Downtown area is 'heartbeat' of Hinsdale

Central business district has played an important role in village for more than a century

Series: Quintessential Hinsdale | Story 1

On a quiet spring evening, when stores and restaurants are closed and no cars line the streets, it's not hard to imagine what downtown Hinsdale looked like in its early days.

Residents could pick up their prescriptions at William Evernden's drugstore at 40 S. Washington St., purchase a few necessities (and later hardware) from J. Bohlander & Sons at 42 S. Washington, have their shoes repaired by Emanuel Karlson at 52 S. Washington St. and their tailoring done by John Papenhausen on the southwest corner of First and Washington.

The village was home to a variety of retail and service businesses in the mid-1880s, according to the Illinois State Gazetteer of 1886 and republished in Hugh Dugan's "Village on the County Line." Along with the ones listed above, there were two meat markets, another general store, a barber, a jewelry store, a confectionery, a blacksmith, a dressmaker and a cigar store.

Downtown was the place to shop before shopping centers and strip malls started dotting the landscape. The central business district still is the place to be, according to Hinsdale native Jim Prisby, an architect who works at 106 S. Washington St.

"To me, it's the quintessential, picturesque, small town historic downtown community that you go and hang out and there's always something you can do - the restaurants and the shopping and the coffee shops. It's a great little place to hang out."

Courtney Bohnen Stach, who also grew up in town and works as a real estate agent on Washington Street, agrees.

"For me, it's the little heartbeat of the village - the kids on their little electric scooters, the trees the village has put in to make it really pretty and atmospheric," Stach said. "I think the other nice thing when you're walking down the street, you usually bump into someone you know."

Other towns along the BNSF railroad line have historic downtowns, but few are as well-preserved as Hinsdale, Prisby said.

"It's kind of unique that we have very few newer or modern buildings," he said.

The number of buildings that are at least 100 years old is surprisingly high. Fifteen in the central business district were constructed in the late 1800s; another 22 were built between 1900-1920. Home to a variety of architectural styles (Queen Anne, classical revival, colonial revival, Renaissance revival), the downtown earned a spot on the National Register of Historic Places in 2006.

Although Prisby grew up here, he didn't really appreciate the downtown's historic nature until he was in his first year of college at IIT, taking tours to see significant buildings in Chicago and Oak Park.

"Hey, I live in a pretty cool old town," he recalls thinking. "You start learning about Zook and some other stuff and start getting an appreciation for the town."

His favorite building in town is the old Hinsdale Theatre, a Renaissance revival building designed by William Barfield and now home to Egg Harbor.

"I love all the terra cotta work," he said. "Classic."

Stach remembers getting her hair cut in the Left Bank building at First and Washington that now is home to Marcus. And she loves being able to take whatever she needs fixed into Holland Hardware.

"It's fun to see these buildings change and morph into the needs of now," she said. "I just think the village has evolved in a very cute way."

As a member of the Hinsdale Historic Preservation Commission, Prisby has had the opportunity to weigh in on proposed changes that might alter the character of a building or the streetscape. He said it's not difficult to honor a building's history while effectively marketing a service or product.

"You can do something respectful of what's here and still get attention to your business," he said.

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Pamela Lannom is editor of The Hinsdalean