(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on August 1, 2009. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)
Colonel Robert R. McCormick was the publisher of the Chicago Tribune, but as a member of the Illinois National Guard he also served during WWI as an artillery officer with the First Infantry Division (the Big Red One). He fought in the Battle of Cantigny in 1918, and later named his 500 acre estate in Wheaton, Illinois, after the battle. The grounds were originally known as Red Oak Farm and McCormick used the farm as a showcase for experimental agricultural projects. But on his death in 1955, he left his fortune to establish a foundation with the purpose of maintaining the Cantigny grounds as a public park. At this time, its focus was changed from agriculture to landscape gardening, reflecting the alteration in the area from farmland to suburban development. Landscape architect Franz Lipp designed the gardens, which include the tomb of the Colonel and his first wife Amy. The mansion itself is now a museum.
The grounds are also the home of the official First Division Museum, and the lawn in front of the museum building is used to display over a dozen armored tanks from WWI and later periods. Children are free to climb and play on the tanks.
While the military museum is interesting and educational, this trip was dedicated to viewing the gardens. Cantigny is not a botanical garden. Although it sponsors some educational programs and workshops for local gardeners, it is primarily a pleasure garden where the public is encouraged to come and enjoy the grounds and the concerts that are held every week during the summer months. There are camping and picnic areas, and the museum also sponsors occasional historical war reenactments on the grounds.
The site features several informal garadens, with spacious lawns surrounded by trees or other features and plenty of benches situated so that visitors can sit and enjoy the views and the expansive vistas. Although there are many paths, people are free to wander across the grass and take a closer look at the flower beds or shrubs. Most plantings are labeled, if not always with the Latin taxonomic name.
Cantigny is also a memorial garden. The tomb where Colonel McCormick and his wife Amy are interred is named the Exedra, a design he selected himself as reflecting the architecture of ancienct Greece. It is an austere white marble semicircle shaded by Weeping Beech trees (Fagus sylvatica 'Pendula'), a place of quiet and contemplation. Benches invite visitors to sit and meditate. Nearby are terraces and a linked series of tranquil reflecting pools.
Cantigny offers a number of formal gardens as well as more informal plantings. These feature displays of both perennials and annuals, many of which are grown in the Cantigny greenhouse, which is not usually open to the public.
The Octagon Garden is a secluded paved area enclosed by hedges, with geometric flower beds that feature tulips in the spring, annuals from the greenhouse in summer, and crysanthemums in autumn. Benches invite visitors to relax and enjoy the displays. The Four Seasons garden also changes with the seasons, as symbolized by the statues of the Seasons in the niches of the black iron fence.
Inside the fence is a series of geometrically formal gardens designed in a series of concentric circles surrounding a venerable Burr Oak (Quercus macrocarpa). Many of these beds contain annuals at the peak of their seasonal bloom, grown by the Cantigny greenhouse. The displays are always changing, showcasing different varieties in different color combinations. Every visit to the gardens has something new to offer, with an emphasis on plants that will thrive in Midwestern gardens.
Here are a few of the flowers featured in the formal garden beds in mid-July.
Lantana 'Lucky Lemon Cream'
Zinnia 'Canary Yellow' Salvia splendens 'Salvador Purple' Salvia farinacea in mixed colors
The path leading from the upper formal gardens takes visitors to a large pond with its banks planted in perennials, most of them species native to the region. Visitors can cross a bridge over a small waterfall, then relax in the shade of a substantial grape arbor with abundant comfortable seating.
Monarda 'Raspberry Wine'
Achillea 'Lilac Beauty' Liatris spicata 'Kobold'
This is perhaps the most popular garden at Cantigny. Its beds hold over a thousand rose bushes of 55 varieties, grouped according to their flowering habit — Floribunda, Hybrid Tea, etc. The garden has recently been expanded, and there are now many more shrub roses than I recall from previous visits. Water flows from a fountain in the garden's center, and benches sit in the shade beneath the 130 foot pergola, which is not, surprisingly, covered in climbing roses. The Hybrid Tea rose 'Chicago Peace' was discovered at Cantigny.
Hybrid Tea 'Chicago Peace' Floribunda 'Julia Child'
Floribunda 'Livin' Easy'
This popular site is where Cantigny's gardeners create new displays to inspire area gardeners. The Children's Garden is also located here. The day I visited, the garden featured topiary dinosaurs, ornamental vegetables, a sensory garden, and a small pond with miniature waterlilies and a tiny bridge. Most of the displays are changed frequently, and the garden is always a scene of novelty and fun.
This is the newest of Cantigny's plantings, a three-acre prairie restoration where native plants flourish. The path winds through the prairie to a circular plaza with a statuary group representing the sacrifices of the military. Benches invite reflection and meditation in the natural setting, and the area is a habitat for native birds recognized by the Audubon Society.
Cantigny incorporates the unique vision of a single man, and the public is fortunate that he left this legacy as a gift to us all.
For further information, including hours of operation, see the Cantigny website.