|Display at Heller Nature Center, Highland Park, Illinois|
We'd planned a day for hiking and birding, but the fickle Midwestern weather had other ideas. Alternating between sleet, freezing rain, and eventually snow, we tried braving the 40 mph winds but quickly understood it wasn't going to be a nice day for a walk in the woods. Earlier, we'd tried to explore the lakefront by the remains of what used to be Ft. Sheridan, but conditions were even worse at the shore. Defeated, but unwilling to just head back into Chicago, we stopped in the visitor's center at Heller.
|Reading space well stocked with nature books, bird guides, etc.|
It had come up, as Danny was talking about a sports team outside of Illinois. "Our neighbour used to own that team", I mentioned casually. I'd never thought that was strange. Successful businesspeople (in this case, someone that made a fortune providing the most mundane service) often go on to buy sports teams. I mean, why work so hard if you don't get to spend it on something you'd like? Anyway, other than remembering the school bus stop was at the corner of his front lawn, and he always waved to us as he left for work, I can't say much about him as a person. Oh, there were rumours of wild parties, but I was never invited to those😀. Anyway, Danny had never seen a truly over-the-top posh neighbourhood, so off we went.
When we moved to Highland Park in the 70's it wasn't because my parents wanted to. After several heart attacks and eventually a triple bypass (a fairly new surgery at the time) my mother wanted to live in a home where she wouldn't be required to climb stairs. Unable to find an existing home they liked in Skokie, someone suggested they see a new subdivision being built in Highland Park where they could buy a lot and custom build the house they'd like.
At the time, Highland Park west of the highway was still rural. I mean, rural. Like horse farms, and fields rural. There were about a dozen homes already built in the newly developed area, and the street where we eventually built our house was only partially paved. The sidewalk wasn't even completed, ending abruptly in a pile of mud. The few existing homes were very, very, fancy. My mother caught sight of one, like a miniature version of the White House complete with white columns and a sprawling horseshoe driveway in front. "We don't belong here." She observed. We didn't, but went ahead and did it anyway.
In the decades since, the area has been completely built-up with newer, larger estates. As we turned in, my husband noticed the house that had so intimidated my mother back in the early 70's. He was struck by the state of disrepair and the pretentions that must have inspired someone to build such a horrible thing in the first place. The lawn was a wreck, the paint was all peeling, and the overgrown bushes, now trees gave it a Grey Gardens vibe. You couldn't possibly use that driveway without doing serious damage to your car.
The people that built homes in that subdivision weren't from "old money" families. They were newly rich in the era of WIN ("Whip Inflation Now") when the rest of the country was struggling. Where it might have been gauche to flaunt wealth in most places, no such social prohibitions existed there. I'd never encountered people that would start conversations with a stranger by asking how many square feet your home had, until I moved to Highland Park.
I've always been thankful that my personality was pretty much formed before we moved to Highland Park or I might have had a harder time with the fact that I absolutely did not fit in. I'm not always in the right, but being the sort of person that is willing to believe I am, despite any evidence to the contrary provided just enough insulation to get through eight years of living on the North Shore. I'm always struck when I run into people that grew up in Highland Park how they end up in the extremes. One person became an investment banker, another a Catholic Worker. Highland Park does that to people, I guess.
The house I lived in didn't look too bad, and I noticed they built an addition because...it wasn't already large enough?! The quince bush/tree was gone, understandably as unless you particularly liked quince it would quickly cover the lawn in fruit each autumn. The other trees that were mere twigs when we planted them were now fully grown and offered shade and privacy dwarfing the one-level ranch style house. I couldn't see the backyard, but I'm certain they didn't leave it wild prairie as my parents had. I'd guess there was a pool, and possibly a tennis court back there by now.
We drove through, looking at the homes that seemed so opulent in the 70's but had aged poorly and in another town with favourable zoning might have been divided up into several living spaces. Where older homes in established neighbourhoods can blend in without drawing too much attention, even being desirable housing stock, these properties, each more outrageous than the last and secluded in a subdivision appeared a museum of bad taste-and not in a kitsch sort of way. Not every home was in a state of disrepair, but enough of them were, to dissuade anyone from wanting to buy there when so many newer, modern McMansions are being built just down the road. What will they look like in 40 years? I wonder how long it will be before the subdivision is razed for something newer to be built atop all that 70's brick?
We found One Point Four's house. It still looked like a windowless office building, but someone had replaced the strange panelling on the outside to give it a bit of a face lift. It was raining heavily, and the outside looked like someone had splashed water on a slate and the chalk had smeared in places.
The interesting thing about the house was what you couldn't see from the outside and would only know if you'd either been inside, or had seen it being built, as I had. The entire structure, which I can only describe as a gigantic, multi-storey box, is built around an equally gigantic boulder. No, not a "rock." A giant, maybe 20 Ft. tall boulder.
I remember when it arrived on the site. Naively, I thought it was something they'd put in the garden, and that it arrived prior to building so they could get it properly situated. Nah, they were going to build their house around the rock, and still leave room for an indoor pool. In comparison, spending your money on a sports team seems like a more reasonable investment. They were runoured to have paid cash for the house as well, which might have been true as the stagflation years of the 70's weren't a good time to be asking your banker for $1.4 million to build an ugly house around a boulder in the posh suburbs.
These days, the homes in planned communities have very little to tell them apart. Working off a handful of floorplans, a few exteriors to chose from, and a standard landscaping design you would be unlikely to find a builder willing to build a house around a rock, or stick a swimming pool in a courtyard. As crazy as some of those homes were (40ft. gold lion statues at either side of the drive?) at least they were distinctive. They weren't especially well built though, and less than fifty years on they look ready to collapse. I wonder about the people living in those houses today. Would a Highland Park address really be worth living with a giant boulder in your living room? I'm willing to bet they couldn't get $1.4 million for it today. Imagine the real estate listing.
"Six bedroom, four bath home in Highland Park. Indoor pool, eat-in kitchen with updated appliances, giant boulder in living room."
A better writer could find a lesson in all this about the impermanence of wealth where all that remains is a giant boulder, but I'm struggling to do it without sounding like a moralising prat. If my parents were still alive to see the decay of the neighbourhood it would undoubtedly bother them. Being the least ambitious person I know, seeing the present state of things felt pleasingly levelling to me. Perhaps for the first time in my life I felt successful. Not in the financial sense, rather in that I've never been so full of myself that I would entertain, much less follow through on building a house around a giant boulder, just because.