It is a seemingly odd juxtaposition, the grit and valor of war showcased amid sensational gardens that offer peace and serenity. Nicely sequestered from neighborhoods and traffic, pastoral Cantigny Park is a place unlike any other. It got more so, thanks to a nearly completed $60 million renovation.
The park’s 500 well-groomed acres include an informative interactive museum dedicated to the famed 1st Infantry Division, which stormed the beaches of Normandy on D-Day. A relatively new addition to the museum focuses on the division’s multiple post-Vietnam engagements.
Near the museum is another pleasing improvement, Butterfly Hill, the park’s highest point. From the hill you can see the giant butterfly-shaped flower bed on one of the park’s three 9-hole golf courses. The hill arose from the displaced soil from the construction done at Cantigny over the past five years. Project New Leaf is the park’s most extensive upgrade since opening in 1958.
To the north of the museum, still surrounded by scaffolding but set to re-open soon, is the historic McCormick House, built in 1896 for Joseph Medill, a co-owner of the Chicago Tribune. More famously, it became the rambling country estate of his powerful, swashbuckling grandson, Col. Robert McCormick, likewise the longtime publisher and editor of the Tribune.
Though our nation is awash in military sites, Cantigny was recognized a few years ago as one of the country’s top military destinations, alongside such noteworthy places as West Point and the National World War I Museum in Kansas City. But you would be hard-pressed to find any such site with nearly the same horticultural splendor. Cantigny’s 18 gardens, each distinctive and engaging, constitute one of the Midwest’s largest display gardens. The park’s extraordinary 18,000-sq-ft greenhouse produces most of the plants on the property including 160,000 annuals.
War and peace. The beauty of nature and the wiles of man — a formidable man who through his newspaper left his considerable imprint on 20th-century America. In our own backyard, Cantigny is a world-class amalgam, strands of who we are, what we value and how we have persevered.
“I don’t think there is any other place like it,” says Matt LaFond, the park’s executive director for 15 years. “If you love nature, if you love history — there is something for everyone here.”
LaFond’s lifelong enchantment with the park suggests its allure. He visited the park as a boy, dreamt of working here and never left after he drove here the day of his college graduation for his first day of work 33 years ago.
Cantigny is hardly a secret or hidden gem to west suburbanites. It expects to draw 400,000 visitors this year, most from a 15-mile radius. Generations of schoolkids have trekked here with teachers or parents. Veterans flock to the museum. Scholars hunker down in the museum’s vast military affairs library. Concerts and guest speakers and authors, often talking on military history, draw crowds.
The war to end all wars, the original impetus for Cantigny as a park, grows ever distant. So many other wars have come and gone since. But Cantigny remains ever relevant, and it has been, if not reinterpreted, certainly revitalized.
INSPIRED BY TRIUMPH
Outside the Visitors Center is a mounted World War I doughboy, the park’s first attraction. The statue is memorable. The soldier’s eyes peer forward, and he grips his gun intently. He accomplished his mission. As explained on the base of the statue, the Army’s 1st Infantry Division “seized and defended Cantigny, proving the worth of the American soldier and bolstering Allied morale at a critical time.”
The French town was the site of America’s first victory in World War I. McCormick was the commander of the 1st Battalion at the battle. Fiercely patriotic, he cherished his service as central to his identity and indicative of American resolve and strength. Medill called his 108-acre parcel Red Oaks Farm. But McCormick proudly renamed the estate Cantigny (pronounced can-tee-nee) after returning home.
McCormick was a staunch Republican whose unyielding conservatism did not endear himself to all Americans. A Presidential aspirant, he also was in some ways a quintessential American, dogged in growing his business — the Tribune — and expanding its influence. He was quick to avail himself of the latest technologies and new and better ways of doing things. He flew a plane from an airstrip on his land to Meigs Field to get to the Tribune Tower in Chicago, and his estate was an experimental farm where new plants and theories on planting were tested.
When McCormick died in 1955, his will established the Robert McCormick Charitable Trust and stipulated that his estate and home be a “public space for education and recreation.” Cantigny is overseen by the foundation, which funded Project New Leaf. Admission to the park is a scant $5 ($10 on summer weekends) with some free days, and veterans and active military who join the Cantigny Honor Club pay nothing.
Noted landscape architect Franz Lipp originally designed the gardens in the 1960s. His plan reflected a decisive shift of focus at Cantigny from agriculture to horticulture, not a surprise given DuPage County’s ongoing transformation even then from rural to suburban.
