The Wilmette Historical Museum was established by the Village of Wilmette in 1951. Today, it is jointly operated by the Village of Wilmette and by the Wilmette Historical Society, a non-profit, volunteer-run organization devoted to promoting local history. The Museum’s collections, begun in 1950, are now quite extensive.
The Wilmette Historical Museum is dedicated to encouraging the appreciation of Wilmette's past. By exploring, preserving, and sharing the history of Wilmette and the surrounding area, the Museum seeks to find and tell our community's stories, and to connect those stories to Chicago, Illinois, and U.S. history.
Established by the Village of Wilmette in 1951, the Museum was first located in the basement of the Village Hall. The Museum remained in Village Hall for about 17 years, until 1968. It was open the first Sunday of each month and was completely staffed by volunteers.
The Wilmette Historical Society was created in 1966 as an organization to support the Museum, especially in a fundraising capacity. James A. Williams, chair of the Wilmette Historical Commission (a Village of Wilmette entity), was instrumental in founding the society.
In 1968, operations were moved to a Village-owned building on Green Bay Road, formerly a police and fire station. When that structure was slated for demolition in 1977, the Village leased space for the Museum in Highcrest School, which was closed at the time. The first paid staff member came on board with the move to Highcrest. This third site housed the Museum until 1994, when school officials decided to re-open the school.
Fortuitously, the former Gross Point Village Hall at 609 Ridge Road was for sale. However, a real estate developer had plans to turn the 1896 structure into condominiums. Local residents, led by the Junior League and the Historical Society, protested plans for the building. They gathered thousands of signatures to save the historic site. At residents' urging, Village trustees voted to purchase the property for the Museum, with two-thirds of the money coming from the Village and one-third from the Historical Society. The Historical Society agreed to raise the funds needed to restore the building to good condition.
Hundreds of Wilmette residents responded enthusiastically to the Historical Society's appeal for funds. These funds, together with a generous bequest from Kendall Clampitt, made it possible to begin restoration in 1992. Architects, artisans and craftsmen worked for three years to restore this magnificent structure and to create a public research room, exhibit gallery, administrative office, and storage areas for the collections. On April 8, 1995, the Museum re-opened to the public in its first permanent home.
Restoration efforts in the 1990s had reserved the basement and second floor for administrative purposes. Yet, the Historical Society wanted to open the entire Gross Point Village Hall building to the public. With that goal in mind, they embarked on a $1 million capital campaign to raise funds for an addition on the west side of the historic building. After two years of planning and fundraising, a new addition was opened on September 19, 2004. This endeavor created a remarkable new museum facility with expanded exhibit space, enlarged meeting room facilities, and a new research room, administrative offices and state-of-the art collections storage rooms.