The Story Behind Adams Park

The History of Adams Park

John Quincy Adams, a distant relative of the Adams Presidents, was born in Hopkinton, Massachusetts, in 1824. He and his family—wife, Marilla Phipps Adams; son, William; and daughter, Katherine—moved to Chicago in 1851. Mr. Adams was a successful grain merchant, trader, and real estate investor. Soon after the death of his wife in 1874, he purchased an existing home and moved with his family to Wheaton in 1876. He would have a profound impact on the region.

John Quincy Adams and his wife, Marilla

In 1888, he built a stately home in the Queen Anne style on the square block of land which is now Adams Park, at the corner of Main and Wesley Sts., just west of today’s Wheaton Public Library. Placed in front of the home was the fountain that now sits in the middle of Adams Park.

His plans for Wheaton were just beginning. In October of 1890, he broke ground on a new project. It was envisioned as a library and community center—dedicated to Marilla—across the street from his home. On the main floor, it was to have a collection of books and quiet reading areas. The second floor was to accommodate other community gatherings and performances.

Charles Sumner Frost, architectFor this ambitious project, he selected architect Charles Sumner Frost. This would be Frost’s first solo project. Together with his partner, Henry Ives Cobb, they had created the Potter Palmer Mansion and the Chicago Opera House Block. They also built the railroad station in downtown Wheaton, in 1887. (This same station now sits in one of our other “Hidden Gems,” the Cosley Zoo. It houses administrative offices, a gift shop and concessions for the zoo.)

Frost utilized this impressive experience and his architectural talent to produce the new Adams Memorial Library. The project took just over a year to complete. It was a wonderful, free resource for the 3,000 citizens of Wheaton. Adams’ daughter, Katherine, became Wheaton’s first librarian. She introduced the Dewey Decimal System to the facility, making it one of the first libraries in Illinois to use the new organizational method.

As far as the architecture, the library was done in Richardsonian Romanesque style. Named after the architect Henry Hobson Richardson, the concept for this style was to incorporate classical elements while allowing the beauty of natural elements to shine through. For this reason, the style is often seen in religious and civic structures. These buildings often incorporate very textured stone blocks set in a way to emphasize horizontal lines. Other common features include towers, rounded arches, and highly-detailed ornamentation. Another example of this style in Wheaton is the old County Courthouse—now, residences at Courthouse Square.

The Adams Memorial Library embodied the Richardsonian Romanesque style, evidenced by its rock-faced limestone, red slate roof (originally), circular staircase tower, and tall, stone gables. The gables each feature thin upright spires, called pinnacles, and an arched window. Dentil moldings adorn the eaves of the gables. Carving, too, was used in this magnificent structure. Local Wheaton artist, Alvin Austin, carved the decorative stone, arched entryway. The beauty of natural elements, such as oak and stone, bring warmth to the space. Acanthus leaves, symbols of quality, longevity, and creativity, are also used as a motif inside and out.

When completed, in 1891, the building was a true masterpiece. It housed 2,700 books with private reading rooms on the main level. The second floor featured a Steinway Concert Grand Piano and an auditorium with seating for an audience up to 500 people. Corinthian columns, featuring the acanthus leaves, stand proud on either side of the stage. Mr. Adams and Mr. Frost had created a treasure for Wheaton!

The Adams Memorial Trust allowed the library to operate for thirty-two years. At that time, in 1923, the City of Wheaton voted to continue to fund this important community resource.

Upon the passing of John Quincy Adams, in 1899, Katherine continued to live in the family home. She even got married right in the house her father had built. She was known to appreciate gardens and kept beautiful examples upon the property. She welcomed visitors to view and stroll through the gardens. It is no surprise, then, that she willed the property to become a park upon her death, in 1942. She instructed the family home to be taken down and provided the funding for Adams Park to be created.

Landscape Architect Annette Hoyt Flanders took on the park’s renovation. She remodeled it, moving the fountain to its new location, in the center of the park. It enjoys a place of prominence on a larger base with a decorative, circular bench surrounding it. People can be found on pleasant days sitting on the bench admiring the sparkling water at the fountain. The only city-owned park, Adams Park is truly a peaceful oasis amongst a bustling downtown cityscape. Various landscape architects and horticulturalist have also made improvements over the years.

Archway of Adams Memorial Library, carved by Wheaton artisan

Archway of Adams Memorial Library, carved by Wheaton artisan

In 2019, the City of Wheaton improved walkways, refurbished the fountain, and provided new plantings consistent with the original park design. Additional renovations in the park are expected to be made in 2023 and 2026 to further bring the park in line with its original design.

Other things changed throughout the years. By 1959, Wheaton had grown to more than 24,000 residents. The need for a larger library with more resources became apparent. In 1964, the project began just one block East of Adams Park. When it opened in 1965, the more spacious facility allowed for an expansive collection of resources.

In the meantime, the original Adams Memorial Library became the home of the DuPage County Historical Museum. It operates there to this day, offering historical exhibits, research assistance, and educational programs. See their website for upcoming events and exhibits.

The new Wheaton Public Library—today 124,000 square feet­—has seen many improvements and expansions throughout the years. It is no wonder that it is on the list of the “Top Ten” libraries of its size in the country. It features 200 computers, WiFi, study rooms, and a Quiet Room on the second level, which looks out over Adams park. It is a warm, inviting place to spend the afternoon, fireplace ablaze, on a cold, winter’s day. See their website for services and programs they offer.