Revisiting Gillson Park: Your Perfect Summer Destination

We don’t just dwell in the realm of innovative, world-class architecture. We also take delight in the allure of the great outdoors, especially those spaces that bring joy to communities. In that spirit, we’re thrilled to introduce you to the picturesque Gillson Park, located on the lakefront, northeast of the iconic Baha’i Temple and only 2 miles from Optima Verdana®, it’s a lively and vibrant oasis located in the charming village of Wilmette.

Gillson is more than your average park. It’s a haven packed with fun, relaxation, and natural splendor. Located on the stunning shores of Lake Michigan, the park is spread over an impressive 60 acres and offers a slew of engaging activities for everyone.

For the beach lovers, Gillson Park features a pristine sandy beach. Sunbathing, swimming, or simply dipping your toes in the cool waters – it’s your personal paradise by the lake. And for those who crave an adrenaline rush, the park’s Sailing Beach provides sailboat rentals to chase the horizon.

Gillson Sailing Beach, Photo: rickdean911, Flickr Creative Commons

Not to mention the fact that the park’s serene landscape adorned with mature trees offers the perfect backdrop for a delightful alfresco meal. And if you’re looking to fire up the grill, the park provides designated picnic and barbeque areas to make your summer cookout a breeze.

For sport enthusiasts, Gillson Park is nothing short of a playground. From volleyball to tennis courts, it’s a haven for friendly competition and fun games. And let’s not forget about the younger visitors – the park houses a fantastic playground and a “Tot Lot” play area, ensuring hours of endless fun for the little ones.

Construction of the Wallace Bowl in Gillson Park, 1937, Courtesy of the
Wilmette Historical Museum

Perhaps one of Gillson Park’s crown jewels is the Wallace Bowl, an outdoor amphitheater that serves as the stage for their Sounds of Summer concert performances, movie nights, and theater performances. 

The natural beauty of the park is another captivating aspect. Walk along the trails, explore the bird habitat, or lose yourself in the breathtaking beauty of the Wild Flower garden. Gillson Park’s allure lies in its ability to marry leisure and nature effortlessly.

Wallace Bowl in Gillson Park, 2023, Photo: Wikimedia Commons

As we wind down our exploration of Gillson Park, we remind ourselves that spaces like this encapsulate the essence of community living. They bring us closer to nature, offer a sense of belonging, and provide an array of activities for all ages. Gillson Park is not just a testament to Wilmette’s charming character, but it’s also an invitation for everyone to step out and embrace the summer sun in all of its glory!

How Prairie School Architecture Influenced Wilmette’s Gillson Park

Offering more than 60 acres of breathtaking lakefront views and an array of thrilling activities on and off of its beaches, Wilmette’s Gillson Park is a local treasure. Located less than two miles from Optima Verdana, future residents will have access to one of the city’s oldest and most beloved stretches of public land. Today, we’re exploring the fascinating history behind Gillson Park. 

Nearly as old as the village itself, Wilmette’s Gillson Park was established in 1908 as Washington Park. The land sitting directly on Lake Michigan was originally used as a depot where clay from the North Shore Channel was placed after excavation. After becoming the first president of the Wilmette Park District that same year, Louis K. Gillson began devising how he could make the most out of Wilmette’s vast greenspace. 

Until 1915, the land existed merely as a plot of blue clay. However, in 1917, under Gillson’s leadership, the Wilmette Park District began its ambitious project to transform the area into a recreational hotspot. Shortly after, the Park Board hired landscape architect and engineer, Benjamin Gage, to elevate the park’s design. 

An architectural drawing of Gillon Park’s 1937 redesign by C.D. Wagstaff and Robert Everly, Courtesy of Wilmette Historical Museum

Following extensive additions contributed by Gage in the 1920s — as well as doubling the park’s size — the Park Board began to search for architects who would help conceive a new, sweeping plan for the greenspace. And, in the mid-1930s, they hired landscape architects C.D. Wagstaff and Robert Everly to lead the project. 

Their sweeping design proposal helped transform the once clay-filled plot into a vibrant landscape with a host of recreational features. Wagstaff and Everly were also heavily inspired by the prominent Prairie School architecture that dominated the area, and specifically by the work of landscape architect, Jens Jensen. 

Construction of the Wallace Bowl in Gillson Park, 1937, Courtesy of the Wilmette Historical Museum

There were numerous prairie-style elements added to the park, including stratified stone walls and steps, a stone council ring, curvilinear roadways and paths, and a host of informal gardens. The architectural team also designed one of the park’s most iconic spaces, the Wallace Bowl, which is a large open-air amphitheater situated in the park. 

Today, the Wilmette Park District is still home to the Prairie-style elements contributed by Wagstaff and Everly and remains a greenspace treasured by all of the village’s residents. To explore more of the park’s history or discover the various recreational activities, visit their website here.

Neighborhood Spotlight: Wilmette

The serene Chicago-suburbs neighbor of Evanston, Wilmette offers proximity to the hustle and bustle of the city while also serving as an oasis of coffee shops, local boutiques and expansive parkscapes. Wilmette is home to three of our communities, Lake Courts, 1618 Sheridan Road and Optima Center Wilmette, and today we’re spotlighting why we, our residents and our commercial tenants love this Chicago suburb.

Outdoor Leisure 

Bordered by Lake Michigan on the east and sprawling golf courses on the west, Wilmette is the perfect suburban hub for those that love leisurely outdoor activities. For lakefront fanatics, Gillson Park is an expansive reserve with beach access, perfect for swimming, sailing, picnicking, tennis, hiking and more. For casual and competitive golf hobbyists alike, Wilmette Golf Club is the best public golf course challenge in the area.

Bahai Temple. Credit: Teemu008 on Wikimedia Commons, icensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license

Cultural Institutions

No Chicago suburb is complete without the inclusion of a wide-ranging and diverse array of cultural institutions. Wilmette is the proud home to the Baháʼí House of Worship, one of only eight of its kind. The continental temple is an architectural marvel, worth the visit just to explore its gardens and interior and learn more about the faith. The Wilmette Historical Museum is also a fantastic local resource for learning more about the city’s story and roots.

Shopping and Dining

Wilmette’s central business district, conveniently located near public transportation, is a distinctively different shopping experience that includes an abundance of restaurants and specialty stores. Explore the Wilmette French Market, an outdoor shopping experience with produce, jewelry and more. Restaurants in the area include everyone’s favorite, Walker Bros. Original Pancake House, Convito Cafe and Market, Pescadero and countless more. 

Stay tuned for more neighborhood spotlights on our other Optima communities.

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