A new generation for Cuneo Museum and Gardens

  • The Cuneo Museum and Gardens in Vernon Hills is under new ownership for the first time in more than 70 years.

    The Cuneo Museum and Gardens in Vernon Hills is under new ownership for the first time in more than 70 years. Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer

Posted3/5/2010 12:01 AM

The ornate Cuneo Museum and Gardens emerges today from its annual winter hiatus, with new owners and an ambitious mission.

Visitors, as they have been since 1991, are being welcomed to the cavernous estate along Milwaukee Avenue in Vernon Hills. Though changes won't be immediate, they eventually will be extensive.


As caretaker, Loyola University Chicago wants to extend the reach of the 31,000-square-foot Venetian-style home and sprawling grounds, preserved as a public window into old-time money and power.

With a long list of refinements and additions, the intent is to create a stronger connection with the community and to make the Cuneo facilities more than a museum filled with antiques and art.

"It's building on its current base and expanding and growing and giving people a reason to come back," said Steve Bergfeld, assistant to the president of Loyola and project manager for what has become the university's largest gift.

The transfer of the property and contents from the Cuneo Foundation to the Jesuit Catholic University became official March 1. The gift, including cash, has an estimated value of $50 million.

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John Cuneo Sr., a publishing magnate, bought the home in 1937.

"We're rearranging this as it will exist in the community," explained Lindsay Carpenter, who has been hired by Loyola as the general manager. "It's supplementing and improving, just bringing it to another level."

Bergfeld said the foundation had been spending about $1 million a year to subsidize operations. Expenses had to be trimmed and revenues increased, he said.

So among the changes is the exit of several employees who had been affiliated with the museum from the beginning. Employees were told in mid-January that Loyola would be hiring outside companies for landscaping, security and other functions.

Six families that lived in homes or trailers on the grounds were given six weeks to leave, though that deadline has since been extended. In all, seven of 24 full- and part-timers remain.


For the employees who left, Loyola hosted a career service day and offered other types of assistance, according to Bergfeld.

"We really worked with each individual employee to be as empathetic as we could be," he said.

With that admittedly touchy transition complete, Loyola is concentrating on the future.

Outdoor plans envision an expanded summer concert series, theater and arts camp, and eventual restoration of the original grounds plan. The annual holiday light show will be expanded and new attractions, such as a madrigal dinner, instituted to capitalize on the seasonal theme.

A commercial kitchen will be installed. A banquet facility for year-round weddings and events will be built as an addition to the main house.

But first comes the nuts and bolts of bringing a mansion completed in 1916 for ComEd founder Samuel Insull into the modern era.

Plumbing, electrical and heating systems that have become antiques themselves will be replaced. Elevators will be added, restrooms renovated and the building made accessible for disabled people.

Topping the 30-foot-high great hall, the massive glass and wood lattice skylight, sealed for decades, will be renovated in a painstaking process.

"This whole house was originally designed with a natural ventilation system, and that's what we're going to bring back," Bergfeld said.

Various pieces of art will be cleaned and restored. Others will be relocated within the museum to showcase certain themes. New exhibits may be introduced over time.

To better share the experience with the public, docents will be schooled in Lake County history and Medieval Renaissance art.

Breakfast lecture series or special events are other possibilities.

"I just want this place to be alive," Carpenter said.