The Wheaton landmark known as the Robert R. McCormick House is perhaps Cantigny’s most iconic feature. Other than a few of the estate’s massive oak trees, it’s also the oldest.  The historic home dates to 1896 and the days of Joseph Medill and Red Oaks Farm.

This fall, the third and final phase of Project New Leaf begins: a comprehensive renovation of the place Robert R. McCormick called home from 1919 to 1955. It will be the first major work on the building since the Colonel added the muscular east and west wings in 1936. The mansion is now closed with a public reopening planned for 2022.

As with Phases I and II, Featherstone, Inc. will serve as project manager, coordinating and overseeing all aspects of the renovation. The architect is Chicago’s Vinci/Hamp. Sasaki Associates will handle the landscape design elements of the project.

Meanwhile, Will Buhlig, McCormick House director since 2018, will watch it all very carefully and, with his team, plan for what comes next. Renovation details will be shared publicly soon. For now, just know that the mansion will be very different when it reopens. It will still be a museum, but more.

Buhlig joined Cantigny in 2000 as museum coordinator.  Born and raised in Meredosia, Illinois, he holds a BA in History from Southern Illinois University and a master’s in Historical Administration from Eastern Illinois. His passion for old-timey things extends to the ballfield, too: Buhlig founded Cantigny’s vintage “base ball” program in 2007 and formerly played for the Red Oaks.

Will took a well-deserved break from packing up the museum to answer five questions.

Q: Be honest, is the house falling apart?

A: Considering its age, and its use as a museum since 1958, it has held up well. It’s not literally falling apart but it’s certainly showing its age. Vital interior and exterior systems need renovation or replacement to ensure structural integrity and visitor safety.

Q: Before work begins, the house must be empty, right? How is that going, and where are you putting all the stuff?

A: We hired two moving companies. Pickens Kane handled the packing, transport and storage of the museum’s high priority objects, including fine art pieces. They are now safely inside the Pickens Kane building on Milwaukee Avenue in Chicago. Hassett Movers took care of all other museum artifacts, program materials and office furniture. Those materials are stored in Addison. It took both companies four days (in September) to complete their work.

Q: When the house reopens, what will be different?

A: Lots of things. We’re improving and expanding the building’s interior and exterior spaces. Freedom Hall, the Drawing Room, South Porch, Dining Room and Gold Theater will remain as before but with better lighting and climate control. We’re adding exhibit galleries, restrooms, a functioning plate kitchen, a sprinkler system, widening interior doors and adding an elevator to the west wing. Americans with Disability Act (ADA-approved) entry ramps and path lighting will improve visitor access to the museum.

Q: Do you think Colonel McCormick would approve of the changes to come?  If so, why?

A: I believe he’d approve, yes. He called the Cantigny house, after the 1936 expansion, “a fitting monument at the western portal of the City.” When the renovation is complete, the building will accommodate all kinds of new activities that support civic engagement, education and fun. Even small wedding receptions. I think that’s how he envisioned the building, and Cantigny Park, functioning after his death.

Q: With McCormick House closed next year, will you be taking a really long vacation? Or playing a lot more vintage ball?

A: That’s tempting but I can’t seem to stay away for very long. I really enjoy playing vintage base ball but seem to injure myself at every match. I’m officially retired.


McCormick House Director Will Buhlig outside the mansion’s East Porch. Inside, the house is now empty.

Two moving companies spent four days in September clearing the mansion’s interior. Renovation is likely to begin in November, once necessary permits are acquired.

Freedom Hall, as few have ever seen it. The showplace library, like all other rooms in the house, is awaiting renovation.

Potential contractors stand outside McCormick House in late July during a socially distanced “pre-bid meeting” where they learned about the available work ahead.

Buhlig, in the pink shirt, discusses the architect’s plans in the empty McCormick House dining room on October 7, 2020.

Site preparation began in October, including some tree, shrub and path removal around house.

Buhlig claims retirement from vintage ball but many expect he’ll suit up again some day with his beloved Red Oaks. (Photo by Jim Frazier)


Posted by Jeff Reiter

Leave a reply