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Gillson Park: A Historic Lakefront Gem in Wilmette

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Gillson Park is a 60-acre park located on the shore of Lake Michigan in Wilmette, Illinois. The park offers a variety of recreational amenities, including swimming and sailing beaches, a dog beach, picnic and play areas, a native bird habitat, and a historic outdoor venue called Wallace Bowl. The park is also known for its beautiful natural landscape. It features curvilinear drives, lawns edged by informal groupings of trees and shrubs, and distinctive stonework, such as a council ring and stratified stone walls and steps.

The Origins of Gillson Park

Gillson Park was created over a century ago for an ambitious engineering project. In the early 1900s, Col. Robert R. McCormick, President of the Chicago Sanitary District, began spearheading the development of the North Shore Channel. This drainage canal would link the North Branch of the Chicago River to Lake Michigan. This project involved excavating and dredging a ditch extending from the river’s North Branch at Lawrence Avenue in Chicago to the lakefront in Wilmette at its border with Evanston.

As explained by the Wilmette Park District1, Col. McCormick noted in 1907 that, along with the eight-mile-long drainage canal, the project “would result in about 22 acres of made land’ dumped into Lake Michigan between Washington Avenue and the canal inlet, and that a park district could be established under state law to make use of the ‘made land’ for park purposes at no cost. The idea of creating a park district appealed to many Wilmette residents, who voted in favor of it in 1908. The newly formed Wilmette Park District then moved to acquire the 22 acres of lakefront land from the Sanitary District in 1911. The park district named the park Washington Park in honor of George Washington’s birthday.

The Design and Development of Gillson Park

The first superintendent of the Wilmette Park District was Benjamin E. Gage, a landscape architect who had previously worked for the Chicago Park District. Gage was responsible for designing and developing Washington Park from 1911 to 1929. He created a simple plan that included a bathing beach, a boat harbor, a playground, tennis courts, and baseball diamonds. He also planted trees and shrubs along the shoreline to stabilize the soil and provide shade and beauty. In 1937, the park district hired two other landscape architects, Charles D. Wagstaff, and Robert E. Everly, to redesign and expand Washington Park. Wagstaff and Everly were influenced by Jens Jensen, a prominent Prairie School landscape architect who had designed many parks and estates in Chicago and the North Shore. Jensen was known for his naturalistic style, emphasizing native plants, organic forms, and harmony with nature.

Wagstaff and Everly transformed Washington Park into a more scenic and diverse park that reflected Jensen’s principles. They added curving roads and paths that followed the contours of the land, creating a sense of movement and discovery. They also created open lawns framed by clusters of trees and shrubs that created contrast and interest. They used local stone to build walls, steps, benches, and a council ring—a circular seating area that Jensen considered a symbol of democracy and community. Wagstaff and Everly also incorporated new features into the park, such as a golf course, an ice skating rink, a bird sanctuary, and an outdoor theater called Wallace Bowl. The Wallace Bowl was built as part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a federal program that provided jobs during the Great Depression. The WPA also helped construct some of the stone structures in the park. In 1940, Washington Park was renamed  in honor of Horace A. Gillson, who had served as president of the Wilmette Park District from 1915 to 1939.

The Preservation and Enhancement of Gillson Park

Gillson Park has remained unchanged since its 1930s redesign, preserving its historic character and charm. However, some changes have been made to improve its facilities and services. For example, in 1962, the park district built a new Lakeview Center building to house offices and meeting rooms. In 1985, the park district renovated Wallace Bowl to increase its seating capacity and upgrade its lighting and sound systems. In 1999, the park district added a dog beach to accommodate pet owners. Gillson Park has also faced some challenges and threats over time. One is erosion caused by waves and storms that have washed away some of the shoreline and damaged some structures. The park district has taken measures to protect and restore the shoreline by installing breakwaters, revetments, sand nourishment, and native plants.

Another challenge is balancing the needs and preferences of different user groups and stakeholders. The park district is undergoing a comprehensive planning process to assess the current and future needs of the park and its visitors. The planning process has generated controversy, as some community members have expressed concerns about possible changes that could alter the park’s passive and naturalistic design. Among the possible changes are adding roadways, parking areas, and other intrusive surfaces that could put old-growth trees and other open spaces at risk.

A preservationist nonprofit, Landmarks Illinois, has named Gillson Park one of the five most endangered” historically and culturally significant sites in the state in 2022. Landmarks Illinois has urged the park district to maintain the park’s historic landscape and character while still making necessary improvements. Landmarks Illinois has also recognized Gillson Park as a “gorgeous historic landscape that stands the test of time.”

Conclusion

Gillson Park is a valuable asset for Wilmette and the North Shore, providing recreational opportunities, ecological benefits, and aesthetic qualities. The park is also a testament to the vision and skill of the landscape architects who shaped it over time, creating a unique and distinctive park that reflects the history and culture of the area. Gillson Park deserves to be appreciated, enjoyed, and preserved for generations.

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