When I paid my first visit to Allerton Park as a child, I felt like I had traveled into the land of Narnia in C.S. Lewis’ “The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.”
There was a garden full of dragon-like fu dogs, a giant centaur, a towering figure from Greek mythology and other exotic creatures, all depicted by various sculptures collected by wealthy scion and art aficionado Robert Allerton (1873-1964) on his “Farms” south of Monticello.
Over the years, I have periodically returned to Allerton Park & Retreat Center alongside family and friends. I am always impressed by the fu dogs, the centaur, the towering Sun Singer and the many other sculptures displayed there, as well as by the 1,500-acre site’s ornate gardens and thick woodland.
I have long been familiar with the outdoor attractions of the park, which Allerton donated in 1946 to the University of Illinois, but I had never stepped inside the Allerton Mansion there until I recently accepted an invitation for a tour. I found that the house’s interior matched the beauty of its brick and stone exterior.
Allerton, the son of wealthy Chicago businessman Samuel Allerton, had the mansion constructed circa 1900 in the architectural style of an English country manor. The long central gallery has several adjoining rooms that are now used for conferences, weddings and other special events.
One of these spaces is a former music room that Allerton converted into a library. This two-story, wood-paneled room is filled with books from the U of I stacks and from Allerton’s collection. The site’s sales and marketing coordinator, Matt Smith, said some of the latter books still contain train ticket stubs and other items that Allerton and his guests used as bookmarks.
The library is adorned with Chinese musician sculptures of the kind that can also be found in the park’s formal garden area. The gallery is decorated with blue prints for the construction of the mansion, including plans for a library addition that was never built.
A red-carpeted grand staircase in the gallery leads to the second floor and the bedrooms there, including a commanding view from Allerton’s room of the nearby reflecting pond and meadow. Allerton’s room also has an original pedestal sink with marble countertop and silver legs.
Additional bedrooms are located in the former quarters for servants on the third floor. The retreat center can sleep up to 70 guests in the mansion, the nearby gate house, and other lodging in the park.
The mansion and the adjacent carriage house were originally separate structures but were later connected by a marble-lined hallway. The former carriage house now holds a spacious dining room next to an herb garden that provides ingredients for the site’s kitchen.
Although the mansion is not open to the general public on a walk-in basis, Smith said the site’s management has set a goal of offering more special events for the public in the mansion and the surrounding parkland.
As part of this goal, the Allerton Barn will host an Oktoberfest German polka concert and bratwurst meal from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. tonight. In addition, the mansion will host a brunch with seatings at 10 a.m. and noon Sunday. Reservations for the brunch should be made by calling 217-333-3287.
Hopefully, such special events will help introduce or reintroduce area residents to the magical setting that Allerton created amidst the farmland of Central Illinois. For more information on this site, go online to http://allerton.illinois.edu/.
This column and previous entries in the series can be found online at www.facebook.com/RobStroud.DayTripper.
Rob Stroud is a staff writer for the JG-TC. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 238-6861.