While in part a tribute to the past, Cantigny is anything but a stuffy, stay-off-the lawn park. In the Visitors Center, under glass beneath the floor, is a subterranean diorama of the park complete with little fake green trees. Children often unconsciously sprawl on the glass to get a better view.
Children also freely clamber on the 11 vintage tanks in front of the museum or dip their toes in a garden pond. “There’s a fine line here,” says Scott Witte, director of horticulture. “We don’t want kids trampling the flower beds. But they can play on the lawn.”
The Idea Garden exemplifies the easygoing ambience of the park. This quirky one-acre space is a hotbed of experimentation, meant to encourage home gardeners to be inventive. Today a bed of plants wilt and sag. A temporary sign reads: “These plants look sad. But that’s OK! This trial of snapdragon and stocks lets us see if certain varieties are up to snuff!! Don’t be afraid to try new things!”
A powerful man in his own right, Joe Medill could say of Abe Lincoln, “I knew him back when.” One of the mansion’s most treasured artifacts is a displayed Tribune subscription order from “A. Lincoln.” Also on hand is a letter to the editor written by the well-informed Illinois politician.
Medill and Lincoln became fast friends. Unlike Lincoln, Medill’s home was no log cabin. And McCormick added an east and west wing, partly modeled on the White House. The stately red-brick building eventually contained 30,000 square feet and 35 rooms. But still it’s no Versailles. Some visitors find it Midwesternly modest, a large, well-appointed home that is not gaudy or ostentatious.
Not that the home does not have special touches. The colonel hosted large parties for luminaries, and he never ran out of ice. The kitchen includes an ice maker, custom-ordered from General Electric, that made 688 ice cubes. In the basement, highly unusual for the time, is a large-screen movie theater.
McCormick’s pride in his nation is evident in his library, stocked with 5,000 books and more than a few written by Americans. (As a schoolboy in England, McCormick annoyed his British classmates by draping an American flag over himself when sleeping.) Among them is a first edition Tom Sawyer, signed by Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain, of course). Also displayed is the newspaperman’s imposing Italian marble desk from the Tribune Tower.
Some of the work on the mansion has been structural, improving or shoring up the infrastructure such as plumbing. But improvements also include new exhibits and a self-guided tour option.
Near the museum is a solemn Exedra, a semicircular ancient Greek-inspired memorial where McCormick was laid to rest near his first wife, Amy, who died 16 years before him. (His second wife, Maryland Mathison Hooper McCormick, outlived the colonel by 30 years and opted for Graceland Cemetery in Chicago.) Indicative of his love for animals, two massive stone dog statues lay aside the tombs.
Maybe at home you lovingly tend a garden, which artfully (or perhaps not so artfully) presents a variety of plants. At Cantigny, various types of gardens, each of them with its own theme, topography and purposeful mix of plants, form a rich tapestry of nature’s leafy, colorful bounty. The 18 gardens cover 30 acres, and one leads to another. “A garden is just a way of experiencing outdoor space,” says Witte. “What we have here is like a series of rooms or corridors.”
One of the most distinctive gardens is modeled after Victorian England’s stumpery gardens, which highlight fallen trees and root flares. Cantigny’s Logarium has tree trunks, stumps and limbs taken from the grounds. The result is a well-ordered wild place, charming in its idiosyncrasy.
A boardwalk and gazebo are part of the Gold Pond, which features more than 12,000 native aquatic plants. Form follows function. The vegetation lines the edge of a functional waterscape that cleans and regulates stormwater.
A common site for the numerous wedding ceremonies at Cantigny, the Rose Garden includes 50 varieties of the popular flower. Look for the Chicago Peace Rose, a glowing pink flower with a butter-yellow heart. The flower was discovered on the estate. You can’t possibly miss the fan-shaped, 250-year-old bur oak that protectively hovers over the area.
Inspired by Sissinghurst Castle Garden in England, one of Europe’s most famous gardens, the White Garden brilliantly showcases white flowers, which are complemented, not overshadowed, by pale vegetation. (Yes, it’s like at a wedding — don’t upstage the bride.) The cute “lighthouse” towers are crowned with bird houses and stone birdbaths.
Speaking of winged creatures, Cantigny is a birder’s paradise. Exactly 188 different kinds of birds have been sighted at the park through the years including such wonders as a black-billed cuckoo, a scarlet tanager and a yellow-bellied sapsucker. Park officials regularly scan the skies and trees to catalog a daily tally. A recent spring day logged 47 kinds of birds.
