Article by Frank A. Windes, Winnetka Village Engineer
Reprinted from the Winnetka Talk, March 8, 1930
Appeared in Gazette: Spring 1994
As we sit here in modern-day Winnetka concerned with such issues as real estate taxes, property values, schools, lakefront erosion, recycling, and changes in our refuse-collection service, it is interesting to reminisce about how it all began…
“In the latter part of the 70s, the first real estate boom in this part of the north shore struck Winnetka. It started in the northwest part of the village, called Lakeside. The section where the boom started extended from the Chicago and North Western tracks west to Rosewood Avenue, south to a block south of Westmore road, and north to the village limits.
A real estate man by the name of E. Ashley Mears started this boom. He began by building a number of imposing looking frame buildings. They were cheaply constructed and could hardly stand by themselves when a stiff wind struck them. They gave the appearance of being mansions but were far from it. They had towers and impressive looking architectural features to catch the eye of inexperienced home buyers. Mr. Mears never quite finished a single building, his plan being to put up a shell on one of these cheap lots costing about $5 per foot, and then get the banks to make him as large a loan as possible.
Those who bought from him could not keep up the payments or complete the houses…they were colder than barns. The ceilings were ten and twelve feet high and single rooms as large as many a house these days.
For many years these shell-like houses stood vacant and were the homes of tramps, cats, bats, screech owls, chimney swallows, rats and mice. Children thought the houses were haunted, for on dark stormy nights queer noises came from them and the wind would howl and moan through the hollow portions. Not a child would venture into one of the houses alone.
The lots were sold for taxes, and trouble is still had with the titles that became mixed up during the boom. Many of the houses met tragic ends, one being struck by lightning, two burned and others wrecked. Many people lost all they had in these ventures and instead of owning a home in Winnetka, these great sham houses stood as hollow mockeries to their hopes. It was a lesson to Winnetka people and since those days, Winnetka residents have looked on “booms” with frowns.