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Elmhurst: Small-Town Charm, Big-City Appeal

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Located just 15 miles west of Chicago, this suburb is full of quiet neighborhoods and parks, but it’s also filled with vibrant resources. Tour the highlights and learn why residents are so enthusiastic.

The Pastuovic family, left to right: Nicholas, Jacqueline, Allison, Debbie and Nick. (Rebecca O\'Malley).

Debbie Pastuovic loves living in Elmhurst for a variety of reasons. It’s where she and husband Nick grew up, and it’s where they’ve brought up three children.

“It’s a great place to live and raise a family,” says the freelance bookkeeper. “There’s always something going on. We enjoy the convenience. It’s easy to jump on the expressway, and we’re close to the airports. We also like to spend time here in Elmhurst’s downtown. The kids are busy with their activities, and the school system is wonderful. We couldn’t ask for a better place to live.”

Located 15 miles west of Chicago, Elmhurst, population 44,000, is an historic, tree-lined community that offers many options for art and culture, recreation, shopping, dining and year-round special events.

Celebrating its 175th anniversary this year, the city looks back on decades of problem-solving and accomplishments, including a new library for the historic Wilder Park area and the transformation of the Elmhurst City Centre.

“Elmhurst has a small-town feel with big-city amenities,” says native Kathy Rezny, who runs family-owned York Furrier, one of the city’s destination businesses. “We have great shop owners who make customers feel special and give them personalized service. And it’s a beautiful place to be busy, or to just sit and relax. You can spend an hour running a quick errand, or spend an entire day enjoying Elmhurst’s vibrant cultural activities.”

Resilience

Elmhurst is a generous community. It’s a town where people give freely of their time, volunteering at local hospitals or joining one of many service organizations. They lend a hand at churches, schools and senior centers, and generally pitch in to make their town a better place to live. Four years ago, Elmhurst became one of 1,080 “Cool Cities” across the country, a Sierra Club program in which cities work to reduce their carbon footprints.

Driving through town, it’s easy to see how one might fall in love with Elmhurst. Neighborhoods are clean and unique; no two houses appear the same. A columned neoclassical two-story stands next to a Spanish eclectic with a low-pitched roof.

“The neighborhoods are absolutely beautiful, and cared for with great pride by the homeowners,” says Marlene Tegmeyer, visitor and tourism coordinator for the City of Elmhurst. “Several of these houses are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.”

The city’s good vibe hasn’t gone unnoticed. In 2003, Chicago magazine ranked Elmhurst as the No. 1 Best Place to Live, out of nearly 200 Chicagoland suburbs; Money magazine named it among the region’s “Hottest ’Burbs in 2007.”

That kind of publicity caught the attention of Bonnie Schroeder-Nestel and her husband, Steve Nestel. Former residents of Deerfield, the couple decided to “take a gamble” and move to Elmhurst eight years ago. They took to their new surroundings immediately, signing up for dance lessons, discovering new dining spots and spending precious time with neighbors, including the Pastuovics. “They made us feel so welcome and took us under their wing,” says Schroeder-Nestel, who owns a qualitative marketing research firm. “Elmhurst has a comfortable feel.”

But what really sold the couple on the community’s warmth was the reaction from friends and neighbors on the passing of their dog, a boxer named Eddie. When the Nestels decided to plant a tree in his honor at nearby Butterfield Park, where Eddie often played, more than 30 people turned out for the emotional memorial service. “It warmed my heart,” says Schroeder-Nestel, who now takes her rambunctious boxer puppy, Chloe, to the park. “It was a testament to what great friends we’ve made here. We’ve contemplated moving south where it’s warmer, but when Eddie died, we realized that this is our home.”

As with any community, however, there are challenges. The book titled Visionary – An Elmhurst Retrospective, written by Virginia Stewart, chronicles the significant demographic, economic and environmental obstacles Elmhurst has faced over the years. For example, when the leading edge of suburban development shifted west along the I-88 and I-290 corridors, Elmhurst’s population dropped by nearly 6,000 in one decade. Declining enrollment led to several elementary school closings between 1977 and 1983. In 1987, severe flooding devastated the south side of town.

But the book also details the problem-solving nature of Elmhurst’s population. Although landlocked, city leaders got creative. The city’s turnaround started downtown, with a new library, park and museum facilities.

“One of the great things about Elmhurst is our ability to overcome challenges,” says Tegmeyer. “We’re a resilient community.”

Tree City, U.S.A.

In 1836, European settlers built homes on the prairie in York Township, a part of which later became Elmhurst. Seven years later, Hill Cottage Tavern opened at what’s now the intersection of St. Charles Road and Cottage Hill Avenue, and became a stop on the stagecoach line between Chicago and the Fox River Valley. In 1849, the Galena & Chicago Union Railroad was granted a right of way through town, providing convenient rail access to and from Chicago for residents, farmers and produce.

