Constructed in 1900 as his own private estate, artist and philanthropist Robert Allerton spent decades curating art from all across the globe to display at his mansion nestled deep in the woods near Monticello.
Then in 1946, he donated the entire 5,500-acre estate to the University of Illinois to be used as an educational center and wildlife preserve. At the time, it was the most generous gift the university had ever received.
Over the past few years, park staff have started fundraising for the mansion’s interior. That’s when Champaign’s Anne Carlson got involved.
“You know, basically my goal was to be able to not do a historic renovation per se, but to use the original designs, the structure of the house and the history of the house as a sort of inspiration. Being mindful that it’s being used in a commercial setting at this point,” said Carlson, owner/operator of Anne Carlson Designs.
Jordan Zech is the park’s retreat center manager and acts as the liaison between Carlson and staff and donors.
“Robert Allerton took or donated most of his original furnishings,” Zech said. “So, we have very few original pieces. Then, a couple years back, we made it a priority during some strategic planning to be more of a destination.
“We also made a little switch with our donors to start really focusing on the retreat center here. A lot of interest, even from the general public, is the outdoors. A lot of people associate just the park, the gardens, the trails, and don’t realize what we do here in the retreat center.”
Keeping with the design of a building over 120 years old isn’t easy. Carlson is tasked with analyzing old photos, retracing Allerton’s journeys around the world, and finding furnishings that are durable and feasible enough to withstand the comings and goings of thousands of people.
“There was no real plan for how the interiors were being maintained, or even really having any sort of long term vision of care,” Carlson said. “So I offered to them, I said, ‘I’d be happy to put together one long term plan, so there’s consistency in how you’re managing the product, the product you’re delivering.’”
“She’s excellent at taking original pictures, or like, we have some original rugs, and then she uses that to inspire the rest of the room,” Zech said. “So it’s really cool to kind of see these rooms transform with a thought process behind it, not just us throwing furnishings together.”
Like many others at Allerton, Carlson volunteers her time to the park and staff.
“It’s been a real joy for me,” she said. “I do this as a pro bono thing, so this is I say my passion project.”
“Allerton had an exquisite sense of taste and style, and by recalling his original intentions, we get better insight into his creative mind,” said Aaron Brakke, an architectural professor at the University of Illinois, Monticello dweller and frequent visitor of the park. “I think to be more precise with that the way the interiors are decorated will allow visitors a more intimate look at what Allerton was thinking as he developed this strange and exotic place in the Midwest.”