Robert Henry Allerton (1873-1964) was born in Chicago on March 20, 1873, the only son of wealthy Chicagoan Samuel Waters Allerton (1828-1914) and Pamilla Thompson Allerton (1840-1880). His early education was received at preparatory academies in the city as well as New England.
While growing up on Chicago’s prestigious Prairie Avenue, Robert and another boy of the same age, Frederic Clay Bartlett (heir to what eventually became True Value Hardware) became lifelong friends. In 1893, Robert and Frederic joined the multitudes flocking to the World’s Columbian Exposition, only blocks away from their homes near the Chicago lakefront. Of particular interest to them was the Palace of Fine Arts where many of their own family friends, including the Potter Palmers, exhibited their prized art collections. Amateur artists themselves, they decided to forego following their fathers into the family businesses, and instead dedicate their lives to the pursuit of art.
For five years, Robert studied painting, drawing, and sculpture at Munich’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts and academies in Paris. In 1897, when he was 24, Robert dramatically burned all his paintings and returned to the U.S. as a self-proclaimed failed artist to manage the family’s agricultural holdings.
Among Robert’s business ventures was the management and operation of a 12,000 acres estate in Monticello, Illinois. “The Farms,” as it was known at the time, was a state of the art model of production farming that attracted experts from around the world to study its techniques.
“One of the enjoyable things about being a farmer,” Robert wrote, “is that much of the work can be done in the summer, and the winter can be devoted to travel.” Robert, an extensive globe-trotter, used his frequent trips as opportunities to expand an ever increasing collection of artwork to display around The Farms.
Robert thoroughly enjoyed hosting visitors at his estate. His parents, Sam and Agnes, visited often enough to have a bedroom kept especially for them (the second floor bedroom opposite the head of the stairs), but mostly guests arrived from Chicago. They included composers, painters, sculptors, journalists, and other people associated with the cultural pursuits he enjoyed.
One of Robert’s more prolific guests was Glyn Warren Philpot who, during a 1913 visit, he sculpted Primitive Man, made a sketch of Robert as a faun, and painted a portrait of him which he called The Man In Black. It now hangs in London’s Tate Gallery.On a return visit in 1921, Philpot’s companion, Vivian Forbes, sketched Robert in charcoal.
Robert kept guest books in which he noted visitors, art collections, changes to his gardens, and other ephemera. Robert collected costumes from his trips around the world and brought them back, storing them in wooden closets that lined the small conservatory found at the other end of the hallway near the stable. His friends would then decide which costume to change into for relaxation upon arriving to The Farms.
In the early 1920s, Robert’s young second cousin Asler Dighton introduced him to his roommate, John Gregg, and the two quickly became companions. After graduating from the University of Illinois, Gregg took a job in the architecture firm of David Adler, an acquaintance of Robert’s. Gregg’s and Allerton’s relationship strengthened, and when the firm closed, Robert invited Gregg to join him full-time at “The Farms” to help design the Gardens and assist with farm management.
Together Robert and John toured the world, bringing home more art from Asia and Europe. During a stopover on the Hawaiian Islands in 1938, Robert and John purchased 100 acres of beach-front property on the island of Kauai, and “Lawai-Kai” became their winter home (now part of the National Tropical Botanical Garden). After a few years, managing The Farms from Kauai became a challenge, especially as Robert and John—and the staff in Monticello—were aging.
Robert officially gifted the house and grounds, plus an additional 3,600 acres of farmland, to the University of Illinois on October 24, 1946. The deed of gift stated that the property “be used by the University as an education and research center, as a forest and wild-life and plant-life reserve, as an example of landscape gardening, and as a public park.” At that time, it constituted the most generous gift extended to the University. Robert also designated an adjacent 250 acres of land within the estate’s boundaries to establish the Illinois 4-H Memorial Camp.
In 1960, a year after Illinois enacted a law that allowed adults to adopt adults, Robert adopted John Gregg. At that time, Robert was 87 and John was 60. After Robert’s death in 1964 John took the Allerton name as a way to ensure that the Allerton name was imprinted on the philanthropy that John continued in the name of his adopted father.
Throughout his life, Robert never ceased to study and acquire art and became an honorary president and trustee of the Art Institute (the main building there bears his name). During his lifetime, Allerton donated over 6,600 pieces to the museum, making him one of the most dedicated patron-benefactors in its history. Of the original sculptures and artifacts acquired during his travels and donated to the Art Institute of Chicago, prototypes and replicas of many of his favorites found their way to the gardens at The Farms.
Robert made the most of the opportunities his position gave him. He broadened the commercial and agricultural accomplishments of his father while also pursing the artistic activities that would define his own identity. Robert’s contributions to the region went far beyond the boundaries of his estate. He gifted community buildings, led forest preservation efforts, established charitable trusts, and funded local scholarships. Through his gifts, countless people have been able to share in his passion. Robert is remembered as a kind and sensitive man who always sought the personal element in every interaction.