Elmhurst is an Old English name meaning “a grove of elms.” When the area was founded, it was known as Cottage Hill. After early settlers made a concerted effort to plant trees, the community was renamed Elmhurst in 1870. In fact, Elmhurst was the first DuPage County municipality to be named Tree City U.S.A., an honor it’s held for the past 27 years.

When Elmhurst incorporated in 1882, it had a population of 1,050 residents, and the local governement provided police protection, a volunteer fire department, sewers and wood plank sidewalks. Companies such as Elmhurst Spring Water Company, Elmhurst Electric Light Company and Chicago Telephone Company began introducing services in the late 19th century.

Elmhurst tripled in size during the 1920s, from about 4,600 residents to 14,050. Many organizations were formed in the 1920s, including the Elmhurst Park District and Elmhurst Hospital. Subdivisions, including Emery Manor and Brynhaven, popped up after World War II, and neighborhood schools burgeoned in the 1950s.

Tegmeyer, who grew up in Chicago, fell in love with Elmhurst during regular visits to her aunt. She was so enamored with the city that, when she became pregnant with her daughter, Tegmeyer and husband Jack decided to move to Elmhurst. “It’s always been such a beautiful town,” she says.

The Tegmeyers are frequent visitors to park district events, symphony concerts, movies and a number of restaurants. “There’s so much to do,” she says. “We’ve met so many of our good friends because of the opportunities that exist here in Elmhurst.”

Well qualified by her own enthusiasm, Tegmeyer became Elmhurst’s visitors and tourism coordinator in 1999, after working for the Elmhurst Economic Development Corporation. “I’ve had 6,097 requests for information about Elmhurst just in the past few months,” she says with a broad smile. “I’ve had inquiries from New York, Hawaii – all over.”

One of the most impressive sights in the city is also the community’s largest employer, Elmhurst Memorial Healthcare. With more than 3,000 employees and 600 physicians on its medical staff, the comprehensive health system opened its new acute care hospital earlier this year, on the corner of York Street and Roosevelt Road. At 866,000 square feet, the state-of-the-art facility looks more like a resort than a hospital, and includes retail outlets like Walgreens and Starbucks. The $450 million, 50-acre hospital campus features Frank Lloyd Wright décor, earth tones and plentiful natural light. The prairie-style structure houses 259 private inpatient suites, along with cardiology, oncology, orthopedic, pediatric, maternity and emergency services.

But the hospital isn’t the only major employer in Elmhurst. The Chamberlain Group Inc., the world’s largest manufacturer of residential and commercial door operators and access control products, is headquartered in Elmhurst, as is McMaster-Carr Supply Co., an industrial and commercial parts supplier.

Elmhurst School District 205 provides education for most Elmhurst children, operating eight elementary schools, three junior highs and York High School. Timothy Christian Schools, founded in 1911, a fully accredited, parent-run PreK-12 Christian school system, is among private school options.

Elmhurst College, a four-year private liberal arts college on 38 acres, was founded in 1871. Today, it offers more than 50 majors and nine graduate programs. It has a student body of 2,600 and ranks 12th among Midwestern universities, according to the 2012 survey by U.S. News & World Report.

The campus hosts many visitors for lectures, art exhibits and musical performances, including classical and choral concerts, an outdoor Summer Extravaganza each June, and the annual Jazz Festival, which will mark its 45th year in February 2012. “Elmhurst College is diverse for its size,” Tegmeyer says. “It’s been great for the community. There are many free programs, including guest lectures. You walk away inspired by what they have to say.”

Shop ’til You Drop

One of the most appealing qualities about Elmhurst is its proximity to highways, rail lines and airports. It’s located less than 20 miles from Chicago’s two main airports and close to major expressways 290, 294 and 88. A downtown Metra train station carries commuters to and from other suburbs and Chicago.

There are a number of strip malls, boutiques and destination stores throughout Elmhurst, and the Vallette and York Business Association sponsors a weekly farmers market from June through October.

South Elmhurst, at Butterfield and York streets, has a grocery store, several small restaurants, ice cream parlors and other shops. North Elmhurst has several strip malls. Other shopping hot spots can be found at Route 83 and North Avenue; Elmhurst Crossing on the corner of Route 83 and St. Charles Road; and the Spring Road area, where the annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade, Elmhurst Pet Parade and Music at the Gazebo are held. Among Elmhurst’s many eateries are Roberto’s Ristorante & Pizzeria at 483 Spring Road, Francesca’s Amici at 174 N. York Road, and Jack’s Silverado Grill, at 447 S. Spring Road.

The Wilder Park Conservatory is filled with exotic foliage and flowering  tropical plants, which appeal to locals and visitors alike.

The Wilder Park Conservatory is filled with exotic foliage and flowering tropical plants, which appeal to locals and visitors alike.

