Renovation ahead for Lake of the Woods gardens

Renovation ahead for Lake of the Woods gardens

MAHOMET — Even if the name doesn't ring a bell, most people in Champaign County would probably recognize a photograph of the Mabery Gelvin Botanical Garden at Lake of the Woods: the lily-studded pond, the cascading waterfall, the Japanese-style red iron bridge.

"It's our most visited and photographed site," said Champaign County Forest Preserve Executive Director Dan Olson.

Over the years, the gardens have been the setting for countless weddings, senior portraits and casual snapshots.

Champaign resident Dan Noel, who serves as president of the Forest Preserve Friends Foundation, is spearheading efforts to raise money for renovation of the gardens. But his interest in the site goes well beyond an appreciation for landscape architecture.

Noel is the grandson of H.I. Gelvin, under whose leadership the garden — and Lake of the Woods itself — was built.

He was 18 when the garden, named in memory of his grandmother, was dedicated. He has many childhood memories of visiting the park that was so close to his grandfather's heart.

"He would always take me out, as a kid, to Lake of the Woods to see his current project," Noel recalled.

Gelvin was a key figure in the creation of the district, which was established in 1935. But it wasn't until 1948 when the forest preserve district opened its first park: over 250 acres of water and forest now known as Lake of the Woods.

Gelvin, the founder and onetime president of Collegiate Cap & Gown in Champaign, served as the head of the forest preserve district board between 1948-75. He left his fingerprints on nearly every acre at Lake of the Woods, crafting a vision for the park that leaders say still guides them today.

His advocacy led the Illinois Department of Transportation to build an exit on Interstate 74 at Prairieview Road, opening up access to the park for thousands of local residents. He was also instrumental in lobbying for construction of the bridge that carries Lake of the Woods Road — which was initially cut in half by the interstate — over I-74.

An avid pilot, he was inspired by parks and gardens he saw on his cross-country and international travels.

"He would travel somewhere and bring back ideas," Noel said.

The waterfall and pond in the Botanical Garden are modeled on similar installations at the Chicago Botanic Garden, while Gelvin also drew inspiration from other gardens he'd seen on his travels across the nation.

The gardens grew from a modest start, Noel said. In 1969, a small garden was planted behind the newly built Early American Museum (now the Museum of the Grand Prairie).

A few years later, Gelvin donated $100,000 to build a more elaborate, eight-acre garden in honor of his wife, Mabery Gelvin, who had died in 1971. He hired and fired two different Chicago-based landscape architecture firms during the planning process, ultimately drawing up the designs himself with the aid of students at the University of Illinois.

Construction was completed by district staff, who put in hours building fixtures, moving earth and planting flowers and trees.

The Mabery Gelvin Botanical Garden was dedicated on June 30, 1974.

Now, 40 years later, Olson said the infrastructure of the pond and waterfall "have just worn out." Those features were installed without rubber liners, meaning that large amounts of water soak into the soil. The concrete blocks that make up the structure of the waterfall are also deteriorating.

Noel and Olson said planners would also like to make the pea-gravel paths easier to navigate for visitors who use canes or wheelchairs. They plan to install a hard pavement surface that will still retain some of the look of the original gravel.

Engineers estimate the renovations will cost about $500,000.

Over the years, the look of the garden "hasn't changed much," Noel said. Several plans to completely renovate it have been drawn up in the past decades but none ever got off the ground.

Noel is dedicated to preserving the character of the garden and his grandfather's vision for the site. The renovations won't change its look, he said, but will shore up its infrastructure for new generations.

About $180,000 has been pledged to the project so far. But there's still a long way to go. Although the forest preserve board plans to make a contribution, the majority of the funding will have to come from private donations, Noel said.

The park's summer concerts, which are held in the garden, have helped draw attention to the fundraising efforts, Olson said. Several food and drink vendors who set up shop at the events — including JT Walker's and Homer Soda Company — pledged their profits to the cause.

Noel said he's proud to see his family's legacy carried on — and glad to know that his grandfather's vision for the garden will be maintained. The landscape has matured over the years, as trees and ornamental plantings took root and flourished, and he hopes to see that process go on.

"Gardens get prettier as they get older," he said.

Amelia Benner is editor of the Mahomet Citizen, a News-Gazette community newspaper. For more, visit