Historic Market Square
Market Square is known as the first planned shopping center in the United States. Located in downtown Lake Forest, Illinois, "the Square" is a historical shopping and lifestyle destination, which has evolved in just over a century to become the icon that it is today.
While today's Market Square is a destination, in the 1860s, the landscape was quite different. Downtown Lake Forest's business district along Western Avenue began as a shantytown of unplanned barns, shacks, and alleyways. As people came to notice Lake Forest's proximity to Lake Michigan and its secluded wooded forests (for which the city was named), business magnates came from Chicago to build their summer homes here. By 1869, Lake Forest had earned the reputation as one of Chicago's most exclusive suburbs, hailing aristocrats like Cyrus H. McCormick, Jr., Louis F. Swift, and Ogden Armour.
As Lake Forest's homes grew to vast estates, they became the markers of Chicago's high society; however, due to residents' part-time allegiance, downtown Lake Forest's business district was not a priority until it captured the attention of one resident, Arthur T. Aldis. In spring 1912, Aldis and architect Howard Van Doren Shaw joined their talents to create a downtown area fitting of the affluence that surrounded it.
Aldis and Shaw decided to buy the majority of downtown Lake Forest's property, demolish the existing structures, and rebuild. Aldis formed an exclusive association, later known as the Lake Forest Improvement Trustees, which purchased 400 feet of frontage along Western Avenue for a mere $225,000. By January 13, 1913, the purchase was complete and the next task was to design a functional downtown epicenter that would:
- Reflect the values of Lake Forest's gentry
- Acknowledge Lake Forest's natural surroundings, and
- Serve as a gathering place for close community.
The civic focus was particularly significant in influencing developers' early plans as well as the Square's enduring persona.
Designing the Vision
Howard Van Doren Shaw set out to design Lake Forest's dream downtown. He strived to create a practical, yet aesthetically pleasing, center that would incorporate retail on the ground floor and residential above. Construction of Lake Forest's new downtown began in September 1915 and Market Square opened just a year-and-a-half later in April 1916.
Now the Square's three-sided rectangular green would open to the city's main Western Avenue. This new commercial center was a memorable and welcome sight, particularly for visitors who would arrive by train (now the Metra Union Pacific North Line), directly across the street.
South and north towers built of limestone and wood anchored this new community gathering space, overlooking shaded arcades, fountains, and walkways reminiscent of a timeless, European folk village. Carved wooden beams, gabled roofs, and stucco walls borrowed details from English, Flemish, Bavarian, Baroque, Palladian, and Renaissance styles, all a reflection of Shaw's architectural genius.
The Start of Something Big
In fall 1915, the First National Bank was first to claim space at Market Square in the central building located at the head of the Square. Meanwhile, Krafft's Drug Store occupied the Square's southeast corner and remained there until it moved in 1982.
Multiple other city factions chose to ground their business in Market Square, including two utility companies, the Lake Forest Recreation Department, US Postal Service, YWCA, and the Young Men's Club. In 1931, when First National Bank moved out, Marshall Field & Company moved in, garnering attention to service and fashion. Local businesses like Helander's Stationery Store, National Tea grocery store, Kiddles Sporting Goods, and Forest Bootery added to the Square's local allure.
Testimony to this thriving downtown plaza, developers came to share in the success. Market Square's architectural impact influenced others to emulate the design elsewhere in Lake Forest's business district and as retail demand grew, so did the stretch of businesses running along Western Avenue. Today, Market Square bears the honor as "America's First Planned Shopping Center" and in 1978, it became listed on the National Register of Historic Places, lending to its prominence as a retail trendsetter.
Continuing the Legacy
In a century since its visionary beginnings, Market Square continues to celebrate history and community. Long time tenants, like Kiddles, Forest Bootery, and Left Bank Restaurant continue to thrive and grow. The Square also remains a central meeting ground, hosting several city events that celebrate charity, arts, culture, holiday, and fine living.
If the buildings of Lake Forest's Market Square could talk, they would speak volumes of a rich, enduring history and a future that promises continued celebration—
with people committed to defining progress;
in businesses that embody refined, modern living;
and a community that embraces civic involvement and continuity.
Visit Market Square today, and be part of the history that takes a vital stake in modern life.