Allerton Park & Retreat Center

Monticello, IL- 25 miles west of Champaign/Urbana

Come along to the Allerton Park and Retreat Center near Monticello, Illinois. Robert Allerton, (1873-1964) was heir to his family’s fortune thanks to his father’s work in the banking and stockyard industries of Chicago. But with dreams of becoming an artist, Robert studied at the Chicago Art Institute, then Munich, Paris and London before dramatically burning all his paintings and heading home to the family farm 25 miles west of Champaign/Urbana. There, he began work on the brick mansion and hired a young (26 years younger than Robert) garden designer named John Gregg. Robert eventually adopted John as his legal son and the two spent decades traveling the world, collecting art, and developing the house and gardens of Allerton– and later, another estate in Hawaii.

The gardens are in the Beaux arts/neoclassical style defined by divided “rooms” bordered by shorn hedges and long allees– and many impressive pieces of sculpture. This is not my gardening style– I could never exercise the restraint to plant 100 arborvitae when I could plant 100 different plants– but it does create strong lines, rooms and stature.

Over the years, Robert donated over 6600 pieces to the Art Institute and was an honorary president and board member. In 1946, he donated the farm to the University of Illinois. It is now 1500 acres including formal gardens, 14 miles of trails and a retreat center (the aforementioned brick mansion) that hosts over 200 conferences each year. The home is not open to the general public but the grounds are free and are quite unusual–especially the sculptures (some are replicas so the originals could be kept safe from harm).

I visited ten years ago and things were a bit shabby but I’m pleased to report that it’s all glistening again! The University of Illinois seems to be doing a great job providing TLC for this estate.

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