Top of the Morning, July 21, 2014: From the archives

Top of the Morning, July 21, 2014: From the archives

It's so cliche to call Allerton Park a jewel, but cliches get that way for a reason.

Ask folks around here for their favorite public places and Allerton is always on the short list. It gets 100,000 visitors a year.

The park, given by Robert Allerton to the University of Illinois, has a mansion often used for meetings and conferences. Its sunken garden is popular for weddings. In the park, there are cool trails and loads of statues you won't see anywhere else. The park has been a National Natural Landmark since 1970 and both the house and the park are on the National Register of Historic Places.

But it almost wasn't.

The Army Corps of Engineers wanted to create the Oakley Dam on the Sangamon River to improve the supply for Decatur.

Much of the grounds at Allerton Park would have been flooded.

The plan had been approved. But it didn't happen.

Here's what did happen, courtesy of Bruce Hannon (Hannon, now an emeritus professor at the University of Illinois, has spent decades as an environmental watchdog throughout East Central Illinois.):

1.Congress first authorized the Oakley dam in the great Depression as a make-work project, along with several other Corps of Engineers dams on the Sangamon. The project was halted by the Congressman at the time.

2. The Corps resuscitated Oakley dam in 1967 in much larger form, all within the original congressional approval scope. The newly enlarged project would significantly damage Allerton Park.

3. Patricia Coffey Hannon, then (1967) mother of four, started a petition, held a bonfire meeting at which she spoke eloquently against the project to 200 people at a camp near the park. She handed the effort over to her husband Bruce who found it a full time job for the next eight years, years during which he taught full time and finished his Ph.D. in engineering at the University.

4. In May of 1975, Senator Charles Percy called a meeting in Springfield to announce the death of the Oakley project. Senator (Adlai) Stevenson (III), Governor (Dan) Walker, the head of the Corps of Engineers, Congressman Ed Madigan and various state and county officers attended the project funeral. Senator Percy proposed a dam on a tributary to the Sangamon called Friend's Creek. The environmentalists, knowing of this "surprise announcement," had lined the entryway to the meeting and the Friend's Creek dam was eventually abandoned.

5. The environmentalists made sure the project had a stake driven through its heart as they convinced Congressman Madigan to formally deauthorize the Oakley project.

6. The main reason the project was proposed and supported by Decatur politicians was the growing water demand of their grain milling industries. Ironically, their demand for water had plummeted. In 1970, the Decatur sanitary district began to charge the industries for waster water contamination. The new federal laws were clamping down on river pollution. The two large grain-milling industries immediately installed their own water reclamation systems drastically reducing the demand for Lake Decatur water. This drove the Benefit-Costs ration of the project even further below one.

***

Now that the threat of flooding is over, think you know Allerton Park and Retreat Center?

Bruce Branham, the interim director there and a University of Illinois professor, has five tidbits that may surprise you.

(1) The iconic Sun Singer sculpture was the result of a mistake. Robert Allerton was in Stockholm, Sweden when he saw the original Sun Singer. With an interpreter he visited the Swedish artist, Carl Mille, and he thought he ordered a six-foot-tall copy of the sculpture. Instead, a year and one-half later, the 15-foot-tall Sun Singer arrived at The Farms. Not one to be detoured, Robert Allerton bought and cleared land at the west end of the property and had his adopted son, John Gregg Allerton, design the circular concrete base that currently holds the bronze statue.

(2) The Sunken Garden is one of our most popular sites for weddings and pictures. While Robert Allerton was living on the farms, this area was where they dumped their trash!

(3) The Hallene Gateway, which welcomes many visitors and potential students to our campus, was initially part of the University Hall, the first building built on what is now called the Quad. University Hall was demolished in 1938. The pillars that now form the Hallene Gateway apparently were dumped at Allerton park near the maintenance building. The pillars were "rediscovered" in 1995 and now majestically welcome visitors to campus.

(4) Two statues by artist Emmanuel Fremiet, called The Bear and The Gorilla, were displayed for many years on the grounds of Robert Allerton Park. These pieces were not collected by Robert Allerton but were placed in the park after Allerton gifted the park to the U of I. These terrific pieces of art caused quite a stir at the park and often frightened our younger guests. Currently, these statues are displayed in the Krannert Art Museum on campus. While a number of park visitors express the desire to see these statues return to Allerton, an equal number of park visitors would adamantly oppose the return of these two pieces to Allerton.

(5) Robert Allerton loved entertaining his friends from Chicago and Europe at his estate in Monticello. Allerton and friends particularly enjoyed dressing up in costumes and having elaborate parties at The Farms. The room we call Sun Porch was where Allerton stored the costumes that they'd use for these parties. Today the sun porch houses the restored statue of Venus. Allerton acquired this copy of the famous original from a European art dealer and displayed it in the Lost Garden, but the statue suffered from being exposed to the elements and after refurbishing, is safely displayed in the mansion.

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