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The Impulsive Traveler: Hitting the beach in Evanston, Ill.

By Julia M. Klein,

“We don’t do beach,” said my cousin Bob, who lives less than four blocks from the alluring lakefront of Evanston, Ill.

But he’d been warned. Every summer I visit the Chicago area to see friends I know from a mid-1990s fellowship year at Northwestern University. And ever since discovering three years ago, to my delight, that I had cousins living in Evanston, I’ve been dragging them to the beach.

The Impulsive Traveler: Details, Evanston, Ill.

Beyond my memories of Evanston, where South Boulevard Beach was once my back yard, there was a deeper nostalgia involved, a primal tug from childhood. Laureen, Bob’s wife, was my late mother’s first cousin. And, like my sister and me, she used to spend summer days on Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach, where my grandparents hosted family gatherings.

But now, in their 60s, Laureen and Bob generally shun sand and sun. In deference to me and their local grandchildren, however, they were prepared when I visited a few weeks ago. They’d purchased a piece of equipment — “the edifice,” they called it, or “the hut” — halfway between an old-fashioned beach umbrella and a tent. Bob carried it, slung over his shoulder, as we strolled to Clark Street Beach, a wide swath of clean beige sand with modern restrooms.

Consulting the instructions — this was his first beach visit of the season, and quite possibly his last — Bob wrestled the cumbersome red contraption into submission. Soon, he and Laureen, on matching beach chairs, were ensconced triumphantly beneath its shade. As the afternoon ebbed, they would finally venture forth, holding hands, and walk ankle-deep into Lake Michigan.

The beaches of Evanston? My profoundly urban Chicago friends tend to roll their eyes at the notion. Their city, they point out, is blessed with its own free beaches. Evanston, on Chicago’s northern border, charges modest fees for beach access. Then again, many Chicago beaches have instituted parking charges, and finding a space on a hot summer weekend can be an ordeal.

And there is this: Evanston’s lakefront is simply prettier, unblemished by the highway — Lake Shore Drive — that separates most of Chicago from its parks and beaches. And here, unlike in many city neighborhoods, there are no ugly high-rises obscuring the view.

In Evanston, a walk to the beach is a pleasant architectural ramble through the Lakeshore Historic District, filled with late 19th- and early 20th-century homes in a flamboyant mix of styles — Queen Anne, Tudor, Italianate, Classical Revival, Victorian Gothic, Prairie — along with a few modern and postmodern structures. Linking the beaches are parks with walking and bike paths, a fitness trail, playgrounds, tennis courts, benches and picnic tables. Past Northwestern, at Evanston’s northern tip, is Lighthouse Beach, where the picturesque Grosse Point Lighthouse, enveloped in foliage, still marks the shoreline.

Chicago’s North Shore is also rich in rainy-day attractions. In fact, when I reached the Baha’i House of Worship in neighboring Wilmette, the heavens opened up with thunder, lightning and a drenching downpour.

Designed by the French-Canadian architect Louis Bourgeois, the Wilmette temple was completed in 1953 after more than three decades of construction. Surrounded by gardens and fountains, it’s the only Baha’i temple in the United States. The massive nine-sided building is clad in white concrete interrupted by ornamental tracery, elaborately carved pillars and arched windows that evoke Moorish architecture. The carvings contain symbols of other religions, including the crucifix and the Star of David.

In the Welcome Center, I learned why: The Baha’i consider the prophets of earlier religions to be messengers of a single God. Their own prophet, Mirza Husayn-Ali (1817-92), known as Baha’u’llah, established the faith in the mid-19th century in what was then Persia. Wall texts in Foundation Hall, the oldest part of the building, describe the ongoing persecution of adherents in present-day Iran.

Upstairs, in the auditorium, I poked into alcoves that bore inscriptions such as, “Ye are the fruits of one tree, and the leaves of one branch.” Concrete tracery directs the eye upward to the gilded dome, where the Arabic characters translate as “Oh Glory of the All Glorious.”

A more secular glory awaited me at the lakefront Charles Gates Dawes House, which doubles as the Evanston History Center. This National Historic Landmark was designed by Henry Edwards-Ficken in the 1890s for Robert Sheppard, a Methodist minister who became a Northwestern professor and administrator.

My tour guide, Kris Hartzell, director of facilities and visitor services, said that Sheppard had hoped to hire Richard Morris Hunt, architect of the spectacular Biltmore Estate in Asheville, N.C. Sheppard’s second-choice architect produced an upper-middle-class version of Biltmore, in the same “Chateauesque” style.

Dawes, who bought the house in 1909, was a lawyer, banker and businessman, probably best known for the Dawes Plan, the World War I equivalent of the Marshall Plan. But he was also vice president under Calvin Coolidge, a World War I general, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and a composer. The house’s most impressive room is the library, a wood-paneled expanse of built-in bookcases, Tiffany lamps and family memorabilia.

On the second floor, a concise exhibit reveals that Evanston was originally Ridgeville. It was renamed for Northwestern board president John Evans and was dubbed “Heavenston” by some residents, more in tribute to its Methodist roots than its resortlike qualities.

The next day, I joined Hartzell, along with 11 women and one man, for a women’s history tour that began at the Frances Willard House Museum, another National Historic Landmark, in downtown Evanston.

Willard was not only the longtime president of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, but also an educator and a suffragist. The museum, really two adjoining houses with a common dining room, contains Willard’s personal library as well as original furniture, family photographs, her bicycle and the embroidery sampler she dutifully stitched at age 14. The history is interesting, too: Prohibition has given the temperance movement a bad name, but in the late 19th century, temperance activists were often crusaders for women’s rights as well as other social and labor reforms.

Touring was hot work on this steamy Sunday. So, with my cousins satiated by Saturday’s beach activities, I headed solo to Greenwood Street Beach.

Just south of Clark, Greenwood is smaller, and the beach and the water were both crowded. At the edge of the lake, a mother, fully dressed and wearing a head scarf, was helping her daughter bury her son in the wet sand. Behind me, teenagers were playing ball. A nearby lifeguard blew her whistle almost continuously, trying to keep swimmers from venturing out too far. Sailboats, kayaks and stand-up paddleboards framed the view.

Dodging clusters of families and friends, I waded into the lake up to my waist and plunged into the cool, welcoming waters. It felt like coming home.

The Impulsive Traveler: Details, Evanston, Ill.

Klein is a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia and a contributing editor at Columbia Journalism Review.

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