Best Chicago suburb for my fictional character to live in?
October 12, 2021 11:36 AM   Subscribe

He's an actor living in Chicago whose career isn't really working out. He starts dating a slightly older woman who works as an interior designer for incredibly wealthy clients, and has herself always aspired to wealth and its markers. When the main character mysteriously inherits a mid-century modern property in a Chicago suburb from his deceased father--who as far as he always knew was mired in debt, and whose income was confusing to him as a child and probably shady in retrospect--it seems to fulfill his girlfriend's dream for a property she could refurbish with all her ideal markers of wealth and taste. (Bonus if anyone has any specific knowledge about how this character's father might set up assets/properties to escape probate in Illinois!) For the main character, moving there from the city should feel alienating, surreal, and starkly different from his former life. I'm imagining a neighborhood that is idyllic and/or subtly moneyed.

One thing I'm still trying to decide is if this house is in fact mid-century modern, or if it's "imitation mid-century modern"--a concept I might have made up, but which I like for its absurdity and slight eeriness (this will be a house that will non-fatally poison them with carbon monoxide later on).

What Chicago suburb might have a mid-century modern home like this, or--and I'm not even sure if this is a thing--houses built later but meant to emulate mid-century modern design? Or houses built in the 70s with over-the top shag carpet etc? Mainly what I want is a house with specific character, a house that feels like a relic from a bygone era. Something that feel absurd, random, weird for him to inherit (one big theme of the book is the plausibility or implausibility of things that happen to him). I'm going to Chicago soon for research and I'm trying to decide where I should visit! Any help much appreciated :)
posted by ennuisperminute to Society & Culture (25 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I'm thinking something like Skokie, Wilmette, or Highland Park (home of Cameron Frye's house in Ferris Bueller)? A suburb like Evanston or Oak Park probably has the right kind of architecture but wouldn't be a real big leap from city living proper.

Further out, I'm not sure you'll find a LOT of the kind of house you're describing, but in some of the wealthy/idyllic NW/South suburbs I'm sure you could plausibly set a mid-century or 70s glam house that was out of step with its neighbors.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 11:43 AM on October 12 [5 favorites]

Agreed -- Skokie or Wilmette, or one of the commuter rail towns along UP-NW: Park Ridge, Mount Prospect, Arlington Heights, etc.
posted by tivalasvegas at 11:48 AM on October 12 [2 favorites]

Once the locals tell you the towns to look in, you can go to Zillow, and search by town, and use the settings under "More" to choose the years that the home would've been built, and the keyword "TLC" (which means that the house needs to be renovated) in order to find the types of houses your character might inherit. (Example: 1956, 1980)
posted by xo at 11:56 AM on October 12 [4 favorites]

"Idyllic and/or subtly moneyed" screams Hyde Park to me (or at least, it felt that way 10 years ago when I lived there.)

Mainly what I want is a house with specific character, a house that feels like a relic from a bygone era. Something that feel absurd, random, weird for him to inherit

I give you the University Apartments, an absurd big ol' I.M.Pei apartment complex plopped smack in the middle of 55th St. during the "urban renewal" craze of the '60s. What's more, at one point it had the nickname "Monoxide Island" due to the fumes from the passing traffic. Seems like kismet.
posted by Johnny Assay at 11:57 AM on October 12 [1 favorite]

There's a stretch of Sheridan Road in the northern suburbs that runs through Wilmette, Winnetka and Highland Park that would fit; the houses are big, the road is a bit winding (and a bit hilly - most of the rest of Chicago is super flat), very leafy, and there are lots of large old houses/mansions/maybe even estates. Inserting a mid-1900s house would not be much of a stretch, and your character's girlfriend would be thrilled to find it.
posted by sencha at 12:08 PM on October 12 [4 favorites]

Lake Forest, ala Ordinary People
posted by Ideefixe at 12:09 PM on October 12

Look at this beaut in River Forest, built in 1960 with the original bathroom tiles (and a blue sink/toilet!!!).
posted by jabes at 12:19 PM on October 12 [4 favorites]

Look at this beaut in River Forest, built in 1960 with the original bathroom tiles (and a blue sink/toilet!!!).

