How 'Project New Leaf' is unfolding at Cantigny Park in Wheaton

One of the best ways to enjoy Cantigny Park in Wheaton is a quiet stroll around a pond so pristine the water reflects the colorful landscape.

What's left of that calming scene today is a pond drained of its water and a muddy construction zone. But, thankfully, that jarring sight is only temporary.

Cantigny is transforming the area into an ecological pond garden as part of the first phase of a $25 million project that could take five to seven years. Park officials announced "Project New Leaf" in February as the "largest comprehensive" redesign of the gardens and museums since Cantigny opened in July 1958.

After years of planning, dramatic changes are taking shape around the 500-acre retreat.

"It's been completely thrilling to actually see the work starting to unfold," said Joy Kaminsky, Cantigny's horticulture director.

The renovations will not only enhance the park's beauty and historic character, but also make the grounds more accessible to visitors. Cantigny is replacing paths and building about 300 new parking spaces after years of growing attendance. About 367,000 people visited the park in 2016.

The project, privately funded by the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, also will plant hundreds of trees and install outdoor, energy-efficient lighting to allow the park to host evening events.

"We're anxious to open the park up to a whole new audience," Executive Director Matt LaFond said.

The first phase of construction - running through 2018 - is proceeding on schedule. The park will remain open during the project with temporary closures of some areas.

This year, Kaminsky and her staff are slated to recreate a functioning wetland around the shores of the pond that will be refilled by rain water and runoff from the roads and gardens. To expand the pond garden west of the Robert R. McCormick Museum, crews are relocating an employee parking lot further north.

Showy flowers - southern blue flag iris, pickerel weed, broad-leaved arrowhead, yellow marsh marigold - and grasses or grasslike plants - will take root. Wetland plants can take up or breakdown toxic elements or compounds through a process called phytoremediation, Cantigny horticulturists say. That means their selection of plants will help clean the water of heavy metals, petrochemicals and other hazards before returning to watersheds.

A new boardwalk and seating also will draw visitors closer to the edge of the pond. And a gazebo will move a short distance in the next few weeks. Fish were relocated to ponds at Cantigny Golf.

The newly designed pond garden could reopen late this year. In display gardens, horticulturists will put in shrubs throughout the fall to form a green backdrop for new flowers.

In spring 2018, 74 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.

That new feature is inspired by an allée, or walkway, lined with trees planted by Col. Robert McCormick, the famed Chicago Tribune publisher, outside his mansion, built in 1896 by his grandfather Joseph Medill.

McCormick fought in the Battle of Cantigny during World War I, returned home and renamed his estate after the French village.

On the opposite side of the park from the pond, First Division Museum is expected to reopen after a nearly yearlong, $8 million renovation Aug. 26. The museum also will mark the centennial of the Army's "Big Red One" during the unveiling celebration.

Cantigny to get $25M face-lift

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  A new platform awaits a gazebo that will sit in a redesigned pond garden at Cantigny Park. Bev Horne/
New native wetland plantings will border the pond to help clean the water. Courtesy of Cantigny Park
  New pathways are under construction near the First Division Museum, which is slated to reopen after a nearly yearlong renovation Aug. 26. Bev Horne/
Project New Leaf will redesign display gardens and update the grounds of Cantigny Park in Wheaton. Courtesy of Cantigny Park
  Crews are expanding the south parking lot at Cantigny Park in Wheaton. Bev Horne/
  Crews work Wednesday on the ecological pond garden - one of the highlights of the first phase of Project New Leaf at Cantigny Park in Wheaton. Bev Horne/
A Rockford-based nonprofit group, Kids Around the World, disassembled an old playground last month so it can be shipped and rebuilt overseas. Late this fall, Cantigny plans to open a new playground with an agricultural theme. Cantigny originally was known as Red Oaks Farm. Courtesy of Cantigny Park
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