Housing diversity

Newcomers can find a broad range of houses and apartments in Mundelein at reasonable prices. (Shaun Sartin/ Photo for the Chicago Tribune / June 4, 2011)

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."

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