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Tales from Wilmette: How an old laundry became a center for pioneering climate research

As the town of Wilmette continues the celebration of its 150th anniversary, it stands to reason that its rich history is full of fascinating stories and quirky characters. One such story comes to us from the annals of the Wilmette Historical Museum (WHM), which published a fascinating article entitled, “The Cold War on Washington Street,” detailing how Wilmette’s SIPRE – the Snow, Ice, and Permafrost Research Establishment was founded. The article’s author, Patrick Leary, retired from the WHM in 2020 after a 21-year tenure as its curator. As the piece unfolds, Patrick explains:

“By 1950, as American troops fought in the Korean winter and the chill of the Cold War settled over the world, U.S. Army planners had come to realize that they needed to know much more about the icy regions that lay between America and the Soviet Union. Most urgently, they needed to know how to build things – roads, radar stations, underground bunkers, airfields, missile silos – in places where the ground is forever frozen, the ice is a mile deep, and the snowfall never melts. This intensive research program required a special laboratory like no other, and in 1951, the Army found just the right place for it: an abandoned laundry at 1215 Washington Avenue in Wilmette, half a block west of Green Bay Road.

They called it SIPRE – the Snow, Ice, and Permafrost Research Establishment. As a location, Wilmette had the advantage of being within easy reach of researchers at Northwestern University, while the sturdy, three-story structure itself, with its big rooms and alley-side garage, well suited the Army’s purposes.”

Wilmette’s old SIPRE location at 1215 Washington Ave in Wilmette

Patrick explains how the SIPRE staff of civilian scientists and engineers set out to understand polar conditions. They carried out their work by analyzing ancient ice crystals taken from the depths of glaciers in the Greenland ice cap that were mined during summer expeditions and shipped by refrigerated plans and trucks to the lab on Washington Street. SIPRE’s work continued in Wilmette for ten years, during which time the staff grew from 17 to more than 80, and its footprint expanded to new office space in the Odd Fellows building and a lab in Evanston. In 1961, SIPRE relocated to Hanover, New Hampshire near Dartmouth University when it merged with another agency to become the Cold Regions Research and Engineering laboratory.

The history of this fascinating organization comes to life through Patrick’s thoughtful reflections on how a unique moment in world affairs and America’s response intersects with Wilmette’s own story. You can read the full story here.

Wilmette’s 150th Anniversary

As construction continues at Optima Verdana, we continue to embrace the culture of Wilmette and its surroundings. Throughout the year, the village has celebrated its Sesquicentennial Anniversary through various projects and events, including the Sesquicentennial Photography Project. However, the village is gearing up to bring its celebration to its pinnacle on September 10 at the Wilmette 150 Celebration. 

The event is a commemoration of the countless celebrations and projects Wilmette has hosted throughout the year. Along with the Photography Project, community members plan on sharing the stories of local history in the Voices of Wilmette: An Oral History Project. In honor of the celebration, the Wilmette Public Library is hosting various events educating participants on the history of the village, including one that highlighted German immigration to the Chicago area and another featuring the history of early Illinois Settlement on September 29.  

The festivities kick off in Downtown Wilmette at 11 a.m. THE Wilmette Block Party will include music from the community band, remarks from the Village President and a parade led by the Loyola Academy Marching Band, and is free for all attendees. Along with the entertainment, the celebration will feature a Kid Zone and a variety of food options from local restaurants. 

Downtown Wilmette in the 1940s, Courtesy of Wilmette Historical Society
Downtown Wilmette in the 1940s, Courtesy of Wilmette Historical Society

However, the celebration doesn’t stop there. After submissions end for the Sesquicentennial Photography Project, the Wilmette Historical Museums will curate an exhibition using the chosen photos throughout their museum and in other venues throughout Wilmette. 

To learn more about THE Wilmette Block Party and Wilmette’s 150th Anniversary, visit their website here.

Wilmette Architecture Spotlight: Bahai’ Temple

Chicago has earned its place on the architectural map thanks to the countless architects who helped fill the city with unique designs. Not to be outdone, the Chicago suburb and home to Optima Verdana, Wilmette, also boasts a myriad of architectural wonders itself, from houses designed by Frank Lloyd Wright to a Prairie-style ‘L’ station still in use. Today, we’re taking a closer look at the architectural history behind Wilmette’s iconic Baha’i House of Worship. 

Plans to construct a Baháʼí temple in the United States began in 1903. At the time, only one other temple existed throughout the rest of the world in Turkmenistan. Baháʼí’s presence in and around Chicago made it the perfect city to build in, but leaders in the religion wanted to build in a quaint community outside of the city and eventually, they decided on Wilmette to harbor the temple. 

