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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.

The Benefits of Urban Greenspaces

At Optima, we approach every project as an opportunity to explore the best possible ways to create harmony between the built and natural environments to allow our residents to enjoy a wealth of benefits that contribute to a healthier, more sustainable environment.

We understand that greenspaces; parks, gardens, conservatories, roof gardens and residential greenery are crucial to the vitality of urban spaces and the communities where they are found. Population density of urban areas is increasing swiftly. By 2050, it is estimated that 68% of the global population will live in cities. According to the WHO, urban greenspaces promote mental and physical health through the promotion of physical activity, mutual understanding, and mitigating exposure to air and noise pollution as well as excessive heat. 

In the summer, the heat generated by human activity, transport, and industry creates an increased need for energy consumption to cool spaces. Green areas have the ability to absorb that heat and pollution. They also allow urban dwellers to stretch their legs and be outside, improving cardiovascular health and relieving stress. Each space also promotes social cohesion, the coming together of people who would usually not interact with each other due to the individualistic nature of urban living.

Landscaping used to create privacy at Optima Signature
Landscaping used to create privacy at Optima Signature

At Optima we recognize the tremendous advantages greenspaces provide. In Chicago, Optima Signature’s inviting plaza filled with lush landscaping and 1.5 acres of amenity space encourages residents to spend time outdoors. Gardens, landscaped fire pits, swimming pools, and outdoor entertainment all radiate the feeling of an oasis within the larger urban environment.

Landscaped Courtyard at Optima Kierland Apartments
Landscaped Courtyard at Optima Kierland Apartments

Optima Kierland Center embraces its surrounding beauty and builds off of it. Lush greenery fills the more than 7.5 acres of open space connecting Optima Kierland’s buildings in a park-like setting. Similarly, Optima Sonoran Village utilizes more than half of its 10-acre property to house stunning landscaping, sculpture, and pedestrian paths while mitigating the desert’s harsh climate. We utilize rooftop gardens and our signature vertical landscaping at Optima Sonoran Village, Optima Kierland Apartments, and will be bringing it to Chicago at Optima Verdana, to create an oasis inspired by its surroundings that contribute to the greater environment. This type of green space brings both beauty and positive contributions to their communities. 

Greenspaces make urban living refreshing, enjoyable and social. And as our cities become more and more dense, urban greenspaces become a crucial part of the ecosystem — and of our enhanced quality of life.

Easy Houseplants for the Indoor Gardener

While Chicago’s seasons are distinctly wonderful, we do miss our outdoor gardens, parks and greenspaces in the winter months. One antidote to winter’s edge is to bring gardening indoors, especially in the light-filled apartments at Optima Signature, which provide beautiful spaces for plants to flourish year-round. There are countless benefits to indoor gardening — brightening a room, improving mental health, cleaning and freshening the air around you — to name a few. And if you haven’t yet discovered your green thumb, here are some easy-to-find houseplants that will flourish inside, and allow you to remain surrounded by greenery year-round.

Pothos

A trailing vine that can fit in a small pot, Pothos has the nickname “devils ivy” for a reason, essentially because they live ceaselessly. Pothos is the perfect plant for the beginner gardener or the urban dweller, as the sunlight it prefers can either be bright and lower level. Pothos also can handle over and under-watering and its vibrant green leaves look lovely spilling out from its pot.

Phalaenopsis Orchid

Orchids are elegant flowers but need slightly more attention and effort than most plants. For those hoping to try their indoor gardening on the flower, the Phalaenopsis Orchid, native to tropical Asian climates, prefers to sit in east or south windows. Though it does need a humid environment, the beautiful show blooms are considerably forgiving when it comes to caring. This flower only needs to be watered every week or week and a half and is a bright addition to any indoor garden with brilliant shades ranging from reds to purples and violets.

Snake Plant

A favorite among novice indoor gardeners, snake plants thrive in home environments with plenty of bright light and are adaptable to watering. Snake plants have striking, sword-shaped green leaves that shoot upwards with a lighter green outline. They range from small to mid-sized and are easy to repot when they outgrow their original home.

Lucky Bamboo

Lucky Bamboo is the sort of plant that can thrive in any welcoming condition that it lives in. The plant prefers to sit in bright natural light and favors filtered water about once a week. They are also believed to bring good luck and enhance the positive energy of their surroundings, making them a lovely housewarming gift. 

Air Plant

For those who prefer a dirtless alternative, an air plant is an excellent choice. Air plants need to be submerged in water for 2-3 hours every ten days and then can be left to illuminate a space. They look lovely hanging from the ceiling, in a glass jar, on a plate, atop a stack of books, and add a lively spot of green to any space.

Yucca

If you want a larger plant, Yucca is the way to go. These tall, leafy plants require a broader pot to balance their top-heavy, intense green, leafy stems and lots of sun. They are an easy tree to keep in a well-lit corner and are very flexible about watering.

Aloe

Aloe prefers bright indirect light, making it perfect for a desk or bedroom that needs an enriching new accessory. Though Aloe plants are easy-going about watering, the best way to care for them is soaking them every two weeks for optimal growth.

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