Another gesture of appreciation to the bird kingdom is the Chimney Swift Tower, a nesting spot for the chimney swift bird, attracted to artificial structures. The tower is in the Prairie View section.
Near the Visitors Center and hard to miss because of its shooting water is the Fountain Garden. Eight magnificent Merrill Magnolias bloom spectacularly in the spring. But the stars of the space are the robust fountain jets, which burst forth in patterns of varying intensity. The spray is illuminated in the evening.
New in 2019 was the hardy Rock Garden/Gravel Garden, a spectacle of 250 plant varieties creeping over and through crevices, ledges and gravel. The plants include sun-soaking cacti such as the Eastern Prickly Pear, shade-loving ferns and dwarf hostas. Turning a garden stroll into an immersive experience, the paths lead visitors through the space instead of around the edges.
Project New Leaf enhanced the overall experience of visiting the gardens by opening up the sightlines and making them more accessible. The grades of paths were reduced, and neat brick replaced messy asphalt. Some renovated gardens were reopened as long as four years ago while others, including new ones, have been rolled out in the past few years.
FIRST DIVISION MUSEUM
Notwithstanding the park’s gardens, walking paths, playground, golf courses, concert bandshell and other attractions, the First Division Museum is the raison d’etre of Cantigny. It commemorates the Big Red One, literally the first division of the U.S. Army. The name came from the patch with a red numeral on an olive-green background worn on the unit’s uniforms.
The division was assembled to fight in France in 1917, and a French artillery piece inside the front doors of the museum is testament to its historic role.
The large, menacing weapon is dubbed the First Shot. The then poorly equipped Americans had to borrow from the French, hence the 75 mm gun was the first salvo let loose by U.S. soldiers on European soil, a grim foreshadowing of an even deadlier world war to come.
First Infantry soldiers are best-known for their heroism on D-Day in WWII, which began the liberation of Europe from Nazi control. More than 14,000 soldiers of the 34,000 who landed under fierce gunfire at Normandy were from the division.
The museum first opened in 1960 in what is now the Visitors Center. The current museum, opened in 1992, does more than display the artifacts of war such as guns, helmets and uniforms and placards that offer historical context. The older part of the museum offers a you-are-there experience. Visitors walk through a World War I trench, onto a simulated Omaha Beach, complete with bluffs, barbed wire and a German pillbox, and through the dense jungles of Vietnam. Rambunctious schoolchildren often quiet down as the gravity of war overtakes and subdues them.
“I think nine out of 10 kids leave with their apertures more open. It’s an immersive experience, and they learn so much,” says Krewasky Salter, a retired colonel and former executive director of the museum. The museum does not glorify war but instead honors the service of the soldiers, he adds.
You can spend hours closely looking at each artifact. But especially worth noting are a World War I soldier’s gun with eight notches, one for each German soldier he killed; a restored oversized pocket watch of a World War II soldier from Elgin that saved his life by absorbing a spray of shrapnel; and a 16 mm film shot by infantryman Sam Fuller in Falkenau, Czechoslovakia. He documented the dignified burial of Holocaust victims by villagers as ordered by stunned and angry U.S. commanders. A Hollywood screenwriter, Fuller also directed the epic World War II film “The Big Red One,” his homage to his division.
Coinciding with the centennial of the formation of the First Division, the museum’s grand reopening in 2017 unveiled the gallery with the unit’s post-Vietnam history. Short filmed interviews document the impact of war. “A military museum is not just about war. It should show how it impacted soldiers as people — as fathers and mothers. Fathers and mothers left their children behind,” says Salter.
Among the highlights of the new hall is the Medal of Honor of 19-year-old Private Ross McGinnis, who threw himself on a live grenade to save the lives of four comrades. His parents, residents of a small town in Pennsylvania, donated the medal to the museum to keep his memory alive.
Also noteworthy is the audio actually spoken by soldiers engaged in a fierce battle of the Gulf War as well as a 10-ft slab of the Berlin Wall. Outside the museum are damaged beams from the Twin Towers, salvaged from the Sept. 11 terror attack.
Over the years, Cantigny has changed and moved ahead, but it has kept to its mission. “I think Colonel McCormick would be very pleased with what we’ve done here,” says LaFond. “We’ve stayed true to his legacy and vision of community service.”