How renovations will help protect Danada House’s history while safeguarding its future

Dan and Ada Rice lived as true horse people do.

Their estate, separating Wheaton and Naperville, looked as if it belonged in Kentucky bluegrass country with its white-fenced paddocks, hickory trees, a turf racetrack and a gracious brick mansion set off a curving drive.

It’s not hard to imagine Lucky Debonair hitting his stride here, history in the making. The couple’s bay colt won the 1965 Kentucky Derby by a neck with Hall-of-Fame jockey Willie “The Shoe” Shoemaker in the saddle.

Nearly 60 years later, horses parade around the grounds at a much gentler pace. The Rice home, a venue for wedding receptions, is undergoing extensive renovations, and a series of surrounding gardens will be revitalized. The existing roses pay homage to the garland Lucky wore in the winner’s circle alongside Ada Rice, in her floral dress and pearls, that first Saturday in May.

The couple’s foray into horse racing began in 1943 when Dan Rice bought eight thoroughbreds to help fuel his wife Ada’s love of the sport. Courtesy of Friends of Danada

“All these projects being coordinated at the same time, it’s the perfect opportunity to refresh the gardens, improve accessibility to the house, bring it up to code,” said Kevin Horsfall, the planning and development director of the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County.

After both Rices died in the mid-1970s, and as development was closing in, longtime Wheaton resident and surgeon Douglas Mains and his allies — a group that became the Friends of Danada — fought to save the land and the couple’s way of life. That volunteer campaign led to the district acquiring more than half of the couple’s 1,350-acre Danada estate, so named by combining their first names (pronounced dan-ay-duh).

“DuPage has grown up around it,” forest preserve President Daniel Hebreard said. “But I think it’s a really cool thing that the forest preserve decades ago identified this with, again, strong support from the residents as a real important educational and cultural hub for our community.”

‘Beautiful charm’

The Rices — he was a commodities broker, she a horsewoman at heart — built their 19-room home, just beyond what is now Naperville and Butterfield Roads, in 1939. The district added an atrium with an expanse of glass blurring the line between the indoors and the Danada Forest Preserve.

Danada House originally featured a swimming pool set among the trees and formal gardens. Courtesy of the Friends of Danada

“The bride's room and groom's rooms will be updated a little bit, but we want to keep that beautiful charm of the Danada House,” said Deborah Brooks, executive director of Friends of Danada, the nonprofit that books events on behalf of the district.

The project is estimated to cost about $6.5 million. The bulk of the work is set to ramp up next month, Horsfall said.

The main house will have new, energy-efficient windows. Crews will remove years of paint and apply a more permeable surface to the exterior — still with a white finish — so that the brick can breathe and last longer, Horsfall said. Several rooms will get air conditioning. The district also will put in a light-duty elevator to the second floor and a ramp from the living room to a porch.

“It's really about life safety, accessibility, improving the energy efficiency and the building envelope and then enhancing the comfort for the people who are utilizing the space,” Horsfall said.

The atrium will get new finishes, new flooring, a projection screen, a dedicated audiovisual system and a setup area for DJs. A new roof also will be installed on the atrium.

  The atrium attached to the Danada House will have a new dance floor. LED lighting also will replace compact fluorescents. The goal is to ensure the facility is back in operation by spring of 2025. Joe Lewnard/

“Because this is so open — it's one of the unique things about this space — there's going to be additional landscaping to support and frame additional views to the outside and seeing the nature,” Horsfall said.

The Danada visitor gardens

The Rices set up a first-class thoroughbred operation with their breeding farm outside Lexington, Kentucky and their training grounds near Wheaton. The couple’s 26-stall white horse barn still stands today.

“We want people to learn the history but we also want them to enjoy the property and to be able to walk around and get whatever they're looking for out of the forest preserve at this unique piece of property,” said Peter Dopper, Friends of Danada board president.

  This spot — note Ada Rice’s initials — has become a popular photo op for newly married couples at Danada House. Joe Lewnard/

Dan Rice also was a partner in Arlington Park. A circular, “saddle up” structure — modeled after the space where horses assembled before an Arlington race — serves as the gateway to Danada’s gardens. In the brick pavement are Ada Rice’s initials in a diamond. Her jockeys wore the logo on their pink and white racing silks.

“A lot of time and effort went into matching the details of the house, of the farm, of the estate, and in order to tell that story,” Horsfall said.

The gardens were established 15 years ago, and some sections have become overgrown. Forest preserve commissioners recently approved a $72,542 contract to restore the native display garden near the horse barn. Many of the plant types — butterfly milkweed, New England aster and black-eyed Susan, for instance — will be available at the district’s native plant sale and were chosen to inspire home gardeners.

In the Danada sensory garden, the roses there now will be supplemented with pale purple coneflower, wild geranium, little bluestem and other native grasses, plus new shrubs. Plantings around the house will be enhanced with varieties of coreopsis, hydrangeas, peonies and blazing stars.

“There’s a lot of moving pieces, a lot of smaller contracts, and all the work has got to be coordinated to be done this year in time for the facility to reopen next spring,” Horsfall said.

The Danada House and atrium can accommodate up to 250 wedding guests. The Rices also were known for entertaining “Heaven Can Wait” actor Don Ameche, comedian Jimmy Durante and Shoemaker, the jockey who steered Lucky Debonair across the Derby finish line in 2:01:20, then the third-fastest time in race history.

“The house is over 80 years old. The atrium is 20 years old,” Horsfall said. “And we want it to be on the landscape for as many years as possible moving forward.”

  Kevin Horsfall, planning and development director of the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, talks about the improvements to the Danada House and Atrium. Joe Lewnard/
  The Danada House will remain closed this year for a building renewal project. Joe Lewnard/
Article Comments
Guidelines: Keep it civil and on topic; no profanity, vulgarity, slurs or personal attacks. People who harass others or joke about tragedies will be blocked. If a comment violates these standards or our terms of service, click the "flag" link in the lower-right corner of the comment box. To find our more, read our FAQ.