7 things to see at Cantigny Park as 'Project New Leaf' transforms campus

Before you do anything else at Cantigny Park next summer, first make your way to a new flight of stairs at the edge of a pond on the north side of the suburban getaway.

It's easy to be overwhelmed by all the changes around the 500-acre retreat as the Wheaton campus undergoes a $25 million redesign that will take at least five years to complete.

But stand on the last step of those stone stairs, almost flush with the water. It's a perfect spot to unwind before taking in the new-look gardens that will reopen in July.

Here's a look at seven other places to revisit as the first stage of Project New Leaf transforms Cantigny.

1. Pond garden

Cantigny has restored a pond that only a few months ago was drained of its water. The pond has doubled in size and now serves a functional purpose for the park.

Horticulturists have planted more than 10,000 wetland plugs to help clean the water of any hazards and improve the aquatic habitat.

They also have planted red twig dogwoods and shade trees around the pond west of the former mansion of Col. Robert McCormick, the legendary Chicago Tribune publisher who fought in the Battle of Cantigny during World War I, returned home and renamed his estate after the French village.

As they grow, larger shade trees will screen out a segment of Roosevelt Road.

“You'll really be nestled within the park, said Joy Kaminsky, Cantigny's horticulture director.

But the project has opened up panoramic views of the historic McCormick mansion and display gardens for visitors walking the perimeter of the pond on new trails and a boardwalk.

2. Display gardens

Cantigny is introducing new themes to the garden beds arranged in a circular layout northeast of the Visitors Center. Horticulturists will plant white, annual and pollinator gardens in addition to a display of native grasses.

A wood bench will wrap around the trunk of a towering bur oak tree. And because the tree sits in the center of the gardens, the bench is a good spot for surveying the new landscape.

Expect to see “big, bright, bold color” in the selection of annuals, Kaminsky said.

3. Rose garden

In early summer, roses also will be planted near the Visitors Center. In between the rose beds are new paths, each with a unique stone pattern.

4. Lower garden

The “Four Season” statues that used to face the McCormick mansion now look toward the lower garden that will feature colorful annuals. The sculptures were brought to Cantigny from McCormick's Chicago residence on Astor Street.

With an eye toward accessibility, Cantigny has added another ramp to connect the upper and lower gardens. As part of Project New Leaf, new trails throughout the park also will be made accessible to visitors who use wheelchairs and strollers.

“Now everyone can get to the gardens easier, and that's really what we wanted to focus on in this project,” Kaminsky said.

5. Visitors Center

Interior renovations are slated to wrap up by March. Crews will update the paint throughout the Visitors Center and build a vestibule with a coat room for the Le Jardin restaurant. New flooring and counters also are coming to Le Jardin and Bertie's Coffee Shop.

The remodel means the Visitors Center won't be able to host the popular Northern Illinois Lego Train Club show, traditionally held every December. But Cantigny Executive Director Matt LaFond said he fully expects the show to return in 2018.

6. And just outside the Visitors Center …

As a tribute to McCormick, Cantigny will create a new allée, or walkway, to echo the one lined with American elm trees that the colonel planted in front of his mansion.

The new colonnade of red oak trees will start outside the Visitors Center and end a short distance from the base of Butterfly Hill, a new summit that will open in fall 2018 looking onto Cantigny's neighboring golf course.

The 3- to 4-inch caliper red oak trees — 73 total — will be planted early next spring.

“We really looked at the branch collar for those so that there will be an immediate visual impact as you look down the colonnade,” Kaminsky said.

7. Bigger playground

An elaborate playground will be installed in the second week of December by a new picnic pavilion near the entrance to the park.

The footprint is nearly three times the size of the previous playground. And the manufacturer is Daniels Wood Land, a California-based company that built the playground at Blackberry Farm in Aurora and has created sets for movie studios.

Cantigny plans to unveil the Red Oaks Farm playground — a nod to the estate's name from 1896 until 1919 — in May.

Cantigny to get $25M face-lift

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

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

A look ahead to next phase of Project New Leaf at Cantigny Park

A new board walk and trails surround a pond near the historic mansion on the grounds of Cantigny Park. Courtesy of Cantigny Park
Through a pruning process called pollarding, trees will be shaped into cubes, adding an architectural element shown in this rendering of Cantigny Park gardens. The trees already have been planted, but it could take five to seven years to create the "distinctive" shapes, said Joy Kaminsky, Cantigny's horticulture director. Courtesy of Cantigny Park
New stairs lead to the edge of a pond that has doubled in size. "We wanted to make the accessibility to water much easier," said Joy Kaminsky, Cantigny's horticulture director. Courtesy of Cantigny Park
Climbing plants will grow on steel trellises in Cantigny's new-look gardens. Courtesy of Cantigny Park
Project New Leaf will update display gardens and the rest of the grounds of Cantigny Park in Wheaton. Courtesy of Cantigny Park
A colonnade of seven different species of red oak trees will run from the front of the Visitors Center south to the First Division Museum. Courtesy of Cantigny Park
A new picnic pavilion sits by the site where a playground will be installed in early December near the entrance of Cantigny Park. Courtesy of Cantigny Park
The pavilion offers shade for visitors bringing a picnic to Cantigny Park in Wheaton. Courtesy of Cantigny Park
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