UI Sesquicentennial Garden to be dedicated today

UI Sesquicentennial Garden to be dedicated today

URBANA — In her undergraduate days, Jo Ellyn Downey liked to wander down to the University of Illinois Arboretum for some quiet time.

As a young mom, she took her children sledding on the Orchard Downs hill.

And when her daughter Jennifer got married, they took pictures at the nearby UI President's House, at the invitation of longtime friends Stan and Judy Ikenberry.

So it's fitting that Downey's gift to the university will be a perennial garden connecting the Arboretum to the President's House.

The Sesquicentennial Garden, named for the UI's 150th birthday celebration and built with the help of many alumni, will be formally dedicated in a ceremony at 3 p.m. today.

The garden is dedicated to her three children — Jay Downey of Champaign, Jennifer Wirtz of Glenview and Jill Williams of California — and six grandchildren.

"It's my honor to be able to provide something like this and share it with the rest of the community," said Downey, an avid gardener and UI advertising alumna who is now retired and living in California.

Downey had approached college officials about a gift, and they suggested a formal garden behind the President's House, just east of the Idea Garden. Previously, there was nothing but an open grassy field between the back gate of the President's House and the Miles C. Hartley Selections Garden to the south.

"It fits in perfectly," said UI Arboretum Director Kevin McSweeney.

Downey envisions the garden as a site for wedding pictures or receptions and wants it to be "something that people would be able to enjoy and spend some time in and feel good about."

"It would be lovely, I think, when there are events at the President's House, for guests to wander down into the garden and enjoy it," Downey said Thursday, while on her way to Champaign for the ceremony.

Downey met several times with the landscape architects who planned the garden, including retired UI Professor Terry Harkness, who developed the overall vision, and alumnus Ryan Kettelkamp of Chicago, who drew up the actual designs.

What emerged was a four-season garden with trees, shrubs and perennials, a complement to the annual plants featured in the Hartley garden. It's in the shape of an ellipse, centered around an oval lawn and divided into four beds divided by walkways that carry visitors to the heart of the garden, McSweeney said.

But it also has contemporary design elements, with an off-center axis, an "origination point" on the southwest edge of the garden marked by a bronze disc, and a diagonal pathway leading to it.

The Arboretum is a popular site for cross-country and 5K races, so planners were careful not to infringe on the race routes, said Marise Robbins-Forbes, director of development for the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences. The garden was moved slightly south of its original location in order to keep the running path open, she said.

Construction of the garden started last fall with concrete and irrigation work, McSweeney said. The initial trees were planted last spring, and over the summer, five student interns installed about 5,000 perennial plants in a matter of days.

"They were just fantastic," he said. "They took hold of the project."

The perennials include asters, Russian sage and lady's mantle. The garden also features prairie grasses, colorful shrubs and flowering trees such as dogwoods, red buds and crabapples.

Visitors can stop and smell the flowers on unique stone benches crafted by local landscape architect John Brown. They're made out of quartzite, a durable, metamorphic rock, essentially sandstone that was crystallized under high temperatures and pressure.

"It has a beautiful texture to it because of the ripple marks that are preserved in the stone," McSweeney said.

Lighted sculptures will be installed later at the north and south entrances to the garden, made out of the same stone and laser-cut metal, he said. The cost will be covered by the John N. Chester estate, which funds art projects on all three campuses.

Downey remembers seeing garden benches in the Arboretum when she was a student and thinking, "Wouldn't it be lovely someday if I could just have a bench?", not dreaming she would one day create a garden.

While she has yet to see the finished garden, the work she has seen so far is "absolutely gorgeous."

"I've always been a flower person," she said. "My mother and grandmother always had flower gardens. I have, too, both in Champaign and in the desert where I live now. That's my church. That's where I go when I just need some quiet time. And it works."

Many alumni and friends pitched in to make the garden a reality by donating money, plants and materials, Robbins-Forbes said.

Elite Growers and Midwest Ground Covers, two Chicago-area companies run by UI alumni Melissa Conry, John Wachter and Christa Orem Keller, provided donated or discounted plants. Greg Oltman of Gro Horticultural Enterprises volunteered to deliver the materials for free. A committee of professionals in the industry made recommendations about which plants to use, and more than 60 volunteers showed up to help plant trees last spring, she said.

The Arboretum welcomes volunteers year-round, Robbins-Forbes said.

"We really do see the Arboretum as a resource and amenity for everyone in the community and campus," she said.