Allerton grand entry underway, other projects in sight

Allerton Park and Retreat Center’s grand entry – a more convenient drop off for those attending mansion events – is well underway, but the new roadway is just one of a laundry list of improvements planned at the park as it continues to check off items outlined in the master plan it adopted in 2015.

The entry, which will also enable the mansion to be better showcased from Old Timber Road, should be completed this fall, thanks to a $1 million donation from David and Debra Rathje.

Next up? Conversion of a seldom noticed structure across the street from the visitor’s center into an artist-in-residence facility that can double as extra lodging during busy tourist and wedding seasons at the park.

Originally an ice house for the sprawling Allerton estate in the early 1900s and now used mainly for a break room space, park Director Derek Peterson told those over coffee at the first “Monthly Allerton Blend” that its renovation will usher in an artist alley feel around the visitor’s center.

The area will also see upgrades of maintenance/car shop areas into more public space and rooms to rent, and the eventual moving of the visitor’s center into the office structure, which currently houses staff just west of the visitor’s center and Allerton greenhouse.

But for the dominoes to fall correctly, the overall plan for now depends on the timeline for the ice house and converting it into space that is more engaging to park visitors. That and adding rooms for rent in a maintenance building nearby will allow for two rooms at the Evergreen Lodge to be converted into office space, for the visitors center to be moved into current the adjacent office building, and for expanded seating for the recently opened Evergreen Cafe.

“This space (the ice house) is the pivot point on the (addition of) two queen beds,” he said, noting that new lodging is needed before rooms are taken out of commission at the Evergreen Lodge.

“The Evergreen Lodge was built in 1953 by the University (of Illinois). It’s beautiful on the outside, but on the inside is a little bit rough. Its concrete walls were built for dormitory space. Back in the 1950s Allerton was purely used for educational purposes, and so when the university built it, it was built in the same style as dormitories on campus,” said Peterson, who said splitting it between lodging and office space is likely a better use at this point.

He noted that funding for the ice house is the next step, as Evergreen Lodge rooms will not be taken out of commission until there are revenue-producing rooms to take their place at the ice house.

Other projects on the radar for upcoming years include the possibility of a children’s interactive park, a rehab of the restrooms located near the main parking lot, utility work, and maybe even putting up a replica of the gazebo-style south tower that once stood at the park.

About $3 million of an $8 million fundraising goal has been met to accomplish the tasks, with park officials hoping to have those dollars committed in four years.

Peterson added a much-needed parking lot resurfacing at the University of Illinois-owned park will take place soon, partially funded by a $100,000 Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity grant.

The $8 million campaign includes:

–$1.5 million for program additions;

–$4 million for capital improvements; and

–$2.5 million in endowments for ongoing park improvements and maintenance.

As for the master plan work centered around the visitor’s center, the tentative order of projects is:

–Ice house renovation and addition of two beds for lodging when there are no artists in residence staying there. Two beds will also be added to the maintenance/car shed. Both of those buildings are located across the street (Old Timber Road) from the visitor’s center and main Allerton offices;

–Offices would move from their current building (just west of the visitor’s center) to a portion of the Evergreen Lodge, which is just off the main parking lot;

–The visitor’s center would be moved to the former office building;

–The Evergreen Cafe would expand within the former visitor’s center.

Positive comments peppered with some suggestions were fielded by Peterson from those attending the second-Thursday session. Shawnda Tague of Decatur, whose daughter recently had her wedding at the park, suggested better signage at the park, particularly at the Lost Garden.

Others complimented the park on low-cost outings such as the Christmas Walk and concert series, and suggested more offerings in that vein.

Second Thursday updates to continue
The July 12 gathering in the Evergreen Cafe was the first of several “Monthly Allerton Blend” sessions planned for this year. The next one, scheduled for 9 a.m. Thursday, Aug. 9, will focus on the history of the Triangle Parterre Garden and plans for its renovation. An optional tour of the garden will follow.

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