Constructing the dome of the Baha’i House of Worship, Wilmette

In 1907, individual Baháʼí contributors purchased two lots alongside Lake Michigan. Groundbreaking on the nearly 7-acre site began in 1912, but construction on the building didn’t start until eight years later, in 1920. The community chose Canadian architect Louis Bourgeois – a collaborator of Louis Sullivan – to design the temple. 

Bourgeois’ design drew inspiration from Baháʼís’ belief of unity and was chosen due to its diverse inclusion of architectural styles. The most prominent architectural styles include Neoclassic, Gothic, Renaissance, Romanesque and Islamic arabesque. The temple’s superstructure was completed in 1931, and construction on the building’s entire exteriors finished in 1943. However, the interior had yet to be designed. 

Designers had a difficult time choosing what material to use throughout the design, debating between granite, limestone, terra cotta and aluminum before deciding on concrete made of cement, quartz and other natural stone. Many intricate details are carved into the concrete drape across the exterior facade. Along with its lush gardens and fountains the temple’s most brilliant feature is its 72-foot-wide dome. The temple features nine dome sections and nine interior alcoves, symbolizing completion. 

An interior view from the top of the dome featuring the intricate Islamic arabesque design

More than 3,500 people attended the dedication of the temple in 1953 following the completion of its construction. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978 and is continuously voted one of the most must-see places in the country. 

Today, Wilmette’s Baháʼí’ House of Worship is the oldest standing temple of Baháʼí and the only in North America. To learn more about the architectural wonder and visit it yourself, head to the website here

How Prairie School Architecture Influenced Wilmette’s Gillson Park

Offering more than 60 acres of breathtaking lakefront views and an array of thrilling activities on and off of its beaches, Wilmette’s Gillson Park is a local treasure. Located less than two miles from Optima Verdana, future residents will have access to one of the city’s oldest and most beloved stretches of public land. Today, we’re exploring the fascinating history behind Gillson Park. 

Nearly as old as the village itself, Wilmette’s Gillson Park was established in 1908 as Washington Park. The land sitting directly on Lake Michigan was originally used as a depot where clay from the North Shore Channel was placed after excavation. After becoming the first president of the Wilmette Park District that same year, Louis K. Gillson began devising how he could make the most out of Wilmette’s vast greenspace. 

Until 1915, the land existed merely as a plot of blue clay. However, in 1917, under Gillson’s leadership, the Wilmette Park District began its ambitious project to transform the area into a recreational hotspot. Shortly after, the Park Board hired landscape architect and engineer, Benjamin Gage, to elevate the park’s design. 

An architectural drawing of Gillon Park’s 1937 redesign by C.D. Wagstaff and Robert Everly, Courtesy of Wilmette Historical Museum

Following extensive additions contributed by Gage in the 1920s — as well as doubling the park’s size — the Park Board began to search for architects who would help conceive a new, sweeping plan for the greenspace. And, in the mid-1930s, they hired landscape architects C.D. Wagstaff and Robert Everly to lead the project. 

Their sweeping design proposal helped transform the once clay-filled plot into a vibrant landscape with a host of recreational features. Wagstaff and Everly were also heavily inspired by the prominent Prairie School architecture that dominated the area, and specifically by the work of landscape architect, Jens Jensen. 

Construction of the Wallace Bowl in Gillson Park, 1937, Courtesy of the Wilmette Historical Museum

There were numerous prairie-style elements added to the park, including stratified stone walls and steps, a stone council ring, curvilinear roadways and paths, and a host of informal gardens. The architectural team also designed one of the park’s most iconic spaces, the Wallace Bowl, which is a large open-air amphitheater situated in the park. 

Today, the Wilmette Park District is still home to the Prairie-style elements contributed by Wagstaff and Everly and remains a greenspace treasured by all of the village’s residents. To explore more of the park’s history or discover the various recreational activities, visit their website here.

Calling all Photo Buffs: Jump into Wilmette’s Sesquicentennial Photography Project

As construction gets underway on Optima Verdana, we continue to connect more strongly with Wilmette and its surroundings. We appreciate how special it is that a village gets to celebrate its 150th anniversary, and Wilmette has packed 2022 with a series of events, happenings and projects that bring the community together. Art fairs, picnics, parades, concerts, garden walks, you name it. The programming is broad, deep and guaranteed to capture the interests of residents and visitors alike.

One of the most engaging programs on the roster for Wilmette’s big birthday year is the Sesquicentennial Photography Project. Behind the project is the desire to invite the community to share their personal reflections and experiences in Wilmette by capturing photographs around the theme “Building Community” to create an important historical record.

