The 1500-acre woodland, garden, meadow, and prairie landscape that surrounds the Allerton Mansion was once the private estate of Robert Henry Allerton. Named “The Farms,” the estate was the center of the 12,000-acre Illinois agricultural enterprise acquired during the latter half of the 1800s by Robert’s father Samuel.
Although he oversaw his father’s interests in the Illinois farms, Robert Allerton’s passion was art. He was an avid art collector, philanthropist and an artist who used the landscape as his canvas. Allerton believed that art surrounded and embraced every human being through nature. His belief in the artistic power of nature led to a life-long commitment to stewardship of the land and its natural elements. With the help of John Gregg, his protégé and, later, adopted son, Robert spent decades shaping the Illinois farmland to create ever-evolving landscapes that captured the natural beauty of the woodland and prairie, and formal gardens that served as an outdoor gallery for the sculpture he collected during his world travels.
Robert Allerton was a dedicated patron and benefactor of the Art Institute of Chicago. During his lifetime, he donated over 6,600 pieces of art to the museum. Many originals sculptures and artifacts were acquired during his travels for the benefit of the Art Institute. Fortunately, many prototypes and replicas of his favorites found their way to the gardens at the Allerton estate. Robert and John spent 40 years creating gardens that highlighted Robert’s growing collection of sculpture.
In 1946, Robert Allerton gave his beautiful Illinois estate to the University of Illinois for use as “an educational and research center, as a forest and wild-life and plant-life reserve, as an example of landscape architecture, and as a public park.” He also committed the income from 3,600 acres of farmland for the Park’s care. At the same time, 250 additional acres of land within the estate’s boundaries were given to establish the Illinois 4-H Memorial Camp.
Allerton Park and Retreat Center is composed of several major elements. The core of the estate features an English-inspired manor house, a reflecting pond, an approximately 10-acre meadow, and a series of formal sculpture gardens. A network of interpretive and primitive hiking trails winds through the woodland, riparian, and prairie areas of the Park, of which 1,000 acres have been designated a National Natural Landmark because of the quality of their upland and bottomland floodplain forests. Historic farmsteads are gradually being renovated and once again used productively.
Today, Allerton is operated under the guidance of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The Allerton Retreat Center (Mansion) is used as a retreat and conference facility by University, state, and corporate clients. The natural areas of the Park are used by a variety of University departments, as well as other universities and conservation agencies, for environmental study and for participatory student interactions. Both the Retreat Center and Park areas are used for wonderfully unique weddings and special events.
What was once the private oasis for a single family is now a vibrant teaching, recreational, and celebratory sanctuary for nearly 100,000 guests every year. Allerton Park and Retreat Center is a unique cultural and environmental asset of the University of Illinois and serves as a bridge between the public and the educational and research resources of the University’s faculty.
In this tour, you’ll find information about many of the sculptures that can be seen around the gardens and trails of Allerton Park and Retreat Center.
Text adapted from Allerton Park and Retreat Center. (n.d.). History | Allerton Park and Retreat Center. Retrieved from http://allerton.illinois.edu/history.html