1921 Plan of Winnetka: A Living Model for Village Development

Gazette Article by: Barbara Sholl
Appeared in the Gazette: Winter 1996

In 1917 a 63-member Plan Commission was appointed by the Winnetka Village Council to study and make suggestions for a comprehensive plan of village development. The “Report of the Commission,” printed in 1921, was prepared by Edward H. Bennett of Chicago, a prominent figure in the field of town and city planning. Bennett and Daniel Burnham were highly regarded as the architects of the Chicago Plan Commission.

Winnetka plan map

The Winnetka Plan Commission organized itself into an executive committee and 15 special committees. During the four years of evaluation and planning, they studied railroads and track separation, street improvements (including traffic patterns and street lighting), public buildings and utilities, parks and playgrounds, lakefront development, schools, churches, social centers, zoning, waste disposal, drainage of the marshes to the west of the village, and business development.

The most striking aspect of the commission was that it was formed when the concept of urban planning was in its infancy. With total commitment it fulfilled its mandate to use “…common sense applied to the common interests.” In this pioneering spirit of civic improvement, the byword of the commission became “preservation” of the residential character of the village. It is clear from the report that the depression of the train tracks through Winnetka was of paramount importance to residents because of the increasing number of casualties at railroad crossings. Today we are the beneficiaries of what was considered the proper way to eliminate a dangerous traffic problem and an unsightly situation.

The commission was also concerned about the maintenance of green space in the village. Because of its recommendations, the park district acquired Crow Island; in addition, the Cook County Forest Preserve District was encouraged to purchase and preserve the Skokie Valley, protecting the western part of the village from the “danger of industrial development”. The dirt excavated from the depression of the railroad tracks was deposited into the Skokie marsh, creating the present-day lagoons, as well as two new residential areas on the north and south sides of Tower Road. A comprehensive lakefront plan, however, involving the construction of causeways, a boat harbor, and access roads, never was implemented.

Increasingly heavy traffic on Sheridan Road in the 1920s resulted in the proposal to link Center Street (now Green Bay Road) with roads in communities along the railroad tracks. However, other recommended street improvements were not made, such as burying all electrical wires.

The village implemented proposals for an attractive village hall and the construction of The Skokie School. However, the intriguing idea of a community auditorium, to be built on the site of the current post office, was not pursued. Unlike the Winnetka Community House, a social and education center, the recommended auditorium – with a capacity of 1,200 – would have enabled residents of Winnetka to enjoy dramatic and musical entertainment, including “moving pictures,” an amenity missing from the village today.

The commission also recommended the widening of certain streets, year-around use of school facilities, and the harmonious architectural development of business properties in the village. Despite the fact that all of the commission’s recommendations were not implemented, the Plan of Winnetka has had a far-reaching impact on the quality of life in the village.

The Winnetka Plan Commission continues to update the comprehensive plan to provide a guideline for present and future development of the village. In addition, keeping the intent of the plan in mind, it advises the village council on the appropriateness of any zoning variance or special use permit.

See the full plan here: http://winnetkahistory.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/Plan-of-Winnetka-1921-resized.pdf

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