Robert Allerton officially gifted his 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.
After the gift was made, staff at the University of Illinois studied the estate and its potential. Initial work was started to create infrastructure for a public park, including trailhead parking lots, restroom facilities, and public roads. The main house began conversion into a more useable education center by converting large rooms (originally staff quarters) into smaller rooms with private bathrooms, and creating dining room space and kitchen facilities. In the early 1950s, the University added an additional parking lot and the Evergreen Lodge to accommodate more conference guests. (At this time most beds in the house and Evergreen Lodge were twin beds.)
Throughout the 1950s, the University started utilizing the Park for research, specifically in the Natural Areas. (Find more about ongoing research here.) During the 50s and 60s many structures fell into disrepair and were either demolished or damaged by fire. Two of the more well-known structures that were removed were the Lost Garden Tea House and the South Tower, both of which defined the outmost boundaries of the Park, and raised security and liability issues.
In 1962 the Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Congress authorized the Oakley Reservoir on the Sangamon River downstream from Allerton. This proposed dam project would have flooded hundreds of acres of the Park’s bottomlands. Led by local couple Bruce and Patricia Hannon, the Committee on Allerton Park (COAP) was established as a 501c3 non-profit organization dedicated to “save Allerton Park” by stopping the dam.
The Committee’s petition drive collected almost 100,000 signatures and helped bring awareness to the proposed project. The group was finally able to halt the dam’s appropriation progress in 1975, and deauthorize it at the federal level in late 1985.The COAP eventually became the Champaign-based non-profit Prairie Rivers Network, who continuesto protect clean water and restore rivers throughout the state of Illinois.
In the 80’s and 90’s Allerton Park saw some ups and downs. The Lost Garden was dismantled and permanently closed to the public, the statues being moved to the North side of the Park where they would endure less vandalism. The Fu Dogs were removed from their pedestals for the same reason, but were later able to be returned to their original places. The Mansion, while still used for educational events, began to show its age and funds for renovations and updating were difficult to procure. The Gate House and House in the Woods were renovated to provide additional lodging spaces, and public events, like the Holiday Showcase, were created and reinstated. With the help of federal grants, pathways were established throughout the formal gardens to meet the American Disabilities Act (ADA).
Immediately following this short period of development, in 2001 the main bridge between the North and South sections of Allerton across the Sangamon River was closed based on state safety regulations. This historic one-lane bridge was a significant physical connection to the local community, and the lack of funds to repair the bridge was devastating to the recent growth at Allerton.
But for the second time in Allerton’s public history, a community group stepped in. Allerton advocates began increasing in number, and with them, the public enthusiasm for Allerton. The community was making this place into their passion. Public events were initiated, relationships with campus and the local community were re-established, decades of deferred-maintenance were repaired, and many improvements were made to facilities, gardens, and the use of Allerton. Though Park staff and funding were cut significantly in the Great Recession of 2008, the expanded use of Allerton helped sustain some momentum. With help from the local community, Allerton was able to re-open the main bridge in 2012 – the beginning of another great decade at Allerton.
Around this time, new Park leadership made the conscious decision to become a more open and accessible public and University resource. Outdoor concerts were reinstated, followed by additional community events. The Mansion was utilized not only for educational purposes, but recreational events like weddings and public gatherings. A renewed focus on improving the grounds and facilities was made possible by deferred maintenance loans from the University, along with an increased focus on individual support through donations. Overall, a renewed interest in attracting the public to appreciate and help sustain Allerton was established.
In 2015, the University of Illinois Board of Trustees approved the Allerton Park Master Plan, which inspires a vision for conservation, appreciation, engagement, and development of Allerton’s physical property. Find more information about the future of Allerton here.