The Carleton Hotel began its life in 1928 in Oak Park as a residential building appealing to long-term tenants. After being purchased by the Fox family in the 1970s, it has become a boutique hotel and event venue. | Courtesy of www.carletonhotel.com

The Oak Park River Forest Historical Society is celebrating half a century of history, and another Oak Park’s institution, the Carleton Hotel, is marking 90 years in business. 

Rather than celebrate separately, the two are joining forces to hold one Golden Gala on Friday, Nov. 16 at the Carleton, 1110 Pleasant St. 

The Carleton Hotel is underwriting the evening, and all proceeds will benefit operating costs and future exhibits at the Oak Park River Forest Museum at Lake Street and Lombard Avenue in Oak Park.

Frank Lipo, executive director of the Oak Park River Forest Historical Society, says that marking the double anniversary together in the Carleton will allow everyone to reflect on the past while looking forward to the future. 

Rob Biegler, general manager of the Carleton Hotel, notes that combining forces made a lot of sense. 

“I reached out to Frank, and he reached out to me,” Biegler said. “It’s natural for us to work with the historical society on this. It’s cause for both of us to celebrate.”

History of the hotel

Back in 1928, the Carleton Hotel opened as a residential apartment hotel on what was then the corner of Wisconsin and Pleasant. Lipo notes that it was an era of change for Oak Park. 

“During the teens and twenties, as more apartments were added to the community and as Oak Park became denser, there was lots of talk about whether we were a single-family home neighborhood or an apartment building neighborhood,” Lipo said. “In the 1920s, we got zoning, and this area, so close to the train tracks, was seen as ripe for development.”

A contest was held to name the new hotel, complete with $100 in prize money, and it was dubbed the Hotel Gowdy after the first manager of the hotel, Carl Gowdy. 

Within a year, the name had been changed to the Carleton. The hotel formally opened in December 1928, and boasted half an acre of carpet, lacquered doors, coved ceilings and rooms with their own radios.

Lipo notes that the location and the finishes were meant to attract a high-end resident.  

“In 1928, Mr. [Marshall] Field opened his department store in Oak Park,” Lipo said. “Oak Park had been a place of fine homes, and there was a new market for fine homes in an apartment setting.”

Advertisements in 1929 for the building touted the good value of living in the Chicago suburbs as well as one-, two-, three- and four-bedroom apartments available for rents between $85 and $200 a month.

The apartments were meant to resemble homes on the inside, and appealed to long-term residents, who might have been new to the community or downsizing from a larger, nearby home. 

Two of the first recorded residents were Mr. and Mrs. Frank Butler. According to Lipo, Mr. Butler had grown up in the mansion across the street.

Biegler notes that the current owners, brothers Ron and Mike Fox, purchased the property in the 1970s and transitioned the building into more of a traditional hotel. 

“Today, we consider ourselves a boutique hotel,” Biegler said. “We also hold events here such as weddings and charity events. Our ballroom can hold up to 200 people. It’s a wonderful venue with a sense of history.”

Half century of history 

Lipo states that the era during which the Oak Park River Forest Historical Society was founded was a tumultuous one. 

“In 1968, the community was grappling with white flight mentality and a debate on planned integration,” he said. “In the wake of national unrest, the village formed the Village Beautification Commission. Its chair, Elsie Jacobsen, put something in the Oak Leaves gauging interest in forming a historical society, tied to the 150th anniversary of the state of Illinois.”

At the time, the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio was a privately owned residence, and the Hemingway Society did not exist. Lipo says the celebration of the state’s anniversary sparked an interest in preserving history. He emphasizes that it wasn’t a backward-looking movement in spite of its focus on history.

“It could seem like a disconnect from the events of the time, looking at the good old days. That was not the case,” Lipo said. “It was more of a focus on what is good about what we have, what was good and looking ahead to the future.”

In 1966, there had been community discussions about tearing down Pleasant Home, which then was being used a senior center, and the newly formed Historical Society asked the Park District of Oak park for a room inside the building. 

Lipo said it was a good fit: the building was already government-owned and the historical society could help save it. Over the years, the historical society expanded to use the second and third floors as their headquarters, until they moved to their permanent home, the new Oak Park River Forest Museum last year.

Today, the Oak Park River Forest Historical Society and the Museum continue to be a catalyst for conversation with their faithful recording of history in the area. Today, a fair-housing exhibit challenges some of the perceptions of race relations in the village. 

“There was racism here. People did struggle,” Lipo said. “Fifty years ago, it was a very turbulent time. As we enter our second 50 years, the stories are ongoing. We’re not just looking back at the good old days. We are asking: what stories need to be told?”

If you go

The Golden Gala takes place on Friday, Nov. 16 from 6:30 to 9 p.m. at the Carleton Hotel, 1116 Pleasant St in Oak Park. 

Tickets are $100 ($90 for historical society members) and should be reserved by Wednesday, Nov. 14. To reserve tickets, call 708-848-6755 or visit

oprfhistorymatters@sbcglobal.net.

The gala will honor Harriet Hausman of River Forest and Doug Deuchler of Oak Park.  

“Both are legends in the community and have left their mark,” Lipo said.

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