Gillson beach

Sailors raise the sail on their boat at Gillson beach. (Tribune photo by Stacey Wescott)

This article contains corrected information.

A year ago Carole Casey, a New Jersey teacher nearing retirement, toured North Shore condominiums as possible places to be close to her daughter, who lives in Winnetka.

Casey, 68, was not impressed until she came across Mallinckrodt in the Park, a 1917 convent that was preserved and renovated into 81 condominiums, one of the few new multifamily developments in the 19th Century village of Wilmette.

"I loved the historic restoration," said Casey. In October, she paid $465,000 for a two-bedroom, two-bath unit in the building for buyers older than 62, developed by the Highland Park-based Pickus Cos. and Oculus Development LLC of Chicago.

"I like the high ceilings and big windows," she said.

The village, which required that the developer save the building, has preserved other hallmarks of its history.

It has 14 miles of brick-paved streets running through much of town east of Ridge Road, 1925 street lamps and a canopy of trees, some 200 years old, that line its quiet roads, explained Kathy Hussey-Arntson, director of the Wilmette Historical Museum.

While the older, east side has more of the historic elements that add charm to Wilmette, people throughout the village have supported the rules and ordinances that preserve the brick pavers, street lights and tree canopy, explained Lali Watt, a village trustee.

"Clearly many people, even those like me who live in newer West Wilmette, want these elements," she said. "Our village may not have the biggest, fanciest houses, but we value education; not just through school but through many other activities that go on like soccer and scouts. And people who value a child/family centered community also treasure the sense of history that keeps us grounded and provides continuity."

Quality of life

Meanwhile, like many of the other more than 27,000 residents, Casey relishes getting outdoors.

"I'm taking tennis lessons and like the beach," she said.

The village crown jewels, water activities and other fresh air amusements, flourish as days get warmer and longer. Gillson Park on Lake Michigan with its tidy beach, sailing and summer camp; the outdoor pools at Centennial Park and the public Wilmette golf course all figured into Suzanne Lord's decision in February to buy a new, $1.4 million six-bedroom, six-bath house in central Wilmette.

"The outdoor and water-oriented recreation is part of the town's appeal," said Lord, a 46-year-old advertising executive who bought the house with her husband, Chris Rossi, a 46-year-old financial planner. They have five children.

"My 12-year-old daughter will attend Gillson day camp this summer and I'll investigate the golf course and French Market," she said. The market, next to the town center Metra commuter rail stop, sells locally grown produce, other edibles and crafts from April through October.

Of course, like many of the other affluent families that fill the village, Lord was also drawn by the excellent schools and upscale housing stock, from historic estates overlooking the lake in the east to smaller ranch houses interspersed with McMansions in the central and west sections. Located just 16 miles north of Chicago, she and Rossi also have easy access to their downtown offices.

For all of its prosperity, Wilmette prides itself on having a down-to-earth, small-town atmosphere. But some residents think that a larger supply of below-market rate housing would inject more economic diversity.

"For the last two years, there's been a lot of discussion about affordable housing because prices are too high for teachers and firefighters, and seniors get priced out," said Susan Morrison, 53, a 15-year Wilmette resident.

Earlier times

In 1872, the village was incorporated with about 300 residents, a mix mostly of farmers and real estate speculators. With a rail link to Chicago, it lured those fleeing after the1871 Great Chicago Fire and others seeking vacation homes, said John Textor, a board member of the Wilmette Historical Museum.

By 1940, the population had grown to about 17,000 and from 1950 to 1960 to 28,000. "We haven't changed much since then," he said.