was a city of business magnates and industry titans, and when those capitalists wanted to escape the city, they headed to the cooler climes and countryside of Lake County.
As the state’s most northeastern county, Lake County is wedged into the corner created by the Wisconsin border and the Lake Michigan shore. Dotted with nearly 100 lakes, the region also has numerous historic mansions, summer estates and gentleman’s farms built by some of Chicago’s most notable figures.
“This was the place for all of these wealthy people who had these successful businesses in Chicago to come out to recreate,” said Jayne Nordstrom, partnership and group tour manager for Visit Lake County.
A. Watson Armour, of Chicago’s prominent meatpacking family, began building Elawa Farm in 1915 in Lake Forest, Illinois, as a gentleman’s farm and weekend retreat for his family. The original 128-acre farm includes two gatehouses connected by an underground tunnel, a superintendent’s house, a wagon shed and a stable, as well as a 53,000-square-foot formal garden and fruit orchard.
Today, Elawa Farm and its gardens are open to the public, and the site hosts a farmers market three days a week. Elawa Farm also is home to the Wildlife Discovery Center, a combination wildlife sanctuary and nature museum that features displays of its live reptiles, amphibians, fish and birds.
American utilities and railroad magnate Samuel Insull, one of the original founders of General Electric Company, constructed his summer villa in 1914 in Vernon Hills. But Insull’s empire collapsed in the 1930s, and in 1937, the Cuneo family bought what is known today as Cuneo Mansion and Gardens.
In 2009, the Cuneo Foundation gave the estate, including the family’s extensive collection of art and antiques, to Loyola University Chicago, which has renovated parts of the mansion and added an event pavilion. Group tours are available any day of the week by appointment for groups of 15 or more.
The home and working farm of former Illinois governor and two-time presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson is also available for tours.
Stevenson was governor of Illinois from 1949 to 1953, and he ran for president in 1952 and again in 1956, losing both times to Dwight D. Eisenhower. In 1935, Stevenson and his wife built their home on 70 acres in Mettawa. But the house soon burned down, and in 1938, the Stevensons rebuilt the Art Deco-style house that still stands today.
Stevenson spent much of his time in his study writing books and speeches and meeting political figures such as Eleanor Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy. The Stevenson home is owned by the Lake County Forest Preserves and is open for guided tours.
“He would go there to relax and write,” Nordstrom said. “He called it ‘The Farm’ because it was a working farm, but today you can tour the house and walk in the forest preserve. You get a little bit of history and a chance to be out in nature.”
Chicago’s Southland, south and southwest of the city, comprises 62 individual communities, which makes the diverse area difficult to categorize.
The Southland’s blue-collar history is deeply rooted in the steel mills and heavy industry of yesteryear, but as most of the industry closed down or moved on, the region’s cities have transformed and redefined their communities.
In recent years, South Holland, Park Forest and Homewood were named Chicago’s “most livable suburbs,” while Tinley Park was named one of the best places to raise a family.
“We have 62 municipalities, so we’re known for a lot of things, but not necessarily as a region,” said Scott Bort, public relations manager with the Chicago Southland Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Visitors who want a taste of the region’s industrial past need only go to the Pullman National Historic District, the nation’s first “planned community” and brainchild of George M. Pullman, president of the Pullman Palace Car Co.
Pullman decided to build a residential utopia for workers at his factory, which manufactured railroad cars, including the famous Pullman sleeping car. From 1880 to 1884, Pullman employees built the town. Workers even made bricks out of clay from nearby Lake Calumet at a brickyard built specifically to supply the town, which included more than 1,000 homes and buildings when it was complete.
Pullman was named the “World’s Most Perfect Town” in 1906, Bort said; but after the Pullman factory closed in 1955, the area went downhill, and in the 1960s, it was facing demolition.
Local residents rallied to preserve and restore the town, and “they worked extremely hard to save the area and rebuild the neighborhood,” Bort said.
Group tours can be arranged for 20 or more and start at the Pullman visitors center, which has a small museum featuring Pullman artifacts. From there, a guide from the neighborhood — “someone who lives there,” Bort said — takes visitors down the streets to see the row houses.
Groups then stop at the Greenstone Church, which “is legitimately green,” Bort said, because it was built from serpentine stone quarried in Pennsylvania. Visitors can usually go inside, where they will find the original altar and pews, as well as an 1882 Steere and Turner pipe organ.
From the church, groups walk through Market Square before moving on to see the exterior of the former Pullman factory and remnants of the clock tower. Tours usually wrap up at the 1881 Hotel Florence, which is undergoing a renovation to transform it into a restaurant, Bort said.