We love historic homes, gardens and museums, and we especially love hearing about Midwest attractions where we have yet to go! Travel Writer Connie Reed shares one of her favorite places to explore in Wheaton, Illinois with Midwest Guest readers.
One of my favorite local outings is a visit to Cantigny Park, located just 30 miles west of Chicago in Wheaton, Illinois. The former estate of Robert R. McCormick operates as a public park, where visitors can stroll through 30 acres of meticulously kept gardens, tour the late McCormick’s mansion and visit the First Division Museum.
Touring the Mansion
Robert R. McCormick, president of Tribune Company and colonel in the Army’s First Infantry Division during World War I, inherited the Wheaton estate, which was then known as Red Oaks, from his grandfather, Joseph Medill. McCormick remodeled the farmhouse, adding two large wings and a brick façade, creating a 35-room mansion. He changed the name of the estate to Cantigny in honor of the Battle of Cantigny, in which he saw action during the war.
The mansion tour begins with an orientation film in the lower-level Art Deco-style Gold Theatre. The ceiling in the theater was originally coated in gold leaf. During the tour you see innovations like an electric dumb waiter and a gas-powered freezer, quite a luxury in the early 1900s. Twenty large ice cube trays made up to 688 ice cubes at a time, ensuring adequate ice for McCormick’s frequent parties, which included guests like Charles Lindbergh and Gloria Swanson.
McCormick, who was childless, established the Robert R. McCormick Charitable Trust through his will and designated Cantigny a public space for recreation and education.
First Division Museum
The First Division museum pays tribute to the First Infantry Division, the oldest division of the U.S. Army, in continuous service since it began in 1917. The self-guided tour takes you through interactive exhibits of all the wars the First Division was involved in, which includes all wars since World War I except the Korean War. You pass through the ruins of Cantigny, France, the beach at Normandy and jungles in Vietnam. Eleven tanks, ranging from an M1917 WWI Light Tank to an M1 Abrams Tank used in Desert Storm, stand on the grounds outside the museum.
During McCormick’s lifetime, there was an experimental farm on the estate. After his death, the focus was changed from agricultural to horticultural. Designed by landscape architect Franz Lipp, the gardens are among the largest in the Midwest and include more than 160,000 perennials, annuals, ground covers, shrubs and trees. The gardens run the gamut from formal to prairie, with most of the plants grown in an 18,500-square foot greenhouse on site. About a quarter million plants are propagated in the greenhouse every year, and gardens are updated seasonally.
If you go
Cantigny Park is located at 1S151 Winfield Road in Wheaton, Illinois. There is a fee for parking but no admission fee for the gardens, mansion or First Division Museum. Cantigny Park also includes a picnic area, a 27-hole championship golf course, and several dining options.
Connie Reed is a Midwest-based freelance travel writer who explores America's heartland and beyond. You can follow Connie on her Midwest Wanderer travel blog at http://www.midwestwanderer.com
Text and Photos © Connie Reed 2016. All rights reserved, used with permission