Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Des Plaines Villas

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2010 Ward R3PORT at 3rdward.org

The first thing that a first-time visitor to the Des Plaines Villas is probably the layout of its streets. As most 3rd ward residents can attest, the layout can be confusing and disorienting to the uninitiated. You have to know where you’re going. You enter at the corners and make a turn onto a curving street. It is a sharp break from the familiar grid.
Aerial Photo of the Villas, 1938

The Villas are a fluke of history. At first glance, most people would assume they were in a quintessential post-World War II subdivision. Large-scale subdivisions with non-grid layouts, limited access, and scores of ranch houses proliferated in this era. But appearances can deceive. Look closer, and you’ll notice Tudors, Bungalows, and Colonials. They reveal the true origin of the Villas in the late 1920s. The Villas was an early, large-scale speculative subdivision, and one of the prototypes for postwar subdivisions.

Some of the confusion in navigating the Villas might be that there is no geographical reason for the curves. They are unusually, rigidly geometric and not “winding.” While this may have made platting and sales easier for the developer, it has also made it difficult to keep track of where you are within the Villas. However, it also reduces four-way intersections, calms traffic, and makes the neighborhood more private. Villas residents don’t see cut-through traffic and speeding the way residents of Des Plaines Gardens (Jeanette, Margret, and 2nd) do.

The winding subdivision is often traced back to Frederick Law Olmsted’s 1869 designs for Riverside, IL. Like an English village, its streets followed the contours of the land and the Des Plaines River. Des Plaines’ existing street plans were essentially two grids on flat land. The downtown grid followed the diagonal of the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad, and the rest of the city was on a north-south grid. The first subdivision to break the grid with curving streets was Des Plaines Manor I in 1911 (Laurel, Arlington, Webford, Parsons, and Prairie) which was created in a triangular tract where the two grids intersect.  Cumberland, with its tuning-fork shaped entry and traffic circle was begun just after the Villas. The layout of the Villas may have been influenced by prominent planner John Nolen. The Villas were arguably the first auto-oriented development in Des Plaines. It was distant from the downtown and train depot. Its curving streets responded to speeding autos, and the limited access points and curves made walking distances longer.

Plat of the Villas

Des Plaines was growing in 1927 as the regional highways were built, Maine High School was being planned, and industry was blooming. The Villas were an ambitious project including water, sewer, concrete paved streets, cement sidewalks, ornamental street lamps, Norway elms, a 25-foot minimum setback and eight small parks (at the entry corners; these have been developed as home sites). Originally called Homerican Villas, the subdivision was created by a syndicate headed by Merrill L. Hawkins of Park Ridge who purchased 195 acres in the summer of 1927 for $265,000. As builders were planning Wolf Road, the Villas plan was to build the first 50 of 500 planned homes evenly spaced throughout the subdivision. Designed for beauty, all new houses would be subject to review by the Homerican Villas’ architect. The sales office was the Tudor-style building at 925 E. Thacker. 

The most elaborate homes would have been in the inner circle, with smaller houses on the edges. Had it been completed as envisioned, it would have housed a large proportion of the city, as it was the largest subdivision in the city at the time. While it has long been suggested that the Great Depression derailed the plans, it is important to note that the 20 homes completed (not 50) were built in 1927. Cumberland faced similar trouble. The developers may have been ahead of their time—and market demand—even before the Depression began.   Or it could have been the developer; Hawkins was found to control 14 companies which were quickly bankrupted in the Depression.
Diagram of the first fifty lots to be developed. In reality, only 20 were built, and not necessarily on these lots. Note the original landscaping plans and traffic-calming circles at intersections, as well as the wedge-shaped parks at corners.

The infrastructure of unused streets, sewers, and water would sit mostly unused for the next 20 years. The Villas became a burden on the city with few residents surrounded by wide-open blocks. The streets gained a reputation as a lovers lane, and children would play in the five incomplete homes. However, when suburbia bloomed after World War II, the Villas with its mature trees were ripe for the picking.

Manilow Construction, fresh from developing Park Forest - Chicagoland's prototype postwar planned community - purchased the 750 lots in 1952, re-platted them to 525 lots, and kicked off their $9.5 million project. Architect A.J. Del Bianco designed six different two and three-bedroom models with names like Briarcrest, Chesterton, Barclay, and Beaumont. They had all the state-of-the-art conveniences: white steel Youngstown Kitchens cabinets, waste disposals, high windows for privacy, colored tile, Kohler plumbing fixtures, and a flexible “all purpose room.” Almost immediately after the Manilow project began, the school board acquired the property for Algonquin and later Forest Schools, anticipating the families that would soon move in. 

The development was largely complete by 1953, and as Des Plaines rapidly grew in the next 15 years, much of it radiated from the nucleus of the Villas.

The Villas are unique in the region, and it is fitting that this summer we were able to celebrate its unique qualities with the first-ever bicycle race “Tour de Villas.” While it may never host a parade, few neighborhoods could accommodate competitive cycling like the Villas did.


  1. I am staggered to read on your blog that DesPlaines does not have a historic preservation or landmarking ordinance. Does the village not landmark buildings in any way?

    Do you have a post about the villa at Maryville? I am trying to learn more about its architecture and history. Thank you.


  2. I grew up in the Villas on Grant Drive between 1962 and 1975. That Tudor building on Thacker used to house a barbershop. The inner circle was often the place softball teams practiced before playing games at West park. A lot of memories, thanks for this.

  3. Awesome, thanks for posting! My wife and I have lived here in the Villas for 20 years, raising our family here. It's still a great neighborhood with many close neighbors (still some original owners) and neat, well-kept houses. The character of the neighborhood has been largely maintained despite additions and second floors having been added to some homes and the loss of many of the mature trees that originally attracted us to the neighborhood. We, too, added on to our house, choosing to invest in Des Plaines and raise our kids here over Mt. Prospect. We maintained the integrity of the front of the house by building "back and down" instead of "up" as some have done (all the houses in the neighborhood are "ranch on a slab", no basements). A few homeowners attempted the "McMansion" style remodel just before the housing crash - some more successful, architecturally speaking, than others (one monstrosity in particular comes to mind!), a few remained unfinished and abandoned or vacant. All told, the villas continues to be a great neighborhood in which to live!

  4. I grew up just south of the villas on Forest and always wondered if the design was influenced by John Nolen, thanks for confirming and providing the rich history. I always found it fascinating as a neighborhood. Tall tree lined streets and the park in the middle. I had several friends who grew up in the Villas and back in the 70s and 80s we would play football on the inner park. Many a resident would be seen joggin or biking on Grant Dr, long before the Tour De Villas. At that time it was well known that Grant Dr was nearly 1 mile in circumference. Occasionally the Maine West track team would run along Grant. Interesting history as I recall the older homes mostly on the northern side wondered whether they were older or simply custom built along with the ranches.


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