$25 million project to revamp Cantigny gardens, museums

The grounds of Cantigny Park, a 500-acre oasis in Wheaton, feature quiet gardens, a stately mansion and a military museum.

To better link all three destinations, the park is preparing to launch a five-year, $25 million project intended to open up views of the landscape and make Cantigny more accessible - even in the evening hours.

Park officials announced "Project New Leaf" Thursday as the "largest comprehensive" redesign of the gardens and museums since Cantigny opened in July 1958.

The first phase of the plan calls for planting roughly 700 trees, replacing paths and adding outdoor, energy-efficient lighting to allow the park to host events after dusk. Cantigny also is building about 300 new parking spaces after years of growing attendance. About 367,000 people visited the park in 2016.

Sasaki Associates, a firm based in Boston and Shanghai, is leading the landscaping design. Cantigny will break ground on the project, privately funded by the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, in April. The park will remain open during construction, with temporary closures of some areas.

Here's a look at some of the project's highlights.

The gardens

A new boardwalk and seating will draw visitors closer to the edge of a pond on the park's north side. Hundreds of native wetland plants also will take root in the scenic spot.

"We're really exited about adding to the ecological function of the pond area," said Joy Kaminsky, Cantigny's horticulture director.

A walkway bordered by native perennials will run from the Visitors Center to the former mansion of Col. Robert McCormick, the famed Chicago Tribune publisher who fought in the Battle of Cantigny during World War I, returned home and renamed his estate after the French village.

"We will continue with our tradition of beautiful, colorful annual flowers throughout the garden," Kaminsky said.

One of the most striking areas at Cantigny - an allée, or walkway, lined with trees - was planted by McCormick outside his mansion, built in 1896 by his grandfather Joseph Medill.

Cantigny plans to replicate that space in 2018 with the "Red Oak Colonnade." About 75 trees, a diverse mix of red oak varieties, will be planted in parallel rows from the front entrance of the Visitors Center south to the First Division Museum. Cantigny originally was known as Red Oaks Farm before McCormick renamed it.

With an eye toward accessibility, crews will install brick paths to designate the main routes throughout the park as part of the project, under development since 2014.

"We really wanted to do a comprehensive update of the entire grounds with the goal in mind of making sure that Cantigny is here for future generations to enjoy," Cantigny Park Executive Director Matt LaFond said.

The mansion

New exhibits are in the works for the Robert R. McCormick Museum that help tell the stories of the philanthropist and Medill as "civic champions," LaFond said.

Cantigny could make the mansion available for rentals for private events hosted by groups of about 75 people or smaller. Cantigny also is phasing in a new name for the 35-room building: the "McCormick House."

First Division Museum

A $7 million makeover of the museum celebrating the Army's 1st Infantry Division began last spring. Closed since Veterans Day, the museum and its new exhibits on the legacy of the "Big Red One" will reopen in late summer. An unveiling is set for Aug. 26, to coincide with the centennial of the division.

Luci Creative, a Lincolnwood-based firm, is designing the project that will add artifacts and interactive technology to exhibits that trace the division's roots in 1917 through the Vietnam War. The new exhibits will highlight more recent missions.

Nearly a dozen Army tanks parked outside the museum will be cleaned and repainted with historically accurate insignia. That work will be complete midsummer.

New native wetland plantings will border a pond at Cantigny Park.
  Cantigny Park in Wheaton will redesign gardens around a pond to open up views of the Robert McCormick mansion. Bev Horne/
A new exhibit that will open in a renovated First Division Museum at Cantigny Park will highlight the division's more recent history in Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait and other regions. Drawings Courtesy of Cantigny Park
An allée, two rows of trees near the McCormick House, will inspire a similar landscaping feature by the Visitors Center. Images Courtesy of Cantigny Park
A proposed rendering shows views of a prairie at Cantigny Park in Wheaton. Courtesy of Cantigny Park
"We will continue with our tradition of beautiful, colorful, annual flowers throughout the garden," says Joy Kaminsky, Cantigny's horticulture director.
  More trees and seating will be installed in a plaza outside Cantigny's Visitors Center. Bev Horne/
Plans call for planting the Red Oak Colonnade, rows of trees from the front of the Visitors Center south to the First Division Museum, in 2018. Courtesy of Cantigny Park
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