California native finds joy preserving Hinsdale's history

To Kristen Laakso, rooms are filled with much more than furniture and buildings are made of more than wood and steel. For this lifelong student of art and architecture, rooms are full of questions and buildings tell a story.

As president of the Hinsdale Historical Society, Laakso hopes to share the stories and answer the questions hidden within the village's oldest and most interesting buildings.

"This town has a story to tell," said Laakso, who moved to Hinsdale in 2012 with her husband, Hinsdale Central Class of 1981 graduate Richard Giltner, and their daughters, Caroline and Julia.

The California native said she was surprised by how much history there was to explore in a small town west of Chicago.

Laakso said there's no doubt the 15 years she spent living in Europe greatly fueled her interest in art, history and architecture. But her passion for the past began long before the pursuit of her degrees. As a teenager, she enjoyed a fascination with Marie Antoinette and the castle of Versailles, leading her to learn the French language and to study the country's literature, art and architecture. After a brief stint as a language teacher at the University of Southern California, Laakso moved to Paris, where she taught English, worked as a magazine editor and spent more than a decade as a guide and then director of the private museum tour company, Paris Muse. While in Paris, Laakso met her husband.

As director of Paris Muse, Laakso helped tourists to discover the many stories that the City of Light has to tell. As president of the historical society, she's helping Hinsdaleans and visitors learn the stories of this village.

Many of those stories are told through the Historical Society's three buildings - Immanuel Hall on Grant Street, the Hinsdale History Museum on Clay Street and the R. Harold Zook Home and Studio, which was relocated and now sits in Katherine Legge Memorial Park. Preservation of these three properties, along with extensive archives of the village's history, are the primary tasks of the historical society.

Prior to taking on the role of president in September, Laakso served several years on the Woman's Board - the fundraising arm of the society. She continues to help the society find new ways to raise money.

"We're scrambling for creative solutions," she said, especially with the society's Kitchen Walk fundraiser canceled due to COVID-19.

The pandemic also has affected the society's holiday traditions. The Victorian home that houses the museum on Clay Street is decorated top to bottom with holiday decorations from the early 1900s, but with current restrictions in place, visitors aren't allowed to admire the festooned tree or the nature-inspired garlands in person this year. Instead, Laakso encourages people to follow the museum's Instagram and Facebook pages for glimpses inside the historic house.

Things are different this year. But the stories of 2020 will live within the rooms and buildings of Hinsdale - stories for future generations to discover and preserve.

- story by Sandy Illian Bosch, photo by Jim Slonoff

Author Bio

Sandy Illian Bosch is a contributing writer to The Hinsdalean