The magic of a community photo project is that it provides an open invitation for anyone — and everyone — to participate. Taking photos in today’s world, with the ease of a smartphone, allows people of all ages to capture snippets of everyday life and glimpses of their surroundings that captivate them, and share them with others to enjoy. 

The project is easy for all participants. Simply submit photos to the village — from now until September 30, 2022. A team from the Wilmette Historical Museum will review the submissions and curate an exhibition of photos at the Museum and at other locations throughout Wilmette. Once the exhibitions are taken down, the photographs will be archived by the Museum, and will be accessible for viewing on request. 

Here are some guidelines for photographers. If you have any additional questions regarding the project, please contact Jan Loew at jerryloew@aol.com. Technical questions should be directed to the Wilmette Historical Museum’s curator, Rachel Ramirez, at ramirezr@wilmette.com or 847-853-7714.

Optima Communities: Exploring Wilmette’s Rich History

With groundbreaking underway for Optima Verdana in Wilmette, IL, we’re discovering this vibrant community and all it has to offer — including its rich history.

Bordering Lake Michigan and located 14 miles north of the Chicago Loop, Wilmette is recognized as one of the most prestigious communities in the nation. It started as a small settlement on Chicago’s North Side in 1872 and by the mid-twentieth century, it emerged as a distinctive, desirable suburb with unique vitality, extraordinary walkability along tree-lined, brick streets and a character all its own. 

Fast forward to today, when Wilmette, with a population of nearly 30,000, has fully matured into a vibrant community. Small businesses and lively restaurants flourish, each bringing a refreshing offering to this thriving, 21st century livable village. The lakefront, parks and gardens are all within easy reach. Culture abounds with music, theater, art and cinema. And the Wilmette schools are considered among the best in the country.  

As luck would have it, 2022 marks the 150th anniversary of Wilmette. As celebrations for this important milestone continue throughout the year, Wilmette is proud to showcase its reputation as future-facing while showing a deep appreciation for the past, including a host of events that shine a light on its delightfully eclectic history.

Bahá'í House of Worship
Bahá’í House of Worship

Mark your calendars…

To start the sesquicentennial year, all are welcome to the Wilmette Historical Museum’s  annual meeting and lecture via Zoom. John Jacoby, former Village President and Wilmette Beacon columnist, will discuss his recent book Wilmette at 150, a collection of essays on Wilmette. Mr. Jacoby’s talk will explore the lost landmarks of Wilmette. Learn about the stories of the significant buildings and other structures that are no longer in existence, including some of the oldest in Wilmette, such as the Big Tree and the Unity Church. Hear fascinating tales of Dr. Martin Luther King’s visit to the North Shore, the German POW camp in Harms Woods, the colorful history of No Man’s Land, the perseverance of world pushup champion Chick Lister and Public Enemy Number One Baby Face Nelson’s demise on Walnut Avenue.

You can stay connected to all the sesquicentennial happenings on the Wilmette at 150 website. And to attend the meeting and lecture, which will take place Sunday, January 30, 2022, from 2:00pm – 3:30pm,

Register HERE.

Neighborhood Spotlight: Wilmette

The serene Chicago-suburbs neighbor of Evanston, Wilmette offers proximity to the hustle and bustle of the city while also serving as an oasis of coffee shops, local boutiques and expansive parkscapes. Wilmette is home to three of our communities, Lake Courts, 1618 Sheridan Road and Optima Center Wilmette, and today we’re spotlighting why we, our residents and our commercial tenants love this Chicago suburb.

Outdoor Leisure 

Bordered by Lake Michigan on the east and sprawling golf courses on the west, Wilmette is the perfect suburban hub for those that love leisurely outdoor activities. For lakefront fanatics, Gillson Park is an expansive reserve with beach access, perfect for swimming, sailing, picnicking, tennis, hiking and more. For casual and competitive golf hobbyists alike, Wilmette Golf Club is the best public golf course challenge in the area.

Baháʼí House of Worship
Baháʼí House of Worship

Cultural Institutions

No Chicago suburb is complete without the inclusion of a wide-ranging and diverse array of cultural institutions. Wilmette is the proud home to the Baháʼí House of Worship, one of only eight of its kind. The continental temple is an architectural marvel, worth the visit just to explore its gardens and interior and learn more about the faith. The Wilmette Historical Museum is also a fantastic local resource for learning more about the city’s story and roots.

Shopping and Dining

Wilmette’s central business district, conveniently located near public transportation, is a distinctively different shopping experience that includes an abundance of restaurants and specialty stores. Explore the Wilmette French Market, an outdoor shopping experience with produce, jewelry and more. Restaurants in the area include everyone’s favorite, Walker Bros. Original Pancake House, Convito Cafe and Market, Pescadero and countless more. 

Stay tuned for more neighborhood spotlights on our other Optima communities.

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