Built as the private estate of artist and philanthropist Robert Henry Allerton in 1900, Allerton Park and Retreat Center is a historical treasure that was donated to the University of Illinois in 1946. Nicknamed “The Farms,” the estate was the center of the 12,000-acre Illinois agricultural enterprise assembled during the late 1800s by Robert’s father, Samuel.
Although he oversaw his father’s interests in the Central Illinois farms, Robert Allerton’s passion was art. Educated in Europe, he traveled extensively in winter, and became an avid art collector, philanthropist, and artist who viewed the landscape as his canvas. Allerton believed that through nature, art could surround and embrace every human. This belief in the artistic power of nature led to his lifelong commitment to stewardship of the land and its natural elements. With the help of John Gregg, his protégé and, later, adopted son, Robert spent decades shaping the Illinois farmland to create ever-evolving landscapes that captured the natural beauty of the woodland and prairie, and formal gardens which served as an outdoor gallery for the sculptures they collected during their travels around the world.
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 Botanic 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.
Robert and John remained interested in the caretaking of their former home, visiting Monticello annually until the early 1960s. After Robert’s death at Lawai-Kai on December 22, 1964, John continued to visit until his death in 1986.
Allerton’s legacy as an artist-naturalist in Illinois and Hawaii are unrivaled, and his gift to the University of Illinois remains one of the largest ever. Today, Allerton Park and Retreat Center is a treasure to anyone who discovers and experiences it.