Stevenson Center on Democracy closes the book on its historic meeting place

Another chapter in the storied history of one of Illinois' and Lake County's best-known political families has ended.

The Adlai Stevenson Center on Democracy, founded in 2008 by the late former U.S. Sen. Adlai E. Stevenson III and other civic leaders to "enhance the global understanding and practice of democracy," recently suspended activities and closed its books.

The organization held programs at "The Farm," his renowned father's historic home and getaway off St. Mary's Road south of Route 60 in Mettawa. The elder Stevenson was an Illinois governor, U.N. ambassador and Democratic Party nominee for president in 1952 and 1956.

Over its run, the nonpartisan center held more than 100 programs at the one-time family home, as well as in Chicago and elsewhere to discuss major issues in the country and world.

Topics including the Electoral College or climate change, and speakers such as Thomas R. Pickering, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, would attract capacity crowds.

"It was a great opportunity to bring wider views of the state, country and even the world here to Lake County," said Ann Maine, a veteran Lake County Forest Preserve commissioner and its former president. Her district includes the Stevenson home, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a designated National Historic Landmark.

The decision to close the center was made after great deliberation, according to Nancy Stevenson, Adlai III's widow and former president of the organization.

Over the years, a "splendid coterie of volunteers" supported the events by greeting guests, contributing food, preparing for events and other tasks, Stevenson said.

But with no hired staff to maintain records, create programs and follow through, the board "did not feel it possible to strengthen the structure sufficiently to sustain the enterprise," she said.

The announcement was shared without fanfare or a grand finale. Volunteers, board members and advisers selected and urged support for Injustice Watch, a nonpartisan, nonprofit public service journalism organization, to advance the center's mission.

Aside from public education and discourse, activities provided a window into the history of the home and beauty of the grounds.

Family ownership ended in 1974 when the home and 40 acres stretching from St. Mary's Road to the Des Plaines River was given to the Lake County Forest Preserve District. But the connection did not.

Historic items, including Adlai II's study with his VIP Rolodex, were kept intact, and public tours and programs of the home and grounds have been staples. The initial think tank-style goal didn't materialize, but volunteers bonded in efforts to present programs on interesting topics, Stevenson said.

The organization received much more in return than the relatively modest rent it paid the forest preserve district, Stevenson said. Plowing the drive for winter events, mowing the meadow and other assistance illustrated the district's support, she said.

"The center's years of contact with the district has been a heartwarming experience for its many dedicated volunteers and the Stevenson family," Stevenson wrote to the forest board and staff in late December with news of the center's closing.

Maintaining the 1930s-era home, structures and property has been an expensive proposition. Demolishing the landmark was a possibility until 2021, when the Lake County Democratic delegation secured $1.1 million in state funding to stabilize and improve the envelope of the home.

That amount has been included in the state budget, but the district had to submit an application and is awaiting a formal grant agreement.

The tentative plan is to update the scope of the work before awarding a contract in the second half of the year, with construction to follow in 2024, according to John Nelson, the forest preserve district's director of operations and infrastructure.

The district also is pursuing grant funding for a master plan to include the home, adjacent service building and the rest of the site. A public open house to share ideas and gather feedback will be held at date to be determined later.

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  Commissioners with the Lake County Forest Preserve District tour the grounds of the historic Adlai E. Stevenson home off St. Mary's Road in Mettawa. The future of the building had been uncertain but repairs are planned. Mick Zawislak/, 2021
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