New band shell, major redesign in store for Wheaton's oldest park
It's easy to turn back the clock when you step through an arched entrance into Wheaton's oldest park.
The city's municipal band, founded during the Great Depression, still strikes up its summer concert season in Memorial Park with a repertoire straight out of the American songbook from the stage of a 1950s-era band shell near downtown.
A bronze sculpture of a World War I soldier known as "The Doughboy" still stands guard in the park, as it has since 1929.
And then there's the old coach house of Judge Elbert Gary, son of Wheaton co-founder Erastus Gary.
Now, nearly a century after purchasing the Memorial Park site from the Gary family in 1921, the Wheaton Park District is preparing for a $5 million redevelopment project aimed at preserving the park's character while adding modern amenities.
Plans call for demolishing the original band shell and replacing it with a roughly $3.2 million Ravinia-style amphitheater with about 300 covered seats and a 2,958-square-foot stage. The district also intends to remove the tennis court due to declining popularity, allowing the new band shell to move slightly to the west at the corner of Wheaton and Karlskoga avenues.
The reconfiguration would increase the lawn area by about 20 percent to more than half an acre, providing more space for park users and concert goers who want to bring picnics.
"The idea is that we have our architects and engineers move forward with the final designs based on that concept, and if all goes well, we get out to bid with this project in the spring," said Rob Sperl, the district's director of parks and planning.
The park board's buildings and grounds subcommittee could next review the project -- expected to be fully funded by capital reserves -- at its Nov. 7 meeting. The district would not break ground until at least after the 2019 Taste of Wheaton, or Cream of Wheaton, if you prefer the original name of the four-day kickoff to summer in June.
Improving the park has long been on the district's radar, Sperl said. In 2016, it hired architects to develop conceptual plans and engaged focus groups.
Most of the feedback concerned future programming, landscaping and specific details of the design, Sperl said. With that input, the district last week unveiled plans at an open house.
The biggest change involves the band shell layout, Sperl said. In the latest drawings, restrooms and concessions sit in the rear corner of the structure at ground level. Previously, restrooms and concessions flanked the stage, raising the possibility that patrons waiting in line could distract from performances and interrupt sightlines.
The new band shell still would be named in honor of the late Art Sweet, who took the baton of the Wheaton Municipal Band in 1945 when the ensemble was performing out of the old city hall. Sweet helped raise the money to build the original band shell.
In place of the bench seating, the district is considering fixed seating or a combination of permanent and flexible seating, Sperl said.
Officials also may choose building materials similar to those used in an ongoing city streetscape project downtown or "do something a little bit different," Sperl said.
"We're starting to get into what is the feel, what are the specific fixtures that we use," he said. "We're still working through that at this point."
The yearlong project also would reconfigure paths and expand the raised terrace on the south side of the Mary Lubko Center, envisioned as a VIP area during special events and rentals.
Tributes to veterans now are scattered throughout the park but would be consolidated into a linear space memorializing different conflicts with interpretive signs, Sperl said.
It's too early to say what the project will mean for programming, Sperl said. As an extension of the downtown, Memorial Park hosts popular events -- Brew Fest, October Fest, Shakespeare in the Park productions -- in addition to the municipal band concerts.
The Downtown Wheaton Association, a group of shops and restaurants, is "very excited" about the proposed plans, Executive Director Paula Barrington said.
"The band shell design combined with the tiered seating will allow for a more enjoyable performance experience both entertainers and the audience," she said in an email. "The landscaped memorial garden will serve as a reflective and fitting tribute to our community's history.
"Overall, the improvements to Memorial Park will mark a new chapter for Wheaton and the park's next 100 years."