By Ralph Loos
It’s difficult to say which is a more surprising find: the English-inspired mansion rising from Illinois corn country or the formal gardens and unique collection of sculptures that surround it.
Robert Allerton certainly had flair, and today the 1,500-acre park that bears his name is symbolic of the state’s dueling personalities – “artsy” versus “nature lover.”
The combination has made Allerton Park and Retreat Center so unique that it was named one of the Seven Wonders of Illinois.
“To say the place is rare is certainly understating it,” says Sue Gortner, director of the Chamber of Commerce in Monticello, a small town located three miles to the east.
Aside from the mansion and its sizeable reflecting pond, the park is made up of woodlands, meadows, hiking trails and prairie landscapes that appeal to outdoors enthusiasts. Those more aesthetically inclined are attracted by mazes of manicured hedges, a sunken garden, vine-lined walkways, a reflecting pond and several pieces of art, including a 15-foot sculpture of the Greek god Apollo.
Much of east-central Illinois benefits from the 100,000 people who visit Allerton Park each year. Roughly half of the tourists are from Illinois, while the other half comes from neighboring states and across the country.
They come for peonies and irises and just about every other plant and species of winged wildlife Illinois offers.
“The park is open year-round and we get people here in all seasons, but the peak season begins in April when people flock to see spring wildflowers,” Gortner says. “Summer is popular because of the gardens, and fall brings color to the trees and garden.”
Allerton, a 20th century farmer, land baron and patron of the arts, donated the property that contains Allerton Park to the University of Illinois in 1946 as an educational and research center, wildlife and fauna reserve, and public park. The university’s Champaign-Urbana campus is located 25 miles to the east and the school still owns and manages the park.
Allerton’s gift was once the center of a 12,000-acre agricultural enterprise acquired in the late 19th century by his father, Samuel Allerton, who owned a total of more than 80,000 acres of farmland and was a major stakeholder in Chicago banking and stockyard industries. Robert Allerton eventually managed his father’s Illinois farm holdings, but his true passion was art. He was an avid collector, philanthropist and an artist who admittedly used the Allerton-owned landscape as his canvas.
Robert Allerton, who died in 1964, transformed the property into a central Illinois showplace during the 1920s and early1930s. In 1946, after the Great Depression and World War II, he moved to Kaua’i, Hawaii.
His love of art is more than evident at Allerton Park and Retreat Center. A major star is “The Sun Singer,” a 15-foot-tall sculpture of Apollo.
One example of the park’s romantic character is the sunken garden.
“It is the most popular location for weddings that are often held at the park,” she says.
Along with weddings, the park is used for conferences, meetings and retreats.
The most popular attraction remains the 100-year-old mansion, the 40-room Allerton home located north of the Sangamon River. The mansion, modeled after a 17th century house in Surrey, England, is not open on a daily basis, but visitors can call ahead for tours.
“If people are interested in beautiful things, they will find it here,” says Jessica Hampson, one of the park’s administrators. “Our formal gardens and the more than100 garden sculptures create quite an atmosphere.”