That house looks like it would seem like a treat/life changer to inherit.
posted by The_Vegetables at 1:34 PM on October 12

Another vote for Skokie, in part inspired by a friend (and fellow mefite) who moved to a mid century time capsule there after living in the city for ~15 years and has definitely described some of that alienating feeling.

Of note, Skokie is in part known for its large Jewish population so please just be cognizant and careful of that with your “surprise! Money!” storyline, should you choose it as your location.

(Hyde Park mentioned above is just… a neighborhood in Chicago. It has some quirks but you’re unmistakably In The City there.)
posted by obfuscation at 1:46 PM on October 12 [5 favorites]

Mid-century modern isn't dominant in either case, but would be very plausible in Oak Park or Lake Geneva. The latter, in particular, is a *long* commute to downtown, though people do it. Both have a slightly stuffy, moneyed history and don't entirely feel like genuine, self-sustaining towns, at least to me.
posted by eotvos at 1:52 PM on October 12

If by "midcentury" you mean 1950, most of the places people have mentioned are far older than that. E.g. Oak Park is notable for its Frank Lloyd Wright houses, which he started building in the 1890s. Of course a 1950s house could be built anywhere, but it would probably replace an older house and stand out from its neighbors.

River Forest (which is just west of Oak Park) might have the vibe you want, as it's full of huge rich houses. A few of them were once owned by gangsters, who like to live in quiet suburbs.

If you want a suburban environment that feels quite different from Chicago, I'd suggest going way out— e.g. in the west, to West Chicago or Geneva; in the northwest, Crystal Lake. They're still connected to the city by train, but are definitely suburban and not semi-urban like Oak Park or Skokie. And the builder of your big house would be able to put it on a big lot as well.
posted by zompist at 2:26 PM on October 12

This oddball midcentury modern in Palos Park (about 45-60 minutes from Chicago) became a viral sensation locally because whoo boy, is it a whole frigging thing, from the bowling alley to the bomb shelter. More photos here.

It subsequently got water damaged and gut rehabbed, but man alive, it would have been such a deeply weird thing to inherit and try to figure out what to do with.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 2:44 PM on October 12

I think Skokie is wrong, for the record -- most of Skokie doesn't feel all that different from West Ridge (a city neighborhood), and you can get to it on the L. Oak Park/River Forest is wrong for similar reasons. I have spent a LOT of time in the inner-ring suburbs, and while there are some mid-century or mid-century-ish houses there, they won't work for that sense of alienation (and they're definitely not surreal).

I offer you (many of these are seconds):

- Lake Forest, full of wildly rich people who inherited their money. I truly feel like a space alien there (and people look at me like I am one, despite the fact that we share a lot of demographic characteristics, but they can clearly tell at a glance that I am Not One Of Them)

- Geneva/St. Charles/Naperville on the river in the western suburbs, these places all feel like they are really mad about being near Chicago even though they wouldn't exist without us. They all have lots of big fancy houses and very planned fancy downtowns. Naperville sort of feels like Disneyland for people who said they voted for Biden but really voted for Trump

- I know the least about this one but I drove through Riverside recently and was sort of stunned by its gorgeousness in a notably un-gorgeous part of the suburbs. It's this bizarre little enclave of fanciness. I didn't know what to make of it, but I bet it's weird.

- Sheridan Road, which is also full of huge fancy mansions, but at least to me they are not as weird as Lake Forest though I can't totally pinpoint why? But moving to Wilmette/Winnetka/Highland Park wouldn't really feel surreal, I don't think. Wilmette's on the L at least sort of, Winnetka and HP have sizable, walkable downtown areas.

- The southwest suburbs (on preview, like Palos Park), which are very strange and deeply suburban, but definitely not old money
posted by goodbyewaffles at 2:56 PM on October 12 [7 favorites]

I'd go south suburbs. Olympia Fields is both lush and bigly mid-century. The north shore has some mid-mods, but I've always considered the "idyllic" areas there to be old money, and big money at that. Not an area where someone you thought was destitute would own a home.

