Situated thirty miles north of Chicago and encompassing 17 square miles on Lake Michigan, the community began as an agricultural settlement circa 1834. It was platted and designed by Almerin Hotchkiss in 1857 and incorporated in 1861. Hotchkiss’s plan includes provision for parkland, a cemetery, and a commercial town center adjacent to commuter rail lines to Chicago (an hour away), with Lake Forest College at the center of the community. The design and layout of curvilinear streets and a park-like setting are in keeping with other 19th-century, Picturesque suburbs such as Riverside, designed ten years later.
Since its inception, Lake Forest has been a place of both landscape and architectural significance. Architects Howard Van Doren Shaw, David Adler, and Henry Ives Cobb designed numerous houses, with residential landscapes by Rose Standish Nichols, Ralph Rodney Root, Olmsted, Olmsted & Eliot, Olmsted Brothers, and Jens Jensen. O.C. Simonds designed Forest Park and worked on Lake Forest Cemetery after Hotchkiss and William Le Baron Jenney. Shaw designed Market Square in 1916, an early example of a planned shopping center.
The town grew significantly in the 1920s and again in the postwar years. Resident concerns with unchecked growth led to the formation of the Lake Forest Open Lands Association in 1967. By 2005 the organization had acquired over 700 acres of land within the city limits and established nature preserves with 12 miles of walking trails, all accessible to the public. The Lake Forest Historic District was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1978.