Col. Robert R. McCormick and his wife Maryland sent a 1951 Christmas card with an image taken in front of their drawing room fireplace, one of a dozen in their home.
The holiday greeting shows the Chicago press baron in suit and tie, his wife in pink and their three dogs in a room dressed up with enough flower arrangements for a state dinner.
The doors of the colonel’s Georgian mansion — newly renovated and exquisitely decorated with hundreds of poinsettias and all kinds of trimmings — will be thrown open Friday for the new “Christmas at Cantigny” celebration on the grounds of his former estate in Wheaton.
An 18-foot-tall Christmas tree and McCormick’s 1939 Steinway grand piano, refurbished during the renovation process, stand in the home’s library, a stately room with Brazilian butternut wood paneling.
“We’re hearkening back to the days of Colonel McCormick hosting Christmas here at Cantigny,” Executive Director Matt LaFond said.
Cantigny has hosted festive events in years past. But a stellar new holiday light show, stretching a half mile in and around Cantigny’s gardens, takes the merriment to another level.
Light splashes across the mansion itself — you might have seen its columns bathed in red and green or a moody blue from Roosevelt Road. Illuminated trees are reflected in the pond west of the McCormick residence.
“There won’t be a time when you won’t be able to see something lit up from any vantage point,” LaFond said.
The centerpiece of it all is the McCormick House. The renovation work took two-and-a-years and more than $15 million to complete. During Christmas at Cantigny, visitors can walk through the mansion’s first floor for the first time since 2020.
“We worked with our architect to maintain the historic look and feel of the home while at the same time updating the infrastructure, adding some modern amenities, and I think Colonel McCormick would be proud of what we’ve done,” LaFond said.
McCormick, the staunchly patriotic Chicago Tribune publisher, had his library, “Freedom Hall,” built in an east-wing addition. It still holds books and his hunting rifles. A portrait of the mustached McCormick in his World War I uniform still hangs above a fireplace in the room.
A large holiday tree and evergreen garland decorate the entryway and banister to the upper level of the McCormick House at Cantigny. The Center Hall has new paint and light fixtures.
– John Starks | Staff Photographer
What’s new is the holiday music in the background, the songs of Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra wafting from a sound system installed in the mansion. Among the most impressive features is the colonel’s hidden bar off the library. A Gaelic inscription translates to “For food and drink for McCormick.”
“It still has the same Art Deco look and feel that it did preconstruction, but all the plumbing has been updated, so now we can actually use it for parties and events,” LaFond said.
‘The next 100 years’
For the final phase of “Project New Leaf,” a re-imagining of the park’s main attractions, Cantigny leaders envisioned the mansion becoming “much more than a museum.”
Architect Laura Hochuli, who also worked on the renovation of the Illinois governor’s mansion in Springfield, was charged with bringing the McCormick residence up to modern accessibility standards.
“What we’ve really done is set the house up so it’s going to stand strong for the next 100 years, and that was our goal,” LaFond said. “We wanted to make sure that the investment we made now will pay dividends for decades to come.”
The building — the oldest, middle section is 127 years old — now has an elevator and ramps on and the north and south sides, Wi-Fi throughout, new restrooms, lighting and a new fire suppression system.
“We did experience a lot of delays because of COVID and shipping problems,” LaFond said. “But it was worth the time, and it was worth the investment because it’s absolutely beautiful.”
In the dining room, part of a rice paper mural — Maryland McCormick collected Asian art — and the shell wall sconces were refurbished.
“We’ll have a table setting that is in blue, silver and gold that complements the wallpaper and the crown molding,” said Jamie Burghardt, Cantigny’s horticulture director, who designed the Christmas trees and decorations inside and outside the mansion.
McCormick’s family portraits have been reconditioned and put back up in Freedom Hall. His speech about the Battle of Cantigny is displayed on a brass plate.
McCormick led an artillery unit in the 1918 attack, an experience that shaped him so much he returned home and christened his estate after the French village (pronounced “can-TEE-nee”) where Americans defeated German forces.
For all his worldliness, McCormick made his primary residence in what was originally a country house built in 1896 for his maternal grandfather, Joseph Medill, a friend of Abraham Lincoln, a mayor of Chicago after the Great Fire and the Tribune’s influential publisher.
Five rooms of Cantigny’s McCormick House have been decorated for the holidays.
– John Starks | Staff Photographer
McCormick added the two wings in the 1930s, expanding the house to 27,000 square feet. The east porch is patterned after Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello home. The south porch pays homage to James Madison’s Montpelier.
McCormick died in 1955 and left the bulk of his fortune for a civic foundation with instructions to make his 500-acre estate a park. The antique-filled mansion had been mostly frozen in time as a house museum.
“It was showing its age,” LaFond said.
Crews refinished the floors and replaced damaged bricks and the mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems. The colonel’s south porch patio furniture was reupholstered. Screens were removed off the east patio, overlooking the lawn and reflecting pool.
“The McCormick House has stunning views out every window,” LaFond said.
With the renovation complete, Cantigny is no longer running daily tours through the home. But LaFond promises a “full calendar” of McCormick House programs and events in 2024.
Starting in the spring, the mansion also will function as a venue for wedding receptions and other private events for up to 75 people. A sitting room and McCormick’s offices have turned into a gallery space for traveling art exhibits.
“While there will be no daily tours through the home, there’ll be plenty of opportunities for the public to come in for a program, an event, a rental opportunity to see and experience the home themselves,” LaFond said.
Christmas at Cantigny
During the festival, you can take a spin on an ice-skating rink outside the visitor center, warm up to a hot chocolate station or a fire pit, hear pop-up carolers, shop 16 varieties of poinsettias grown in Cantigny’s greenhouse and take in the lights. Forestry crews set up a Christmas tree with Moravian stars in the fountain garden.
Trees along Cantigny’s Gold Pond are drenched in a stunning blue light reflected in the water. “We’re being pretty ambitious in our first effort,” Cantigny Executive Director Matt LaFond said of the light show.
– Courtesy of Cantigny
“A lot of people probably have never seen Cantigny at night,” Burghardt said.
He chose an appropriately “bold and grand” red and gold palette for the holiday finery in Freedom Hall.
“Colonel McCormick absolutely loved Christmas,” LaFond said. “He would host parties out here for family, for friends, for neighbors, for his staff.”
In keeping with that tradition, Cantigny added a homey touch to the drawing room: A sign has a photo of the McCormick family Christmas card, the one with their German shepherd and bulldogs.