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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.

Calling all Photo Buffs: Jump into Wilmette’s Sesquicentennial Photography Project

As construction gets underway on Optima Verdana, we continue to connect more strongly with Wilmette and its surroundings. We appreciate how special it is that a village gets to celebrate its 150th anniversary, and Wilmette has packed 2022 with a series of events, happenings and projects that bring the community together. Art fairs, picnics, parades, concerts, garden walks, you name it. The programming is broad, deep and guaranteed to capture the interests of residents and visitors alike.

One of the most engaging programs on the roster for Wilmette’s big birthday year is the Sesquicentennial Photography Project. Behind the project is the desire to invite the community to share their personal reflections and experiences in Wilmette by capturing photographs around the theme “Building Community” to create an important historical record.

The magic of a community photo project is that it provides an open invitation for anyone — and everyone — to participate. Taking photos in today’s world, with the ease of a smartphone, allows people of all ages to capture snippets of everyday life and glimpses of their surroundings that captivate them, and share them with others to enjoy. 

The project is easy for all participants. Simply submit photos to the village — from now until September 30, 2022. A team from the Wilmette Historical Museum will review the submissions and curate an exhibition of photos at the Museum and at other locations throughout Wilmette. Once the exhibitions are taken down, the photographs will be archived by the Museum, and will be accessible for viewing on request. 

Here are some guidelines for photographers. If you have any additional questions regarding the project, please contact Jan Loew at jerryloew@aol.com. Technical questions should be directed to the Wilmette Historical Museum’s curator, Rachel Ramirez, at ramirezr@wilmette.com or 847-853-7714.

Optima Communities: Exploring Wilmette’s Rich History

With groundbreaking underway for Optima Verdana in Wilmette, IL, we’re discovering this vibrant community and all it has to offer — including its rich history.

Bordering Lake Michigan and located 14 miles north of the Chicago Loop, Wilmette is recognized as one of the most prestigious communities in the nation. It started as a small settlement on Chicago’s North Side in 1872 and by the mid-twentieth century, it emerged as a distinctive, desirable suburb with unique vitality, extraordinary walkability along tree-lined, brick streets and a character all its own. 

Fast forward to today, when Wilmette, with a population of nearly 30,000, has fully matured into a vibrant community. Small businesses and lively restaurants flourish, each bringing a refreshing offering to this thriving, 21st century livable village. The lakefront, parks and gardens are all within easy reach. Culture abounds with music, theater, art and cinema. And the Wilmette schools are considered among the best in the country.  

As luck would have it, 2022 marks the 150th anniversary of Wilmette. As celebrations for this important milestone continue throughout the year, Wilmette is proud to showcase its reputation as future-facing while showing a deep appreciation for the past, including a host of events that shine a light on its delightfully eclectic history.

Bahá'í House of Worship
Bahá’í House of Worship

Mark your calendars…

To start the sesquicentennial year, all are welcome to the Wilmette Historical Museum’s  annual meeting and lecture via Zoom. John Jacoby, former Village President and Wilmette Beacon columnist, will discuss his recent book Wilmette at 150, a collection of essays on Wilmette. Mr. Jacoby’s talk will explore the lost landmarks of Wilmette. Learn about the stories of the significant buildings and other structures that are no longer in existence, including some of the oldest in Wilmette, such as the Big Tree and the Unity Church. Hear fascinating tales of Dr. Martin Luther King’s visit to the North Shore, the German POW camp in Harms Woods, the colorful history of No Man’s Land, the perseverance of world pushup champion Chick Lister and Public Enemy Number One Baby Face Nelson’s demise on Walnut Avenue.

You can stay connected to all the sesquicentennial happenings on the Wilmette at 150 website. And to attend the meeting and lecture, which will take place Sunday, January 30, 2022, from 2:00pm – 3:30pm,

Register 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.

Baháʼí House of Worship
Baháʼí House of Worship

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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