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  • History Center of Lake Forest-Lake Bluff

Learning Gardens to Flourish at History Center

By the History Center of Lake Forest-Lake Bluff A significant site in the heart of old Lake Forest will bloom once again. The History Center, located at Deerpath and Washington across from Triangle Park, is embarking on a long-anticipated initiative to create historical learning gardens on the museum's campus. A groundbreaking occurred on April 26.

History Center enthusiasts applaud the groundbreaking.

"These gardens are not just beautiful green spaces," explained Executive Director Carol Summerfield, "but also an opportunity to highlight the significant landscape design styles and land conservation efforts that were conceived and developed in Lake Forest, and how they grew to influence the nation."

The outdoor garden exhibits, designed by Craig Bergmann Landscape Design, include an Historic Estate Traditional Garden, Courtyard Country Garden, Modern Garden, Midcentury Garden, and Secret Garden. An allée of trees will connect the museum to the research center. Grand entrances will grace the front and back of the museum and ADA-accessible walking paths with educational signage and benches throughout will make it a place for all to learn, connect, and reflect.

The gardens hearken to the antecedents of the History Center property, which, prior to the construction of the Church of Christ Scientist building in 1949, housed a residence and garden. In the early days of Lake Forest, the land belonged to A.J. Sawyer; around 1900, it was sold to James Viles and Anna Underwood Viles. Their home, known as “Willow Bend,” was renovated by architects Frost & Granger and appeared in a 1904 article in House Beautiful.

Mrs. Viles was an active gardener and a founding member of the Garden Club of Illinois, now the Lake Forest Garden Club; her sister Florence Underwood, also an avid gardener, resided across the street in another Frost & Granger home, still extant.

James Viles was in the meatpacking business and then later president of The Buda Company, manufacturer of railway supplies. The Viles’ had two children, Helen and Lawrence, the latter of whom inherited the house after the death of his mother in 1929. Willow Bend was demolished circa 1940, when the church acquired and built on the property; 75 years later, the site became the home of the History Center.

The Viles' house was formerly on the History Center land. Anna Viles was a founding member of the Lake Forest Garden Club.

The Viles garden exemplifies the narrative that will feature in the History Center’s outdoor garden exhibit relating the noteworthy role of Lake Forest estates, their owners, their designers, and their gardeners in American landscape design history.

“We believe that these gardens will have a significant impact on our community,” said Katie Hale, president of the History Center's Board of Directors. “They will serve as a vibrant and engaging space that celebrates our past and inspires future generations.”

Several local residents are stepping up to help these historical learning gardens grow, including Lake Foresters and long-time, avid gardeners Ellen and Tom Walvoord. "When we learned of the proposal, we reviewed the plans carefully and agreed—actually very quickly—that we wanted to be part of ensuring that this unusual and creative idea could become a reality,” said Ellen Walvoord. “Pairing the historical evolution of beautiful garden design with the narrative of Lake Forest itself creates a ‘can’t-miss’ experience.”

Construction for the learning gardens is underway, but the History Center museum and research center remain open to the public. Visitors can stop by to check out the progress and find out how to support the Garden Initiative. Though the current parking lot has been demolished as part of the project, parking is available on the west side of Washington south of Deerpath.

Learn more about these walkable learning gardens by emailing Lisa Frey at or by visiting . Check out a video of the garden initiative here.


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