Without question, the city’s biggest improvement in the past 17 years has taken place downtown. The Elmhurst City Centre was established in 1994, to market and promote more than 300 merchants within a five-block area. They run the gamut from the area’s anchor business – the York Theatre – to restaurants, local and national stores and professional service businesses.

“It’s a real mix, which helps the downtown tremendously in this economy,” says Tom Paravola, executive director of City Centre. He’s a practicing attorney and owns It’s Good To Be King, a downtown shop specializing in chess sets, army play sets, toy soldiers of all eras and other games. “Service businesses draw people downtown, which helps retail stores and restaurants. They feed off themselves. The downtown area is stronger than it’s been in a long time. It’s the focal point for the community.”

York Furrier, 107 N. York Road, one of Elmhurst’s premier shops, draws customers from all over the region to browse its inventory of furs, leathers, shearlings and cashmere garments, as well as unique accessories, from hats to boots. The business was started in 1931 by Joseph R. Wagner, who arrived in New York as an 18-year old German immigrant, and worked his way to Elmhurst. Granddaughter Kathy Rezny, husband John and her brother, John Wagner, own it today.

Inspired by her grandfather’s philanthropic nature, Rezny continues to support community and charitable organizations. York Furrier participates in more than 70 runway shows and provides products for more than 200 philanthropic events each year.

“Elmhurst has been good to us, and we’ve been good to Elmhurst,” says Renzy. “We support charitable and civic causes, hospital boards, chambers, schools and churches. We give back to the community and clients who’ve allowed us to be a vital part of Elmhurst for eight decades. It’s been a tremendous partnership.”

Art and Culture

Elmhurst is home to several well-known museums and attractions.

Many residents consider Wilder Park to be the city’s crown jewel. It sits in the center of town and is home to museums, the Elmhurst Public Library, the Veterans Memorial, picnic areas, tennis courts, a playground, landscaped walkways and a greenhouse. In the 1860s, Wilder Park was home to Seth Wadhams, who purchased the land and built a grand white home called White Birch. The property was owned by the Wilder family, before the Elmhurst Park District purchased it in 1921. As the result of an intergovernmental agreement made in 2000, the park district now owns the Wilder Mansion, used for weddings and other special events.

The Elmhurst Historical Museum features national traveling exhibits, as well as temporary exhibits and permanent local history exhibits. The museum is located in the mansion of the late Henry and Lucy Glos. The Lizzadro Museum of Lapidary Art houses a large collection of Chinese jade and other hard stone carvings from around the world, with some items dating back to the Ming Dynasty.

For theater history buffs, the museum and archives of the Theatre Historical Society of America are located on the second floor of the York Theatre. Admission is free to the gallery, which features changing exhibits and artifacts from 15,000 movie theaters from across the country.

In all, the park district owns 22 parks and facilities covering 450 acres, including a senior center; a health/fitness center with indoor pool; a community center; two outdoor pools; a conservatory/greenhouse; a gymnastic center; and a nine-hole golf course. The district hosts a series of events, including the annual Touch A Truck event, in which kids climb through fire, rescue and cement trucks. Elmhurst also is home to a 37-mile stretch of the Illinois Prairie Path, where residents run, walk and bike their way to a healthier lifestyle.

In 2000, through an intergovernmental agreement, the library received land to construct a new building at the north end of Wilder Park. A year later, Elmhurst residents approved an $18.7 million bond issue to build the 80,000-square-foot library. The new facility, at 125 S. Prospect Ave., opened in October 2003. It offers more space for books, public computers, meetings and study rooms, as well as a computer training lab.

The Elmhurst Symphony Orchestra, founded in 1960, offers a series of concert performances held at various locations. Directed by Dr. Stephen Alltop, the symphony was named the 2001 Community Orchestra of the Year by the Illinois Council of Orchestras.

“If you can’t find something to do here, you’re not looking,” says Tegmeyer.

Brian Bergheger agrees. In 1988, he moved to Elmhurst to become executive director of the Elmhurst Historical Museum. The southern Illinois native had worked in many locations throughout his museum career, with stops in Ohio, Kansas and, most recently, Montana, before returning to Illinois.

While he enjoyed his time working in other cities, Bergheger says he has truly found a home in Elmhurst. It’s where he met his wife, Carol, and where the couple is raising their three teenage children. Elmhurst, Bergheger says, affords his family plenty of opportunities for education, entertainment and socializing.

“Elmhurst has most everything an individual might be looking for, including a great downtown, great school system and wonderful residential neighborhoods,” he says. “With the investment in public infrastructure, as well as arts and culture, Elmhurst has positioned itself to be very successful in the next 20 to 30 years. Suburbs aren’t going away. Elmhurst will continue to be a desirable place to live and work. I wouldn’t think of living anywhere else.”

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