Personal History: Behind a $25 Million Pledge to a Local Park

Our recent coverage of the Robert R. McCormick Foundation has touched on a wide range of funding areas in Chicago and beyond, including early childhood education, veterans, journalism and violence prevention. But what we haven't heard much about is McCormick funding of local parks.

Which is why a $25 million commitment in this area really caught our attention.  

The foundation recently announced its five-year revitalization plan for Cantigny Park in suburban Wheaton. Although there are hundreds of parks and gardens in the city of Chicago and surrounding suburbs, this particular one holds a special place in McCormick’s world. That’s because Robert R. McCormick loved this place, spending summers here with his grandfather while pursuing leisurely passions like horseback riding, experimental farming and writing. McCormick surrounded himself here with a huge library of history books, which he pored over to learn about military science and First Amendment rights. He renamed the property Cantigny in remembrance of the World War I battle in France, where he commanded an artillery battalion.  

When McCormick passed away in 1955, he designated Cantigny as a public space for recreation and education in his will. It's not surprising that the McCormick Foundation would step up in a big way to burnish this legacy, and in doing so, it's offering a reminder that quite a bit of parks philanthropy has a personal connection. We've written about donors who give for parks where they spent time as a kid or which are close to their homes. Of course, many wealthy Americans have set aside personal estates or land holdings that are turned into parks, often with ongoing philanthropic support. 

The new $25 million initiative is called Project New Leaf, and it involves landscape changes, new and enhanced garden plantings, building a new pavilion, and parking lot upgrades. This is also home to the First Division Museum, a military history museum, which is being renovated with $7 million of McCormick’s money. Another use of the funds is to improve the structure of the McCormick House and add new exhibits.  

Are all these park upgrades the best use of McCormick funds? And is $25 million too much for just one park among hundreds of others? The McCormick board and staff doesn’t seem to look at it that way. In fact, McCormick is pitching this plan as an “investment in the community” and a way to better serve the nearly 400,000 people who visit Cantigny Park each year.

“Our purpose is clear and simple: to make this special place even better for current visitors, their children and their grandchildren,” said McCormick’s president and CEO, David Hiller. “This project is transformational, and a long-term investment in the community.”

Some key features that McCormick has in mind with this grant are improved safety and convenience, more trees and plants, more educational and historical artifacts, and the addition of digital technology. There’s also a push to educate younger generations of Chicagoans and visitors about Colonel Robert R. McCormick’s legacy, and making that story relevant in modern times.

Planning for this project began back in 2014, so this has been a long time coming. In the scheme of things, very few of McCormick’s grantmaking dollars go to Cantigny Park. But a big, public commitment like this always does cause a bit of a shakeup. 

The contractor will break ground on the project in April, and it’s expected to wrap up in 2021. Meanwhile, the park will remain open to the public, as well as for weddings and other special events, during construction. To learn more, you can view some artist renderings of the proposed renovations here.