There's a surprising number of mid-century modern homes in Lincolnwood (a mid-mod prefabber named an entire line of houses after it), but that's just over the city limits and might not be a fish-out-of-water feeling.
posted by hwyengr at 2:58 PM on October 12 [1 favorite]

My grandparents lived in Winnetka, and when they sold their early-20th century house in the mid-1990s, the buyer tore it down, chopped down all the mature trees, and built a McMansion out to the property lines. There’s a lot of that in their old neighborhood. Not that there aren’t still lots of the older homes, but things are not static the way that people might imagine.
posted by Lawn Beaver at 3:23 PM on October 12

My vote would be for Riverside or Hinsdale. Both off the Metra/BNSF line.
posted by repoman at 3:43 PM on October 12

Oh my goodness, this is so obviously Highland Park I'm surprised there are any other answers.
posted by shadygrove at 5:42 PM on October 12 [5 favorites]

It's definitely Highland Park
posted by jordemort at 6:52 PM on October 12 [3 favorites]

I would third Riverside. The town was planned and designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and has no straight roads. It’s a weird patch of a town surrounded by grids, and the homes are generally amazing. You may find “oddball” mid-century modern homes in other burbs farther out, but the genuine character of this town could do the trick.
posted by hijinx at 7:24 PM on October 12

Lake Forest or Hinsdale, which others have mentioned. Haven't seen anyone mention Glencoe which is a really ritzy suburb on the lake near Winnetka, which others have already mentioned -- I think it had some Richard Baranckik houses (a mid-century modern Chicago architect).
posted by virve at 8:12 PM on October 12 [1 favorite]

I think the votes for Highland Park are almost right - it needs to be one of the "uncanny valley" Highland Park neighbors like Bannockburn, Highwood, or Lincolnshire. I'd buy that there was a forgotten midcentury masterpiece residence in there somewhere off what looks like a forest preserve access trail, just north of Half Day Road, obscured by old trees and years of overgrown landscaping. To get the feel of the place, if you're there on a Sunday I recommend taking Route 41 up from the city to visit either the Lake Forest Friends Meeting or North Shore Unitarian, the latter is architecturally delightful. Bannockburn/Lincolnshire is a liminal zone class-wise, 20 years ago there were still patches of old farms or undeveloped acreage bordered by mixed industrial/commercial along 41, with the occasional old man bar and maybe a small 60's 3-flat that had escaped rezoning (these have slowly all been converted to Audi dealerships). It sits between the quasi-aristocratic inherited wealth of Glencoe/Winnetka and the s(t)olidly middle and upper-middle aspirational professionals in Buffalo Grove and Wheeling. I think being cut through by I-94 keeps it from having a firm sense of place.

Olympia Fields would also work economically and architecturally, bearing in mind that it's a stone's throw from several sources of suburban gothic: Ford Heights, an underground railroad stop that was infamously once the poorest suburb in America, and one with a history of sketchy politics in the best stereotypically-Chicagoan tradition; Park Forest, a post-WWII planned suburb full of little boxes made of ticky-tacky and no hillsides to speak of; and Thornton Quarry, which definitely gives me "Tana French murder scene" vibes. After growing up in the northern suburbs, I didn't even know Olympia Fields existed until I briefly moved nearby, and it is a pocket of relatively extreme wealth that isn't trying to imitate the north shore aesthetically the way I feel like nearby Homewood/Flossmoor is doing. Olympia Fields would max out the "alienating, surreal, and starkly different" meter if your Chicago actor is living in Lakeview (or even Logan Square) alongside the children of Highland Parkers.
posted by All hands bury the dead at 10:42 PM on October 12 [2 favorites]

Another vote for Highland Park.

All of it that I saw on a visit to my ex's family was unnerving to me, but I will definitely yield to All hands bury the dead's comment that other villages could be worse.

(a vote against Skokie, at least all the neighborhoods I saw)
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 11:21 AM on October 13 [2 favorites]

Deerfield (just west of Highland Park, less moneyed, with lots of older houses still), and La Grange (just east of Hinsdale, same) might do the trick as well.
posted by Calibandage at 3:36 PM on October 13 [1 favorite]

Nthing Highland Park. I stopped going to Ravinia because I found the surrounds alienating.

Of course, if I had dough I'd probably love it.
posted by Chitownfats at 6:10 PM on October 13

I don't think you will go wrong with somewhere in the Highland park, Glencoe Winnetka etc area. As a bonus, could the inherited house be on the lake? Someone's first time driving up Sheridan Rd to their new house could really hit the fish-out-of-water, holy crap look at these fancy places sort of feel. And plenty of mid-century modern there as well.
posted by andruwjones26 at 8:57 PM on October 14

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