Plaza del Lago
Plaza del Lago bell-tower
|Opening date||1928 (as the 'Spanish Court')|
|Developer||Plato Foufas and Joseph Stefan (1960s redevelopment)|
|Public transit access||Pace bus route #423|
Plaza del Lago is a shopping center at 1515 Sheridan Road in Wilmette, Illinois, United States which opened in 1928 as Spanish Court; it has been reported as the second-oldest shopping center in the United States designed for automobile use, and the first such center in the state of Illinois.
Though the Plaza is in the village of Wilmette today, the tract of land it was built on was originally a part of an undeveloped area known as No Man's Land, a strip of land owned by Henry Gage which, for unclear reasons, was not annexed when the rest of Gage's property was annexed by Wilmette. The area started out as underdeveloped land lined by three gas stations, and Sheridan was unpaved. When Wilmette released "Plan of Wilmette" (the basis of their first zoning code) they had planned to annex the land as a park, but they did not do so; by 1926 they had lost the chance.
The "Roaring 20's" was a time of booming prosperity across the nation. In the 20's an association of North Shore business people invested in a plan to turn primarily vacant land in No Man's Land into an elegant, Spanish-style retail and entertainment complex, named Spanish Court. Plans for this Spanish styled shopping center in No Man's Land were drawn up in 1926 and 1927 by well-known architect Edwin Clarke. Spanish Architecture was the style of the rich and famous during the 1920s. The plan was to build four buildings along the west of Sheridan Road. A drive would cut through the center of the plaza. South of the drive was to be a movie theater, Teatro del Lago, on the north a single story building holding a restaurant and shops. a larger building would be built next door with stores on the first floor, and apartments on the second, with a 50 car garage. At the end of northwest side would be a five story apartment building. The plaza was designed by Edwin H. Clark. The plaza opened in 1928. The arrangement of the shops, apartments, and movie theater all around a parking lot was a new idea at the time.
Amongst the complex's earliest occupants were Spanish Court Pharmacy, Teatro del Lago and Bills Realty (the realty that first marketed Wilmette's Indian Hill Estates Subdivision). The Teatro del Lago movie palace opened in 1927, prior to the opening of the rest of the Spanish Court. When it was opened the theater had an organ to accompany silent films. Its interior was completed handsomely with Spanish-style details and seating for 1,300 people. As teenagers Charles H. Percy, Ann-Margret, and Rock Hudson worked at the theater.
Plaza del Lago
A fire in No Man's Land in the 1930s destroyed most of the other prominent structures. No Man's Land had become a honky tonk town with Gas Stations, Hot Dog Stands, and a rat infested garbage dump. Wilmette annexed No Man's Land on January 6, 1942.
In the early 1960s Evanston lawyer Plato Foufas heard that a large section of No Man's Land might be up for sale. With lawyer Joseph Stefan's help, he acquired Spanish Court. They set out to renovate the shopping plaza, as well as the rest of No Man's Land, back to its former glory. Their renovation started in 1967. They tore down the 50-car garage to build arcade shops in an indoor hallway built to resemble a Spanish Street (which included a fountain), built new structures in the former Teatro del Lago parking lot, tore down the five story apartment structure to build a store that was for years occupied by Blockbuster. The new center was to be named "Plaza del Lago".
In the 1960s the theater had come under scrutiny when plans were made to remodel the shopping center. The owner of the Teatro, Sam Meyers, wanted to build a parking garage for movie patrons, but these plans were never finalized with the Wilmette village government. Meyers decided to sell to the developer. Foufas and Stefan tore down the Teatro del Lago in December 1965 and a Jewel supermarket was built at approximately the same spot.
The developers were financially forced to allow a Howard Johnson's restaurant to be built east of the Jewel at the southeast end of Plaza del Lago, but fought to prevent them from building their trademark orange roof. Howard Johnson's operated a restaurant here from 1967 to the early 1980s, including a restaurant named 'The Ground Round' (where Charlie Trotter worked as a teen). Howard Johnson's did not fare well and closed. The last occupant of the premises was 'Convito Italiano'; occupying it from 1982 until 2008, after when the building was torn down and replaced with a new stucco structure housing three shops.
The Spanish Court was renamed Plaza del Lago after the remodeling was completed in 1967. It's main architectural feature is it's bell tower, which has been a part of the plaza since its first incarnation. The Plaza was appraised in 1979 as being successful due to the population density of the adjacent area and the lack of similar shopping centers nearby. Plato Foufas and Joseph Stefans also developed a strip of high-rise co-ops which line the lakefront across Sheridan Road from Plaza del Lago.
Annual events at the plaza include a summer concert series, an art show, a classic car show,sidewalk sales, and sometimes races for children. In winter, events can include carriage rides.
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