The Oak Brook Heritage Center offers a glimpse into the past
By Larry Atseff
From a charming 1920s old schoolhouse at Spring Road and 31st Street in Oak Brook, the Village’s rich history has flowered into what it is today: The Oak Brook Heritage Center. The brick Revival Georgian Style building stands next to the modern Oak Brook Village Hall, Police Department, and Fire Station. The entire complex is an example of an American town envied throughout the United States as an evolutionary community grounded in tradition while remaining forward-thinking. Oak Brook Magazine Publisher Scott Jonlich and Managing Editor Larry Atseff walked through the storied schoolhouse, initially named the Butler School. The hardwood floors creaked as we walked past the tiny student desks, clad with iron rails firmly wrapping the wooden chairs facing the classic blackboard that captivated generations of learners. One can almost hear the distant voices of the past echoing throughout the structure. Our tour was led by Historical Society President and Board Member, Oak Brook resident Lisa Griffith. She was elected in 2021. As she explained, “I’ve always loved history and feel it is very important to learn about our past and share it with our community so that we can grow, learn and have a deeper connection to the area in which we live.”
Griffith has been a professional opera singer, a music director, and a voice teacher for young people. Her background has come in handy for the current phase of volunteer work, presenting what has been collected. As we walked through the building with her, she explained, “For today’s volunteers, our mission is to acquaint visitors with what has been organized and collected. Together, we have collaborated on the most thoughtful ways to present and stage the information, artifacts, and relics from the archives.” Griffith said it all began in 1975 when the Oak Brook Historical Society was founded. Through the efforts of countless volunteers, donors, and the support of the Village, we have endured and are continuing to grow and evolve.” Griffith added, “Butler School is known as the Oak Brook Heritage Center, and it is on the National Register of Historic Places.” She continued, “At the outset, making sense of all the collected information and donations was daunting. Dozens of volunteers spent hundreds of hours sorting and organizing. One person, Ray Paice, in particular, has been organizing and labeling files for at least 35 years.
He started out accompanying his wife Esther to the building when she was an early Treasurer. He got interested and has become our curator extraordinaire. Even at 90, he still regularly comes to the Center.” Paice told us, “I love history, and Oak Brook has an amazing history. I have learned a lot!” Griffith added, “Thanks to our committed board of directors, we are making great strides in preserving and sharing our Village’s history. We are now bringing the information and items out of the archives so everyone can actually see Oak Brook’s history.” Board Member and Preservation Chair, Elizabeth Arts, is another long-time volunteer. She says, “My role is to build awareness and educate the public about preservation topics. In Oak Brook, there is the Oak Brook Heritage Center, the York Tavern, Mayslake, the Church on the Hill behind Graue Mill, and Graue Mill itself. For example, last year, the fifth-grade Brook Forest students were taken on a tour of the five historic buildings. We had a lecture at the library about the history of the Potawatomi Indians in the area.” (The National Trust for Historic Preservation designates the month of May to call attention to preservation efforts. The Oak Brook Historical Society will have some activities planned for this May.) Arts added, “We admire the vision and enthusiasm Lisa brings.
“Together, we have collaborated on the most thoughtful ways to present and stage the information, artifacts, and relics from the archives.”
We enjoy working with her and sharing ideas.” During the holidays this past December, residents were invited to an open house to see the progress that has been made to recreate the past. They had their picture taken sitting in an authentic sleigh from the day. They saw the replica staging of the original classrooms, complete with small desks with inkwells, the teacher’s desk up front, with blackboard and globe. On the desks are the actual workbooks students used to practice penmanship. Trustee Larry Herman donated tall glass cases full of pictures of village staff as the building evolved into the Village Hall, Police Department, and Library. Library books are also on display. Over the years, the building also became a “hub” for community activities, and pictures of those activities are on display as well. There are also mannequins showing off uniforms of the day. On sturdy easels built by Paice, there is a section devoted to many of the fine companies that have located in Oak Brook. Griffith showed us an easel of maps that trace how and when the land was acquired over the years, which finally led to the incorporation of the Village of Oak Brook in 1958. Another easel shows a photograph collection of notable buildings and locations like the Graue Mill, the York Tavern, the Saddle Club, and the Torode quarry, among others.
As we walked to another room, she explained, “Here is a collection of memorabilia donated by several families to show everyday items that were used in the late 1800s and early 1900s, from dolls and dollhouses to clothing, to diaries, to postcards.” Another display is a collection of arrowheads used by Potawatomi Indians, neatly presented on tables to give a glimpse of ancient history before settlers arrived. Griffith is working to improve and grow this display with the help of historian Sue Devick. The display of the history of Oak Brook is complete with the impact Paul Butler and his family have had over the years. There is a Polo Room with photos of the players, their ponies, and the international crowd they attracted, including Prince Charles (now King of England) playing on a team from England. Actual polo riding gear and uniforms are also on display. There is even a collection of Christmas cards that Mr. Butler would send to every resident in the area every year of beautiful scenes of Oak Brook he photographed himself. There is also a full-length picture of Butler in full polo regalia. From native Indians to settlers, to a schoolhouse to business giants, Oak Brook has a very eclectic history.
As Chair of Development for Marci Spingola remarked, “Our Oak Brook Heritage Center not only brings you the past, but we are also sharing the future. We recently invited Tim Geiges, Senior Property Manager at Oakbrook Center, to explain how his upscale shopping center is evolving not only as a destination for shopping but also as a destination for dining and entertainment.” Griffith concluded our tour by saying, “We need more volunteers so that the Heritage Center can be open more days of the week, and we can have more events and activities. We also need more financial support to carry on our collection, display, and restoration efforts. So, if you love history and living in Oak Brook, we invite your readers to join, learn our remarkable history and future and help share it with others.” For more information, contact the Oak Brook Heritage Center at 630-368-7750 or visit www.oakbrookhistory.com
*Photos by Marcello Rodarte