By Nancy Koeneman
In 1941, Robert Allerton informed the UI that he intended to leave his estate near Monticello to the university. It took several more years of discussion and planning to work out the details, but on Oct. 14, 1946, the keys were officially turned over to the UI.
It was, and still is, a remarkably unique gift to the UI.
"It touches upon agriculture, entomology, life sciences, physical sciences, the fine and applied arts Typically, these kinds of gifts don't go to universities, especially back then. It was rare to see a gift of this size," said David Bowman, park superintendent of Robert Allerton Park.
Allerton, the son of Chicago cattle Baron Samuel Allerton, gave the university 1,500 acres of woodland property, which includes a 20-room Georgian mansion. Another 3,775 acres of land was given so that income from the eight farms could support the park. Robert's son, John, was given the rights to live on the adjacent property until his death, which was in 1986. John returned to that property every year and stayed at a house there until 1986. In 1971, the southern 1,000 acres of the park was designated as a National Natural Landmark.
Allerton and his son, John, wanted the park to be used for education, research and as a wildlife and plant reserve. The sprawling park offers visitors a variety of landscaping, architecture, plant life, sculpture and art.
"Our goal is to totally utilize the park for learning, teaching and recreation," said Carol Stoddard, assistant director of development at Robert Allerton Park and Conference Center. "We have three missions -- research, lifelong learning and public service. What we would like to develop the park into is an interpretive center that allows us to meet those three missions."
She points out that the maze garden for example, offers the opportunity for people to learn about that kind of gardening, what the terminology means, what cultural influences are involved with maze gardens, what kind of bushes make the best kind of maze garden, and the horticultural demands of maintaining such a garden. Each of several gardens in the park offers that kind of opportunity.
"Each of the areas of the park -- the gardens, the sculptures, the nature trails, the house and the farms -- have educational value to them. The possibilities range from a small brochure to a full curriculum of classes," Stoddard said. The sculptures not only offer the opportunity for people to learn about art culture and history, but because these works have undergone or need restoration, observational and learning opportunities in art restoration and art maintenance might be planned, she said.
Bowman first met John Allerton in 1981. Bowman had done an evaluation of his grounds program at the park and later met with Allerton for lemonade on Allerton's back porch at his home on the property there. Then in 1982 Bowman became superintendent of the park. When Allerton visited the park in 1983, '84, and '85, Bowman spent time with him discussing the needs of the park, its future, and Allerton's wishes for the use of the park.
"During his last trips back, he was bubbling with enthusiasm for the educational approach," Bowman said. "He said, 'Keep it simple and attractive.' He wanted people to come here and learn about plants or gardens and take that home with them. He really wanted to share that line of thought, the park growing beyond its boundaries and that people could apply that in their lives and improve their quality of life."
As the park celebrates its 50th anniversary as part of the UI, and as the staff looks to a future celebration of the mansion's 100th anniversary, Bowman is quick to caution that the park is not simply a historical artifact.
"It's not a museum. It's not meant to be a museum. It has a past, a present and a future, any time you look at it," Bowman said.
"John Allerton told me: 'Things get better with time. You and your children will benefit from what we started My father and I lived here for well over 50 years. This place is always changing, if you are alive and aware of what's moving and not moving,' " Bowman said.
The gift given to the UI 50 years ago is still changing, he said, and offering a clear definition of what it has meant to the UI is difficult.
"The legacy is so hard to define," Bowman said. "It's so broad. It's so holistic."