Seeing with truer colors: Cantigny Park offers special glasses for red-green colorblind visitors

A spring garden at Cantigny Park in Wheaton makes a colorful statement with a regal shade of burgundy.

But through the eyes of George Tenne, the blooming snapdragons blend into the background, their wine-hued flowers lost in a sea of foliage.

Tenne, 78, is colorblind. More precisely, he has difficulty distinguishing between reds and greens.

So imagine his surprise when he put on a special pair of glasses, and the burgundy-red flowers popped. Seeing the garden in all its splendor, Tenne says, was sort of like the moment “The Wizard of Oz” switched from black-and-white to Technicolor.

“It's like, 'Wow, somebody just really put color in this picture,'” Tenne said.

Cantigny Park is the first public venue in the suburbs to carry glasses made by a California company called EnChroma for people who have red-green colorblindness. The Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago is the only other institution in the region that offers the eyewear to colorblind visitors.

The glasses are not a cure for colorblindness, but the company says the lenses are designed with optical filters to help people see certain colors more distinctly and vibrantly.

The effects can vary, depending on the type and severity of the color vision deficiency, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology. Complete colorblindness is very rare, which is why experts use the latter term.

The condition is typically inherited and more common in men, resulting from defects in the color-detecting cone cells of the retina.

Viral videos have shown people overwhelmed with emotion after wearing the EnChroma glasses for the first time.

Tenne's reaction wasn't so dramatic, but colors that would otherwise fall flat became more enhanced.

“It just made me realize this is a new world, and a world that I wouldn't have ever seen if I didn't have these glasses on,” the Glen Ellyn man said.

'A more vibrant world'

The back story of the glasses starts with an unexpected discovery.

EnChroma co-founder Don McPherson had invented glasses to protect the eyes of surgeons from lasers and help them differentiate tissues while operating.

McPherson was playing in an Ultimate Frisbee tournament when one of his teammates asked if he could try out the safety glasses. Turns out the man, who was colorblind, could see the orange cones on the green field.

After some research and grant funding, McPherson helped launch the company about a decade ago. The original EnChroma glasses used rare earth metals and sold for a hefty $700.

The glasses are now produced with polycarbonate and retail for up to about $350 for adults. A version with lenses geared toward kids costs $189.

State parks, libraries, museums and other organizations can purchase EnChroma glasses at discounted rates to make their collections and art exhibits more accessible.

“The museums have been reporting they've been averaging about 20 people a week, pre-COVID, coming just to try the glasses,” EnChroma spokesman Kent Streeb said.

Alicia Catalano, Cantigny's membership and retail operations manager, learned about the glasses during a virtual conference for museums and worked to bring the eyewear in time for the spring colors in the formal gardens.

Six pairs are now available at the information kiosk inside Cantigny's Visitors Center. Guests can borrow the glasses on a first-come, first-served basis, but a $75 deposit is required.

“I hope it leaves people with a more vibrant world that they see, especially at Cantigny,” Catalano said. “People who have tried the glasses on, they notice the difference, it makes what they see more enhanced.”

Seeing red

Tenne is retired from the advertising business. For part of his career, he'd work around his colorblindness by relying on his colleagues' advice proofing magazine ads.

“I started to learn to become very diplomatic and ask people a lot what their opinions were,” the New York native said.

For the last decade or so, Tenne has volunteered in Cantigny's military museum and as a park ambassador directing visitors around the 500-acre former estate of Col. Robert R. McCormick.

Tenne always enjoyed the gardens, but wearing the glasses is a “whole different experience.”

The snapdragons, especially, jumped out.

“Plus, the glasses are kind of cool,” he said. “You start looking like a rock star with them on.”

Two different views of Cantigny Park's tulips. Courtesy of EnChroma
  George Tenne, a volunteer at Cantigny Park in Wheaton, wears glasses made for people who, like him, are red-green colorblind. "The red almost disappears, and the green takes over with me, my normal vision, unless it's a really obvious red," he said. Mark Welsh/
  "It's so much clearer than what I anticipated, seeing the difference," said Christopher Pieters of Lisle, who works at Cantigny Park and tested the EnChroma glasses. Mark Welsh/
  "With and without these glasses changes everything," said George Tenne, a Cantigny Park volunteer who recently tried out the EnChroma glasses. Mark Welsh/
An image shows how flowers appear to those with normal color vision and those without. Courtesy of EnChroma
Glasses made by EnChroma are designed to make colors more vibrant, saturated and distinct, a company spokesman said. Courtesy of EnChroma
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