Morton Arboretum branches out with $15 million garden for centennial
In the core of the Morton Arboretum, if you wander off beyond the Visitor Center, you'll come across a prim and proper garden.
It's a formal space of rigid shapes. Rows of pruned hedges frame the lawn. At one end, four pillars have stood their ground since Suzette Morton Davidson commissioned an architect to build the columns in the 1960s.
It was her grandfather, salt magnate Joy Morton, who established the arboretum on the family's estate in 1922.
To celebrate its centennial anniversary next year, the arboretum broke ground Wednesday on a $15 million project to redesign the stately hedge garden -- now mostly greenery -- into much more colorful displays of floral beauty and diversity.
Spanning 255 yards east to west, the length of about 2½ football fields, the new "Grand Garden," true to its name, will be grand in scope.
"It creates a substantial and very attractive new central feature on the grounds of the arboretum," President and CEO Gerard Donnelly said.
The arboretum holds a global collection of trees across 1,700 acres of woods, meadows, prairies and other natural areas. Trees are still king, as arboretum leaders said Wednesday, but the outdoor museum in Lisle is branching out into ornamental gardening in a big way.
A centennial plaza will mark the entrance to the new garden. Looking east, a terrace flanked by waterfalls will serve as a venue for weddings. In the opposite direction, taller hedges will divide the space into six, more intimate "garden rooms."
With lighting around the entire garden, the arboretum could add to a slate of events after the sun goes down.
The hope is to draw an even wider audience -- attendance topped 1 million visitors in recent pre-pandemic years -- as the arboretum looks to a full calendar of centennial events and the next 100 years.
"This was a project designed for the arboretum's centennial year and its second century," Donnelly said.
The arboretum is building its first major garden since opening one designed for children in 2005. It's "no small undertaking," Donnelly said, planning for just more than a year of construction to finish the garden in time for the centennial in 2022.
"When you have a long-term view and commitment -- we grow trees for a living, after all -- we compel ourselves to think ahead," Donnelly said.
Arboretum leaders long wanted to develop a more horticultural display garden. And they had the space, "prime real estate," behind the Visitor Center, Donnelly said.
"We know that among our large visiting audience, many people are not necessarily coming to the arboretum just to explore the diversity of trees or to identify them in our collections," he said. "It really is to have a pleasant experience in the outdoors and to appreciate plant and garden beauty and landscape beauty."
But coming out of the COVID-19 crisis, the appetite for fundraising for such a project was, at first, a question mark.
"We didn't really start raising this money until the beginning of this year," Donnelly said.
And yet it took only about six months to raise $12.6 million toward building the garden.
Doris Christopher, one of the lead donors, said she was "all in" when she first saw the grand plans to commemorate the centennial and the arboretum's deep roots in DuPage County.
"It will provide a backdrop for gatherings of all kinds, whether it's someone who comes here just for solitude and a moment to reflect or for families to celebrate exciting milestones, anniversaries, wedding receptions," said Christopher, founder of the kitchenware company Pampered Chef. "I really feel as if it's going to provide different things to different people."
Construction will begin in July to re-imagine the 1930s-era hedge garden.
The centennial plaza will occupy a circular court surrounded by pergolas above plantings and garden beds. A medallion will register the arboretum founding year in 1922.
"That's an arrival space, a pretty spectacular arrival space," Donnelly said.
Another main area, called the "Celebration Garden," will host ceremonies and events. It has a long view to the four sculptural columns in the distance.
A series of steps now raise mobility issues, but the new garden will have accessible paths throughout.
Looking west, the "Joy of Plants Garden" will stretch almost to the arboretum's administration building. The garden rooms will have distinct themes that will change seasonally.
"They'll all be the best of the best plants, colorful and beautiful in character and design," Donnelly said.
100 years, 100 events
The Grand Garden is set to open in September 2022 to tie in with a year's worth of events leading up to the 100th anniversary.
The arboretum officially opened its doors Dec. 14, 1922. The centennial celebration will launch on that date this December with a schedule of 100 activities and programs.
The arboretum also will issue a new book on its history, scientific research and educational outreach.
"We want to balance the two, celebrate that history as well as all of the promise and potential the arboretum has for its second century," he said.
In honor of its conservation mission, the arboretum aims to plant more than 1,000 trees throughout the seven-county Chicago region, an initiative that will likely kick off on another important date in its history: Arbor Day.
Julius Sterling Morton, the father of the arboretum's founder, started Arbor Day in 1872 in Nebraska.