'A botanical showplace': Cantigny Park completes second round of garden renovations

It's easy to clear the mind in this garden of rugged beauty.

Bonsai trees and limestone slabs are the sculpture pieces. Stone nooks and crannies hold all kinds of surprises. And just when you thought it couldn't get more serene, a gold finch will rest on a wispy plant stem growing in gravel.

Of all the manicured landscapes and endless allure of Cantigny Park in Wheaton, a new rock garden may just be a cut above the rest.

Stone quarried from the Niagara Escarpment - stretching from Wisconsin to Niagara Falls - form raised beds, ledges, horizontal and vertical crevices, creating microclimates for plant species that thrive in faraway, mountainous regions.

"The rock garden is just a botanical showplace," Cantigny Executive Director Matt LaFond says.

It's one of the highlights of the second stage of "Project New Leaf," a re-imagining of Cantigny's gardens, military museum and the former residence of the park's benefactor.

  A new fountain more closely resembles the original in a design by Franz Lipp, the landscape architect at Cantigny Park in the 1960s and '70s. Water displays change every 15 minutes. "It provides a lively visual anchor at the center of the gardens behind the Visitors Center," Cantigny Executive Director Matt LaFond said. Brian Hill/

The first two rounds of campus renovations are expected to cost a combined $30 million. Later this fall, Cantigny will launch the third and final phase. Here's a look at the progress and what's ahead:

Rock garden

Opening last week, the display provides pure escape in a reinterpreted space just east of the visitors center and south of the new fountain garden.

"It's really a unique space," LaFond said. "We're very anxious to be able to show that off to visitors."

Landscape architects drew inspiration from the alpine rock garden at Kew Gardens near London. They also visited the Allen Centennial Garden at the University of Wisconsin and the Olbrich Botanical Gardens in Madison.

Cantigny's version contains Japanese maples, cactus, ferns, dwarf hosta - about 250 plant varieties in total.

"It has huge limestone blocks and slabs that were hand-selected from a Wisconsin quarry," LaFond said. "They formed these raised beds and steps that really invite close views of all the diverse plantings."

  "It's unlike any other in the Midwest," Cantigny Park Executive Director Matt LaFond said of a new rock garden. Brian Hill/

The stone frames isolate each garden bed to manage soil and planting conditions so both nonnative alpine and succulent plants can grow with Illinois native plants, said Matt Langan, a senior associate at Sasaki Associates, the firm leading the redesign.

"We think the finished product is respectful to the original design intent of the garden but re-imagined to provide a more contextually appropriate and immersive experience - a unique drawing card that can engage a broader audience for Cantigny," Langan said.

'Living legacy'

Cantigny's benefactor, Chicago Tribune publisher Robert R. McCormick, left the bulk of his fortune to establish his namesake foundation with instructions to make his estate a public park. The Robert R. McCormick Foundation is now funding Project New Leaf, a five-year redesign ending in 2021.

In the 1930s, McCormick put in an allée, or walkway, lined with American elm trees from his mansion south toward what is now Cantigny's golf course.

Dutch elm disease devastated that allée, and the elms were replaced in the 1970s by silver maples.

"One of the goals of Project New Leaf was to restore the McCormick allée to its original integrity and visual purpose," LaFond said.

Two rows of 31 London planetrees form the new allée, raising two questions.

Why planetrees? Related to the American sycamore, the trees are hardy and develop a striking branching pattern. The trees can grow 3 to 4 feet vertically each year, eventually reaching about 100 feet tall in about 25 years.

The parallel rows are planted so precisely, the trees align with the columns of the McCormick House.

"You actually see the London planetree is a favorite of large European estates who have similar allées to Cantigny's," LaFond said.

And why the odd number? The allée's 32nd member is the last original elm that McCormick had planted at his estate.

"That historic tree is part of the colonel's living legacy," LaFond said.

McCormick House

The third and final phase of Project New Leaf will focus on the interior of the 35-room McCormick House - built in 1896 - and its landscape.

The building remains closed while Cantigny finalizes plans for renovations that will bring electrical, plumbing, accessibility and fire safety improvements.

Cantigny will still retain much of the historic elements of the mansion, but with some new exhibit and programming space and an eye toward a more visitor-friendly experience.

"It's going to be a historic home," LaFond said. "It will be a museum that's open and available for tours, but it will also be available for small rental opportunities and programming and community events."

One footnote in its history: The mansion was briefly featured in a Tom Hanks scene in the classic sports film "A League of Their Own."


At the east end of the park, the project has restored a tall-grass prairie to one inspired by the work of landscape architect Jens Jensen, who left his mark on the Chicago parks system. To let the new plantings take root, some pathways are off-limits to visitors.

In the quirky Idea Garden, crews are installing a larger pond with a new bridge.

Horticulturists just planted the geometric Octagon Garden with mums. Around the second week of September, the rest of the gardens will be planted with fall crops.

  "I do think during these stressful times Cantigny can offer a bit of beauty and tranquility that only nature can provide," park Executive Director Matt LaFond said. Brian Hill/

As a result of the pandemic, many events have moved to a virtual format. Cantigny is evaluating whether to host events with 50 people or fewer on a case-by-case basis.

Despite the COVID-19 crisis, the second stage of Project New Leaf, encompassing about 18 acres east of the Visitors Center, stayed on schedule.

"We're just very happy to have phase two open and ready for visitors to explore and enjoy," LaFond said. "I do think during these stressful times, Cantigny can offer a bit of beauty and tranquility that only nature can provide."

Cantigny Park re-imagines serene gardens in second stage of major project

Project New Leaf

Design team: Sasaki Associates Inc.

Construction management: Downers Grove-based Featherstone Inc.

Scope: 17.5 acres in project’s second stage

New trees: 552

New shrubs: 2,735

Other plants: More than 80,000 new perennials, bulbs and grasses


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