Cantigny Park re-imagines serene gardens in second stage of major project
At the east end of Wheaton's Cantigny Park is one of its most natural landscapes: A sweeping prairie bordered by woodlands.
Even with its quiet expanse, the prairie was more of a backdrop for Cantigny visitors who first studied the formal rose garden and then its eccentric neighbor, the Idea Garden, a corner of the park where yellow flowers grow into smiley faces and charming displays that actually seem attainable for home gardeners.
But a major redesign of the suburban getaway will re-imagine the prairie as a showpiece visible as soon as you enter the grounds from the Visitors Center at the other end of the 500-acre park at 1S151 Winfield Road.
The prairie's restoration is one of the key features of the second stage of Project New Leaf, launched in 2017 as a five-year, campuswide revitalization of Cantigny's main attractions: the gardens, a military museum and the former residence of the park's benefactor. The first two phases are expected to cost up to a combined $30 million.
Construction this summer and into 2020 will be less intrusive than the initial phase, but still transformative. Here's a look.
'A fantastic view'
The prairie will come into view looking east from behind the Visitors Center, through a new fountain garden and a replanted allée to the south of the McCormick House, the former mansion of the legendary Chicago Tribune publisher Robert R. McCormick, whose namesake foundation is funding Project New Leaf.
"We're opening up that vista, so you're going to have a fantastic view from the Visitors Center all the way down through Prairie View," Cantigny Executive Director Matt Lafond said.
A new path will run from the Visitors Center to a pergola overlooking the prairie, restored from a tall-grass version to one inspired by the work of landscape architect Jens Jensen, who left his mark on the Chicago parks system.
In a reflection point at the base of the sloping prairie, the "Spirit of Commitment" sculpture will be moved to a spot near the First Division Museum.
Sedges and other grasses won't get much taller than waist high in a swath of prairie about 100 feet wide. A perimeter of flowering trees will be planted along reforested woodland on either side of the prairie.
The lawn facing the prairie also will be used for weddings.
In 2009, the park introduced an interactive water feature -- a series of bubbler jets -- replacing a historic fountain in a heavily shaded garden behind the Visitors Center.
A new fountain will closely resemble the original one in Franz Lipp's design, Lafond said. Lipp was the landscape architect at Cantigny in the 1960s and '70s and at the University of Notre Dame.
"What I'm most excited about is getting the traditional-style fountain back, because I think it will be a focal point for many for generations to come," said Scott Witte, Cantigny's horticulture director.
As Project New Leaf opens up the landscape, finding your way around will be easier, especially on paths that improve wheelchair and stroller accessibility.
But there's still a sense of discovery and seclusion in the octagon garden -- as close as you can get to a secret garden at a public institution. Hedges form the eight sides and create a room-like effect for the display of annuals.
A path under a vine trellis -- replacing a weeping crabapple tree in the center of the octagon -- will provide a north-south connection.
Witte says the crabapple, a visitor favorite, will be moved closer to the Idea Garden.
In a new look for this garden, stone, ledges and well-drained soil will suit alpine plants found in high elevations. A "unique combination" of rock garden staples will mix with well-known perennials and natives in one of Cantigny's room-like gardens, senior horticulturist Samantha Peckham said.
"Once you enter the rock garden, it will be something unlike anywhere else on the property ... It should be a really neat component that really utilizes that area of the gardens more so than it had ever been before," Witte said.
To the south of his mansion, McCormick planted an allée, an appropriately imposing entrance to the residence of a mustachioed Army colonel. Parallel rows of 34 mature trees line the avenue leading to Cantigny's collection of armored tanks.
There's only one survivor left in the McCormick series, an American elm that horticulturists have protected from disease and other perils.
That lone soldier will remain at the end of one run, but the maple trees will be removed to make way for a new allée.
"When the first American elms perished, soft maples were put in," Witte said. "They're very messy, and they fall apart."
Planted in their place? London planetrees, belonging to the sycamore family and known for revealing white inner bark.
"We elected to go with what we thought was a durable and reliable, shapely tree with visual intrigue and a nice bark, but also that has a pyramid shape that was desirable for an allée," Witte said.
The third and final phase of Project New Leaf will focus on the interior of the McCormick House -- built in 1896 -- and its landscape. No final decisions on the future use of the house have been made yet, Lafond said.
"We're still working on the final design of the interior," he said.
Traditionalists will be happy to know that while the popular Idea Garden will be closed this summer, it largely will be left untouched.
"We'll make some small improvements, but we really like it the way it is and so do our visitors," Lafond said.
Cantigny will remain open during the project, and there's still plenty of floral eye candy to enjoy. The reopening of the display gardens last July helped boost total park attendance in 2018 -- up 14 percent to about 321,000 visitors. Cantigny leaders expect the park's popularity to grow this year with a full schedule of events.
It may take a while for the Cantigny's new gardens to mature, but horticulturists are optimistic.
"We always say the first year some of these plants go in, that's when they kind of sleep, and then the second season, they begin to creep, and third season, they leap," Witte said. "But we're hoping that just because of how good an establishment some of the newer plantings got last year they'll even begin to leap this year, perhaps even a season early."
Cantigny's Project New LeafDesign team: Sasaki Associates Inc., with offices in Boston and Shanghai, China
Construction management: Downers Grove-based Featherstone Inc.
Scope: The project's second phase started last week and focuses on the east side of Cantigny Park. That work should conclude in September 2020.