When the gentrification wave swept across Lake County in the 1980s-90s, on its way from the North Shore to the Barringtons, it skipped Mundelein, which remains their down-to-earth, unpretentious cousin.
Thirty-five miles from the Loop, this is a village of sports bars with beer nuggets, Saturday morning Little League games, fishing derbies, BMX bike racing and, for those seeking solace, quiet waters to paddle canoes. Sure, Chicago is within reach. But Mundelein's 31,000 residents prefer the easy-going lifestyle that drew Chicagoans to its former lakeside resorts.
"In the 1930s, Chicagoans came out here for the weekend," said Dottie Watson, curator at the Historical Society of Fort Hill Country. "At one point, we had seven hotels. Sometimes things got a little out of hand, but they had a good time." The Ray Brothers Pavilion, which hosted dances until 1947, drew stars such as Lawrence Welk and featured performances by 5-year-old Dorothy Wihr, a "fancy diving star."
As summer cottages were remodeled or replaced with larger, year-round homes, average home value and residents' income increased a few notches.
"Instead of an older, blue-collar village, we're blue collar and white collar with a range of housing prices," said Mayor Kenneth Kessler.
Mundelein's small downtown has not changed much since the day-trippers came from the city. It includes two bakeries, a hardware store, a barber shop and a handful of specialty retailers. But shopping now includes big-box merchants on the west side and strip malls on Lake Street and Illinois Highway 60.
While many Chicago suburbs struggle to stay afloat financially, Mundelein is maintaining village services while keeping tax increases to a minimum, Kessler said.
"We're trying to streamline the process for new businesses to come to town," he said. "Their successes will help compensate for the fall-off in sales tax."
Mundelein's long-range plan includes redevelopment of its splintered downtown and the building of condos and mixed-use buildings. Although the recession put most projects on hold, one downtown condo building, Cardinal Square, has been completed as part of a nine-building residential complex planned on land that used to be industrial. Some aging manufacturing plants have yielded to the wrecking ball, but the village is still a manufacturing and distribution center that provides 11,300 full-time jobs.
Like many suburbs, Mundelein has foreclosed houses and spent commercial properties awaiting redevelopment. But its north end is in stark contrast. It features the wooded, sprawling campus of the University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary, where grand stone buildings, bridges and lakeside terraces mimic those of European castles and their grounds.
The village's mix of ethnic grocery stores and restaurants reflects its cultural diversity. According to the 2010 census, 30 percent of the residents are Hispanic, and its Asian population is nearly 9 percent.
Kessler said the village embraces its diversity.
"I've re-established our human relations commission, which was still on the books but not active," he said. "This will help educate residents about the different cultures. They bring new traditions to town. But basically everyone wants the same thing: a job, a roof over your head and education for your kids."
"Mundelein had five names," said Kessler. "Fortunately, Area is not the one that stuck."
Area was an acronym for the guiding principles (ability, reliability, endurance, action) of entrepreneur Arthur Sheldon's Sheldonhurst School for aspiring salespeople and was adopted as the community's name in 1909. Other monikers were Mechanics Grove (for the early settlers' professions), Holcomb (for a civic leader) and Rockefeller (for John D.'s younger brother, William). In 1924, the village was named for Archbishop (later Cardinal) Mundelein, the founder of the seminary.
The public library and police station were built in the 2000s, but the 1929 Tudor-style village hall is the original.
Look closely at the old farmhouse on the west side of the Tullamore subdivision and you see the vestige of the "Model Farm," a prototype built in 1928 by the Public Service Co. of Northern Illinois to demonstrate how electricity and gas offered "all the pleasures of country life without the burdens it held in years gone by."
Things to do
The family-friendly village is proud of its community spirit, with its website boasting "99 Things to Do in Mundelein."
Annual events include the Mundelein Community Days, Independence Day fireworks and Ready Set Run 5K race. Summer events include the farmers market, Park on Park Cruise Nights and concerts at the Kracklauer Park. New in 2011 is the Mundelein Arts Festival in September.
Boaters and fishermen take their canoes and kayaks to Diamond Lake and Loch Lomond launches. Youngsters keep cool at the Barefoot Bay Aquatic Center and Diamond Lake beach. Golfers enjoy the seven golf courses in or adjacent to the village, plus the driving range at the Countryside Golf Course. Come winter, the parks and nearby forest preserves offer ice skating, sledding and cross-country skiing.
Teens hang out at the two bowling alleys and Pitch Bikepark (BMX bikes, skateboards, rollerblades). Or they head to the Westfield Hawthorn Shopping Center in Vernon Hills.
Newcomers can find a broad range of houses and apartments at reasonable prices.
The core of mostly 1950s and '60s ranches and tri-levels is ringed by scattered developments of larger two-story houses that were built from the 1970s through the early 2000s, but Mundelein did not boom with McMansions like some other Lake County towns did. Real estate Brownie points go to homes with Loch Lomond addresses. Built around a man-made lake, they are a mix of original and remodeled, plus a few teardowns, but share a view of the lake by the same name.
There are two active homebuilding developments in town. The semi-custom, two-story, single-family houses at Tall Grass Ridge, built by K. Hovnanian Homes, start at $224,995. The Grand Dominion, by Del Webb, has sold 525 of its 725 home sites to buyers 55 and older. Located at the northwest corner of town, this development of ranch houses encircles a wetland, clubhouse, tennis courts and pools, and is next door to a public golf course. Prices start at $242,990.
In general, the closer to the train station, the lower the home price. Recent sales range from an 842-square-foot house downtown that sold for $35,000 to a six-bedroom house in the Ambria subdivision that went for $338,000. Note that Realtors' sites show houses at higher prices with Mundelein mailing addresses, but most of those are outside village limits.
In addition to small homes that have seen values lowered by the recession, Mundelein has many apartment complexes with rentals at modest prices.
Most residents work in the area, using such main arteries as Illinois Highway 60, U.S. Highway 45 and Interstate Highway 94. The Pace bus service passes through on its way from Waukegan to Vernon Hills.
Elementary and middle school students attend schools in Mundelein School District 75, Fremont School District 79 or Diamond Lake School District, all in Mundelein. Some children on the east side attend school in Vernon Hills.
Most high schoolers attend Mundelein High School, but a few neighborhoods feed into Adlai E. Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire or Libertyville High School in Libertyville.
Santa Maria del Popolo School and Carmel Catholic High School serve the village's large Catholic population.