Village Green is Winnetka’s Spiritual Center

Gazette Article by: Nan Greenough
Appeared in the Gazette: Summer 2004

Around Your Neighborhood: Village Green is Winnetka’s Spiritual Center

After 16 years in Chicago, and with the school needs of our toddler in mind, we started to look for a house in the suburbs. A friend said, “If you’re from New England and still miss it, you should live on the Village Green in Winnetka.” Later, another friend said, “I found your house,” a house, it turned out, on the Village Green.

While we looked at many houses in Winnetka, we were drawn back to the Village Green time and again. We were lured by its proximity to the train, the park and downtown Winnetka. We were attracted to the beautiful assemblage of houses.

Before we bought, I drove from Chicago frequently so that our three-year-old could play on the Village Green while I observed the neighborhood. I did not know that Winnetka’s first schoolhouse was built on the northwest corner near Elm and Maple in 1859 or that 10 years later, the entire park was donated to the Village by Sarah and Charles Peck. I could not have known that Laura Townsend Dickinson had described the Village Green in her book, The Story of Winnetka, as “a kind of spiritual center, a shrine, a meeting place for celebrations of the entire village.”

Right from the start I could see that the war memorial, known as the “Cenotaph,” is a kid magnet. No child can resist the siren call of multiple marble steps, bronze eagles, and the hide-and-seek opportunities or, for older children, a boost up from the heads of eagles onto the smooth marble top. This is a universal experience for generations of Winnetka children. Built in 1927 as a memorial to Winnetkans lost in World War I, the Cenotaph was designed by local architect and long-time Winnetkan Sam Otis. Names have been added to commemorate those lost in subsequent wars and conflicts. In large letters cut into the marble there is a quote from Dinsmore Ely, “It is an investment and not a loss when a man dies for his country.” He wrote those words just before he perished in World War I.

Another kid magnet is the cannon from the Spanish American War, one of two that stood in the park. Both were to be melted down to make weapons during World War II, but Sam Otis rescued one of them.

After we moved into our house, we attended our first Memorial Day observance, a deeply moving experience. Weeks later, we woke up to the magic of the Children’s Fair and what it meant for our young boy to see an entire fair on what he regarded as his “front lawn.” Later, we joined the Fourth of July celebration, which was initiated in 1886 as a “safe and sane” alternative to the private, amateur use of firecrackers and resulting injuries. In recent years, carolers have come to sing around a Christmas tree in December.

Typical of a Winnetka neighborhood, the area is shared by houses and institutions: The Winnetka Woman’s Club has operated since 1911. The Gothic limestone Christ Church Parish House was built in 1930 and welcomed Willow Wood Pre-School in 1998.

The most historically significant house on the Green is 644 Oak Street, which architect William Otis designed for his family and built in 1885. The design is a deft and unusual combination of Medieval, Victorian and Shingle Style elements. The oldest house on the Green is 655 Elm, parts of which were built before 1865. Most of the other houses were built between 1900 and 1920, providing a dignified backdrop for Winnetka’s “spiritual center.”

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