When my eyes are pointed at the pavement, feet plodding along as I make my way to the next assignment, it’s easy to miss those little things. The ornate details of an old brick apartment building or the little blossoms starting to peek out from the branches of a Bradford pear tree. On a gloomy Friday afternoon last week, a local entrepreneur gave me a chance to slow things down, and observe the intricacies of Oak Park that I usually miss.
Last week, Luke Thornton and his wife opened the Oak Park Segway Experience Center, located on the second floor of the Medical Arts building, 715 W. Lake. There they offer tours of the village on these two-wheeled, electric-powered machines, highlighting local businesses and architectural attractions.
Thornton decided to start his own Segway tour business after trying out a similar excursion in Saugatuck, Mich., which also has a collection of Frank Lloyd Wright homes.
The startup costs were steep — about $6,700 a pop for each Segway, of which he bought 10 — but Thornton believes there’s a niche for visiting tourists here that isn’t being filled.
I decided to take a spin myself last week to sample the new offering in action. Thornton started by having me slap my John Hancock on a waiver form (you must be over the age of 14 and 80 pounds, but this side of 275 pounds).
He proceeded to show me a quick seven-minute video on safety, punctuated by crash test dummies leaning too far forward on their Segway while speeding down a hill, resulting in their faces scraping along the pavement.
“This is designed to show people the seriousness of driving,” Thornton said. “Is this stuff going to happen? Probably 95 percent of the time, it’s not going to happen.”
He then decked me out in a neon yellow vest and bright red helmet for protection. The latter barely fit over my big noggin (despite the extra-large size), though it got a little cozier after Thornton removed some of the interior padding.
After a brief tutorial behind Jimmy John’s, we were off — whizzing up Linden near the high school stadium. Students passing by begged for a quick ride, which Luke gently declined before handing over a flier for his business.
Initially, Oak Park Segway is offering two choices — a tour of the Oak Park Arts District along Harrison or a more touristy romp through the Frank Lloyd Wright Historic District (which I opted for). Each tour costs about $60 and lasts two hours.
One of Thornton’s first stops was a handsome prairie-style apartment building on Linden. Four years at Oak Park and River Forest High School and I never noticed this little gem, designed by John Van Bergen.
“Most people don’t,” Thornton said with a chuckle.
Other stops along the way included Pleasant Home, the Wright Home & Studio, and the Hemingway Museum. Luke told the story of Wright’s “bootlegger” homes on Chicago Avenue and how they got him kicked out of an architectural firm. He also talked about problems homeowners have had with tourists just wandering into their Wright-designed houses.
Thornton read most of his cues from cards, but he said he’s working to wean himself and perfect his delivery.
The last pit stop was Austin Gardens, where my tour guide switched the speed mode on the Segway and let me zip around the circular path in the park for a couple of minutes before we detoured through Scoville Park and back to the Medical Arts Building.
There he introduced me to Jack Sheehan, who owns the local landmark, which was once the tallest building in Oak Park.
“They’re all a little strange,” Sheehan said when asked if this was the most unusual business in his building. “I like the idea and I’m excited about it.” So excited that he himself is featured riding a Segway in one of the company’s first television commercials.
Thornton hopes he can capitalize on tourists, along with staycationers who want to look at Oak Park from a different angle.
“You may have lived here a long time, but there’s a lot more here than just driving by the streets and not noticing anything,” he said.