Long Grove

The rural look in Long Grove's residential areas is maintained by banning street lights, sidewalks and curbs. (John Handley/photo for the Tribune) (Chicago Tribune / September 24, 2010)

Firmly rooted in yesteryear, Long Grove wants to stay that way — at least in outward appearances. The affluent village, some 35 miles northwest of the Loop, strives to retain its rural character and preserve its historic downtown.

Buildings frozen in a vintage time warp cluster around the intersection of Old McHenry and Robert Parker Coffin roads in the heart of town. Near the crossroads is a water wheel and pond. Farther along is a covered bridge, the iconic image of Long Grove.

But this is no museum of aging architecture. These structures bustle with some 60 shops and restaurants. Downtown Long Grove has evolved into a popular tourist attraction.

It didn't used to be that way. The sleepy village in Lake County grew up in an area settled mostly by German farmers in the mid-19th century. The rural community languished for years. But in the 1950s, Long Grove's leaders had a vision to preserve the past.

After the village incorporated in 1956, it declared the area around the four corners formed by the intersection of Old McHenry and Robert Parker Coffin roads a historic district. Strict ordinances and codes aim to keep it that way.

"When I was growing up in Long Grove in the 1950s, many of us had horses. I would ride to friends' houses and also ride to get candy at the general store," said longtime resident Jeri Monroe.

"Everybody used to know everybody else back then. Not as much now," she said. Over the years, she has noted changes: "The village moved from country houses to country estates to suburban estates. The idea was to preserve open land, and the village has done that quite well."

Commenting on the lure of Long Grove as a retail magnet, village President Maria Rodriguez said: "People don't want to live in the 19th century, but they love to visit there."

Even the village hall is historic. "The two-story village hall formerly was the Drexler Tavern, an old roadhouse. It was moved to the present location in the 1970s," said Angie Underwood, president of the Long Grove Historical Society.

Long Grove attracts shoppers with its quaint charm, but it takes work — and money — to look old. Rodriguez said she would like to see improvements to the historic district, including burying the overhead power lines and adding old-fashioned streetlights.

Already, a new parking lot has opened and space has been allocated for up to four new stores. "We hope to energize downtown with new stores that are larger than existing ones. We would like to have a boutique hotel or maybe an Irish pub. We're poised for prosperity," she stressed.

Part of that prosperity will come as a result of two new mega-stores: A 165,400-square-foot Menards opened last year, and a 48,000-square-foot Sunset Foods will open at the end of this year or early 2011. Both are outside the historic district, which is only a small part of the 12.4-square-mile village.

Sales tax revenue generated by the new stores is seen as a major boost for Long Grove, which levies no property tax.

Rodriguez explained that Long Grove did not start out as an affluent suburb. "At first, it was a rural community with modest homes on large lots. But then larger homes were built, and today we have more of an estate look."

She described Long Grove as an oasis of open space. "Every homeowner has to donate to a land conservancy that creates open space, scenic corridors and helps with drainage."

Away from downtown, the residential streets reflect a rural ambience. Houses are far apart because of the average 2-acre zoning. Unlike most of suburbia, there are no sidewalks, curbs or streetlights. Wells supply water. About half the village is on septic sewer systems.

"No cookie-cutter subdivisions have been built in Long Grove, " said village planner James Hogue. He added that vacant land for future development is scarce, but some tracts are still available, mostly on the periphery of the village.

"Long Grove went green long before green was trendy," Hogue noted. One of the ways residents enjoy the outdoor greenery is by walking the village's trail system. Some of the paths are covered with wood chips, while others are asphalt for multiple uses.

Other large green spaces include the three private country clubs in the village — Hillcrest, Twin Orchard and Royal Melbourne.