Wheaton's Memorial Park project is almost complete
The pandemic has stripped many summer traditions from the social calendar at Wheaton's oldest park.
But that doesn't mean there isn't a sense of anticipation for the moment when construction fencing comes down and the curtain lifts on a $5 million restoration of Memorial Park, a summer magnet and one of the city's most historically significant sites.
"There are a lot of people looking forward to the park opening back up," says Rob Sperl, a park district administrator overseeing the project.
With some finishing touches still left to do, the district expects to complete the park revitalization next month, nearly a century after purchasing the land from the Gary family.
On the same block stood the homes of Erastus Gary, one of Wheaton's founders, and his son, Judge Elbert H. Gary, a three-term city mayor, the co-founder of U.S. Steel Corp. and the namesake of Gary, Indiana.
The park district broke ground on the project last fall. Here's a look at the highlights:
If there wasn't a pandemic, maestro Bruce Moss would be preparing to strike up Wheaton Municipal Band summer concerts from a new band shell.
"We're all very disappointed that we can't be on the stage this year," said Gail Sonkin, vice president of the ensemble now streaming concerts online Thursday nights. "We're still hoping for a couple concerts in August, but I'm not sure that's going to happen."
Crews demolished the 1950s-era original band shell and a tennis court to place the new structure slightly to the west toward the corner of Wheaton and Karlskoga avenues. The stage now has a footprint of about 2,400 square feet.
"From afar, it looks pretty amazing, but we're anxious to actually see it on the stage," Sonkin said.
More than 300 seats will be installed on the concrete pad in front of the stage during the season. The park district expects the seats to be delivered in mid-July.
"Our crews will set them up to make sure everything fits as expected, and then we will store off-site," Sperl said via email Thursday.
The park district also expects the construction fencing will come down toward mid-July.
"As long as we are unable to program the band shell due to COVID, we are going to give the turf as much time as possible to become established before allowing people on it," said Sperl, director of parks and planning.
Contractors still have to install a new sound system and cross off a few "punch list" items.
"From what we can hear so far, the acoustics are much better than the old one," Sperl said.
A park fixture, the bronze "Doughboy" statue has moved to a more prominent position standing guard in the center of a war memorial. First dedicated in 1929, the bronze sculpture of a World War I infantryman was a donation from veterans groups.
The linear space also consists of a timeline honoring those who have served, starting with the American Revolution from 1775 to 1783.
"The previous memorials had been a little disconnected throughout the park," Sperl said. "The new design pulled everything together in a comfortable area with a unique timeline tying Wheaton's past to the conflicts throughout the world."
An expanded, raised terrace on the south side of the Mary Lubko Center provides a "very impressive" view of the band shell and the park, Sperl said.
Built in 1888, the Mary Lubko Center is the old coach house Judge Elbert Gary used for his horses and carriages.
The park district staff also replaced parking lot plantings with a mix of evergreens and flowering plants.
Meanwhile, as the state moves into Phase 4 of the Restore Illinois reopening plan today, will the park district host an unveiling of the new-look Memorial Park?
"Phase 4 only allows gatherings of 50 people, which would not be adequate considering the large number of people looking forward to a grand opening," Sperl said. "As soon as we can, we look forward to a proper welcoming for this facility."