Gillson Park has been a regular topic of discussion for local officials and open-space advocates in recent years. And now the discussion is going national.
The organization Landmarks Illinois has officially nominated Gillson Park to be included on the National Register of Historic Places, and the federal institution has 45 days from when it received the nomination to decide if the Wilmette beachfront park will earn the exclusive designation.
Landmarks Illinois will discuss the park and its nomination during a virtual program from noon-1 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 2. The event, which costs $5 unless you are a Landmarks Illinois member, will be led by landscape historians Julia Bachrach and Malcolm Cairns.
Gillson Park covers about 60 acres of land and includes beaches dedicated to swimming and sailing, a dog beach, native bird habitat, wildflower garden, natural performing-arts venue (Wallace Bowl), event and office space (Lakeview Center), walking paths, tennis courts, playgrounds and plenty of open space.
The park was 22 acres of open space until the Wilmette Park District acquired it in 1911 and developed it into parkland, first called Washington Park. In 1937, it was expanded, renovated and renamed Gillson Park, after Louis Gillson, the first president of the Wilmette Park Board of Commissioners.
In the nomination application, which also includes Wilmette Harbor, Landmarks Illinois details the origins, growth and current state of Gillson Park.
“A valued oasis from life’s stresses, the park and harbor possess a magnificent historic landscape that is cherished by Wilmette residents as well as outside visitors,” the application states.
Kendra Parzen, the advocacy manager for Landmarks Illinois, said Gillson Park appeared on the group’s radar when residents urged Landmarks Illinois to include the park on its annual “Most Endangered Historic Places” list, which it did in 2022.
At the time, park advocates were concerned the Wilmette Park District was on the verge of approving renovations that would negatively impact the park’s open space.
Park district officials have been discussing, reviewing and fine-tuning a comprehensive Gillson Park plan since 2020. They had early hopes the plan would be set in 2021, but public feedback has kept the plan on the move. Community input in early 2021 steered the the district away from any drastic changes, and district officials have pledged to focus on maintaining green space and began working on a tempered plan in March 2021.
Parzen said Landmarks Illinois was concerned because Gillson is a “very intact historic and historically designed landscape with a really interesting history.”
“It still looks so much today as it did after the second phase of landscape design in the 1930s,” she said. “What makes it so special and why it is so beloved in the community is it retains its naturalistic design.”
She added that the group hopes that a place on the national register will provide the park district with a “planning tool” for future changes to Gillson Park.
The National Register of Historic Places, a program of the National Park Service, consists of more than 98,000 sites and can lead to tax credits and added protections for listed properties.
Listing in the register does not restrict a property’s owner from making changes and improvements to the listed property — unless that property is actively involved in a project involving federal funding or permitting.
The Record is a nonprofit, nonpartisan community newsroom that relies on reader support to fuel its independent local journalism.
Subscribe to The Record to fund responsible news coverage for your community.
Already a subscriber? You can make a tax-deductible donation at any time.