What's next at Cantigny Park? Massive redesign of gardens, campus

At the top of a hill in a quiet corner of Wheaton's Cantigny Park is a captivating scene.

Face south, and you can take in the views of Cantigny's neighboring golf course. Your eye naturally draws to the manicured par 4 hole, where flowers are planted in the shape of a butterfly.

And so Cantigny is naming the summit "Butterfly Hill." When the area publicly opens in fall 2018, visitors will hike a short trail among wildflowers and prairie grasses. Bur oak trees will provide just enough shade to take in a new landscape around Cantigny's grounds.

"I think it's going to be a real focus of the park," Executive Director Matt LaFond said. "The neat thing is it's new."

Cantigny is in the midst of the first phase of a $25 million transformation that could take five to seven years. Park officials announced "Project New Leaf" in February as the "largest comprehensive" redesign of its gardens and museums since the campus opened in Wheaton in July 1958.

Construction crews have repurposed the extra dirt from moving earth in the gardens to create Butterfly Hill behind the newly renovated First Division Museum.

"A lot of time visitors don't realize we have a golf course, and golfers don't realize what's over here," LaFond said. "We've opened up this vista."

  Cantigny Park Executive Director Matt LaFond looks over designs with Horticulture Director Joy Kaminsky in an ecological pond garden under construction at the Wheaton campus. Bev Horne/

The museum will reopen Saturday after a nearly yearlong renovation of its exhibits dedicated to the Army's 1st infantry Division. Major changes are taking shape around the 500-acre retreat, but the emphasis will turn to the rest of the park now that the museum renovation is complete.

Here's a look at the other additions coming to Cantigny ...

Beauty and function

Cantigny's horticulturists are known for growing beautiful annuals in the park's greenhouse. Last fall, they took on a new challenge that tested their expertise: nurturing more than 10,000 water plugs from seed.

"We've never done it before, and we were very successful," said Joy Kaminsky, Cantigny's horticulture director.

  Cantigny Park horticulturists grew more than 10,000 wetland plugs in their greenhouse. Bev Horne/

The native plants will form an ecological garden around a pond that will double in size west of the Robert R. McCormick Museum.

Showy flowers - southern blue flag iris, pickerel weed, broad-leaved arrowhead, yellow marsh marigold - and grasses or grasslike plants - will take root. That selection of plants will help clean the water of hazards and improve the aquatic habitat.

  A new boardwalk will draw Cantigny visitors closer to the edge of a pond that will be refilled by rains and stormwater. Bev Horne/

A new boardwalk and seating also will draw visitors closer to the edge of the pond. And they will get clearer views of the historic McCormick mansion and display gardens.

"We want to create spaces that are beautiful to look at as well as functional," Kaminsky said.

On the south side of the campus, more than 40,000 native wetland plugs already have been planted in a basin that will hold stormwater. The site, along an expanded south parking lot, previously was overgrown. But hiking trails will let visitors walk along the wetland's edge.

  Thousands of wetland plugs have been planted to create an aquatic habitat that will also store stormwater in the south side of the park. Bev Horne/

"This is basically an area that visitors never really saw before because it was just a bunch of buckthorn and heavy growth," LaFond said. "Now it's been all cleared out for water detention."

Honoring history

In tribute to Cantigny's storied past, a colonnade of Red Oak trees will be planted in front of the Visitor Center, ending a short distance from the base of Butterfly Hill.

The former estate of Col. Robert McCormick, Cantigny was originally known as Red Oaks Farm. McCormick had fought in the Battle of Cantigny during World War I, returned home and renamed the grounds after the French village.

A colonnade of red oak trees will run from the front of the Visitor Center south to the First Division Museum. Courtesy of Cantigny Park

Outside his mansion, McCormick, the Chicago Tribune publisher, put in an allée, or walkway, lined with American elm trees.

As part of Project New Leaf, privately funded by the Robert McCormick Foundation, the new colonnade will re-create his planting with a mix of red oak species.

"We're really proud of the diversity that we put in this oak planting and we hope for success," Kaminsky said. "It should be beautiful."

Cantigny to get $25M face-lift

How ‘Project New Leaf’ is unfolding at Cantigny Park in Wheaton

First Division Museum reopening Meet the key players It took teamwork to complete Cantigny’s signature museum renovation

Cantigny museum chronicles modern missions of Army’s oldest division

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