Allerton Park and Recreation Center is located on the edge of Monticello, Illinois, 25 miles west of Champaign and several hours from Chicago. There’s a tight connection, however, between Robert Allerton (1873-1964) and the Windy City.
In 1879, Robert’s parents (Pamilla and Samuel — livestock/agricultural/banking millionaires) moved from Chicago’s Michigan Avenue to the Prairie Avenue District, a six-block area home just west of the lake. Then, home to nearly twenty millionaires, Prairie Avenue was often referred to as “Millionaires’ Row” and “The Sunny Street that Held the Sifted Few.”
Robert Allerton’s family lived at 1936 Prairie Avenue, across the street from the Marshall Field family. Robert and his sister, Kate, were playmates of Marshall Field’s daughter, Ethel and son, Marshall Field Jr. Another playmate was Frederic Clay Bartlett, son of Adolphus Bartlett, a partner in hardware manufacturing company Hibbard, Spencer, Bartlett & Company. Today that company is known as True Value.
Neighbors included rail car baron George Pullman, meat-packer Philip Armour, organ and piano manufacturer William Kimball, and John Glessner of International Harvester. With Prairie Avenue full of Chicago VIPs, parties abounded.
On New Year’s Day, 1886, a most spectacular ball took place at the Field’s home.
Instead of Mrs. Field’s usual tree-trimming party for Junior and Ethel and their friends, she decided that, because her son recently turned 17, it was time for something special. She borrowed sets from New York City’s hottest new operetta, The Mikado, redecorated the first floor completely, and told her children they could each invite 200 guests for dinner and a dance. She ordered food, silver, china, and linens to be delivered via railroad cars from New York City’s top caterer, Sherry’s. Guests — some from as far away as the East Coast — were encouraged to dress in Japanese garb. Johnny Hand’s orchestra provided the music and society photographer, Mathew J. Steffens, took photographs until the party ended. The next day, Mrs. Field held a reception for adults. (To see details and a photograph of Ethel Field and her friends, Alice Keith and Florence Otis, dressed as the “Three Little Maids,” visit http://glessnerhouse.blogspot.com/2016/03/the-mikado.html.) One assumes that Ethel’s friends, Robert and Frederic, participated in this fabulous event.
By the late 1890s, Robert Allerton’s father was the third richest man in Chicago and Robert began garnering attention in The Chicago Tribune society pages, in particular those columns of Madame X, aka Caroline Kirkland. On February 18, 1906, The Chicago Tribune deemed him “Chicago’s Richest Bachelor” on the front page of its Special Features section. Another article in 1907 featured him as one of Chicago’s available bachelors. It appears the Allertons were using the Tribune to try to match-make for him.
After Allerton built his 32,229 square foot Georgian mansion and “summer home” located outside of Monticello (from 1899-1901), he entertained his visitors by offering comfortable costumes for them to relax in. Many friends who visited, mostly Chicagoans from the cultural arts world, would change into native outfits Robert obtained during his world travels. Costumes included kimonos, togas, the full-skirted uniform of Greek soldiers, and other such clothing. Two framed remaining kimonos are on display in his mansion at what is now called Allerton Park and Recreation Center.
Robert’s appreciation for art permeates the entire Allerton mansion and grounds. Visitors can marvel over the many beautiful sculptures he obtained from his travels. These include bronze originals: Japanese Guardian Fish, two Sea Maiden statues by German sculptor Richard Kuöhl, and the Death of the Last Centaur by Émile-Antoine Bourdelle. Of the many other sculptures to admire, one — Adam — is a stone carved reproduction of a bronze casting that Robert purchased from Auguste Rodin’s studio to donate to the Art Institute of Chicago. The Art Institute’s Adam was at one point located on the second floor at the top of the stairs.
The Art Institute occupied a very special place in his heart. He and his childhood friend, Frederic Clay Bartlett, a noted artist in his own right, served at various times as Vice-Presidents and trustees, donating art and funds to the Art Institute. Allerton’s main physical donations — statues, porcelain, and textiles — are scattered throughout the Institute. Bartlett’s Post-Impressionist and Modernist collection is mostly gathered in the Frederic Clay and Helen Birch Bartlett room which is filled with works by Van Gogh, Lautrec, Degas, Renoir, Seurat, and others.
By the 1960s, the Art Institute considered Robert Allerton their greatest living benefactor. As a result, four years after his 1964 death, the Institute named the core complex as the Allerton Building. The Institute’s Agnes Allerton Gallery, named after his stepmother and aunt houses textile displays.
In 1946, Robert Allerton donated his mansion and a portion of his central Illinois property to the University of Illinois. Since then, the mansion and other buildings have been turned into a hotel and conference center. The gardens and walking trails at Allerton Park are free to everyone. Tours of the mansion are offered for a small fee at certain times of the year. On the first Friday evening from June through September, the grounds are home to the free Allerton Park Concert Series. During September, visitors can attend a Music Festival in the renovated barn. Recent events, have included, among others, a Murder Mystery Dinner and a May garden party celebrating the extraordinary blossoms of the peony gardens.
A private man who loved to wander his property for hours, Robert Allerton would be pleased that so many others people appreciate the property that meant so much to him. Visit and enjoy this National Park Service’s Natural National Landmark and one of the Seven Wonders of Illinois.
Check http://allerton.illinois.edu/visit/ to stay informed.
Photos by Mike Holtz