Hinsdale offers a wealth of apple-pie charm

Hinsdale-to-Chicago monthly Metra pass: $102.60. Dinner for two at Il Poggiolo: $80. Neighbors you can count on: priceless.

"Whether you grew up here or you are a transplant, you are welcomed here," says Kathleen Mulligan of Hinsdale as she relaxes with her paddle tennis teammates before their court time at the Katherine Legge Memorial Park in Hinsdale. Several times a week, Mulligan, Kristen Klebenow, Margaret Hawn and Pam Pierce socialize while playing the sport that Mulligan describes as a cross between ping-pong and tennis.

"We talk about our kids, what they're doing in school and where they want to go to college," says Klebenow.

"Also, we ask who to hire. If I need a plumber, someone says, 'I've got a guy,' " adds Pierce.

The women cite Hinsdale's schools as the No. 1 reason they chose to raise their families here. A close second is Hinsdale's limited size, compared to sprawling suburbs. "You're not in the car all the time driving the kids," explains Pierce. "They can walk to their friends' houses, to school, to town, the library or the pool."

Third, they agree, is Hinsdale's proximity to the Loop. Spouses who make the daily commute by train are home in 20 minutes.

Contained by a rectangle of major roads (Ogden Avenue on the north, 55th Street on the south, Interstate Highway 294 on the east and Illinois Highway 83 on the west), Hinsdale has long enjoyed the reputation as the diamond on DuPage County's ring. (An eastern slice of Hinsdale falls into Cook County.) Chicago executives retreat to the stately houses that line its tree-canopied streets named for U.S. presidents.

Bisecting Hinsdale is the railroad that put this town on the map and keeps homebuyers coming. Hinsdale's downtown not only survived the retailers' mall flight of the 1970s, but continues to attract new shops and restaurants. Now, it is a healthy mix of family-owned businesses, including Fuller's Home & Hardware and chains such as Starbucks. Downtown Hinsdale is on the National Park Service's National Register of Historic Places.

About 1,560 people commute to Chicago daily from Hinsdale's three Metra stations. But many others have even shorter commutes to Adventist Hinsdale Hospital, the school district or the collection of corporate headquarters in neighboring Oak Brook.

Hinsdale's red-brick municipal center resembles an Ivy League campus, right down to the quad (the "south lawn" and adjacent Burlington Park) it overlooks. Across the railroad tracks from the campus are the village's storefronts, which don't look that different from the days when buggies instead of cars parked in front. Surrounding this nexus are Hinsdale's residential neighborhoods, most platted long ago. Except for an expansion past 55th Street in the 1960s and '70s, Hinsdale has been landlocked for decades.

While New Urbanists strive to create or recreate towns with square blocks, front porches, rear garages and alleys, Hinsdale had these all along. Except for the curving streets in the neighborhood known as Robbins Park, which was modeled after nearby Riverside, Hinsdale is a cluster of grids. True to the New Urbanist ideals, Hinsdale is a pedestrian-friendly town.

Weekdays, Hinsdale's schools are the focus. Its public elementary schools and middle schools are within its neighborhoods, so most children can walk to school. Its public high schools, Hinsdale Central and Hinsdale South, consistently rank high among Chicago-area ACT averages. Despite their parents paying property taxes to support the public schools, though, a flock of high-schoolers queues for its daily commute to St. Ignatius High School in Chicago.

"Friday night, you go to the high school football game," says Dave Cook, village manager, of life in Hinsdale. "Saturday mornings, you're at the kids' baseball and soccer games."

"It's the North Shore without the lake," says Timothy Scott, community development strategist. "Hinsdale has the warmth of Mayberry but is more sophisticated. Mom, dad, two kids and a golden retriever. It sounds idyllic, but that's really what it is. It's a very family-oriented town."

Add community service to life in Hinsdale, say Scott and Cook. Hinsdaleans like to recount the tale of Philip Clarke, who led a group of neighbors door-to-door in 1926 to raise the $130,000 needed to build the village hall and library. This brand of community involvement still prevails, they say, as families give their time or money to nonprofits ranging from the Hinsdale Humane Society to the Hinsdale History Museum.

If there is a flaw in Hinsdale's diamond, it is its reputation for teardowns. As other Chicago suburbs draft and redraft teardown ordinances to restrict the size and review the styles of houses that replace older ones, Hinsdale remains "self-regulated," explains Cook. "We don't have a teardown ordinance or demolition tax." If it is up to some current residents, this will change. Asked in a recent community survey if they would support a design review process for new houses, 76 percent of residents said they would.

As a result, Hinsdale is now a mix of original houses that date back to the 1800s and new ones that replaced their predecessors. In the last 20 years, about one-third of Hinsdale's older houses have met the wrecking ball. Because the new houses are larger, Cook explains, the population increased slightly, from 16,029 in 1990 to 17,349 in 2000. "The former owners were retirees with grown kids, but the new ones have kids at home," he says.

A new house on a teardown site worked for Jean Rollo, who hired Hinsdale-based Tiburon Homes to build a custom house for her family this year. "This is our second house in Hinsdale," says Rollo, who grew up in Chicago. "We built this one because we needed something bigger. We wanted to stay in Hinsdale, which is a flashback place, where you know the shopkeepers' names and you have people you can call if you need someone to pick up one of your kids."

Rollo and her husband, Ian, appreciate their proximity to Hinsdale's business district, she adds. "You can get your hair done, get your car fixed, pick up your dry cleaning, go out to dinner, all without leaving town. But we're also close to both airports, 10 minutes from the mall in Oak Brook and a quick train ride to the city," she says.

Recent home sales in Hinsdale represent its collection of old and new. A 1950s ranch that is a teardown candidate, says real estate broker Diana Ivas of ReMax Elite in Hinsdale, sold for $235,000. Typical of the new-house sales is a 2005, three-story brick house that went for $1.25 million.

Hinsdale's older houses represent a field guide to residential architecture, with fine examples of Colonial, Craftsman, American Foursquare, Prairie, Tudor and bungalow styles. Architects who left legacies here include R. Harold Zook, George Elmslie, George Maher and William Drummond.

Instead of trying to alter the village, the goal of Hinsdale's long-range plan, "Hinsdale 2025," is to protect and maintain its assets. Improvement of infrastructure that was built to accommodate Hinsdale's smaller houses is on its to-do list. Otherwise, though, "preservation" is the buzzword.

This applies to Hinsdale's character, too. Residents defend the Norman Rockwell image that drew them here or convinced them to return here to raise their children.

"In college, I got a copy of the 'Doings' [newspaper] in the mail and my friends teased me about the pictures of people waving American flags," recalls Pierce. "They said, 'Is this place for real?' Then, years later, after we grew up and they came to visit, they told me this really is a nice place to live."