Central Illinois sure is flat. Despite college years spent in the hinterlands of Illinois, both Guys marveled at the flatness all over again.
As a former Champaign denizen, Alan had seen nearby Robert Allerton Park long ago, but Neil had only heard of it while visiting Robert and John Gregg Allerton’s National Tropical Botanical Garden on the Hawaiian island of Kauai.
The estate near Monticello, donated to the University of Illinois in 1946, was built in 1900 by Robert Allerton (1873-1964), heir to a Chicago fortune. Allerton Park is a sprawling affair with formal gardens, nature trails and numerous examples of sculpture. Of the many sculptures that dot the landscape, two of remarkable quality are “The Sun Singer” by Carl Milles (1875-1960) and Antoine Bourdelle’s (1861-1929) “The Death of the Last
While this central Illinois estate may be less grand than the Art Institute of Chicago or Chicago‘s Allerton Hotel, also the result of Allerton’s largesse, it is a wonderfully eccentric place seemingly in the middle of nowhere. The mansion is available for weddings and conferences, but does not offer regular guided tours.
Meanwhile, Champaign is no sleepy college town. The Guys chose three of the city’s many destinations to visit: the Krannert and Spurlock museums and the Champaign Public Library.
Alan, often baffled in art museums, was keenly so by the more contemporary materials of the Krannert; Neil, who prefers 19th- and early 20th-century works, was typically unmoved by Alan’s plight.
Fortunately, the Krannert Art Museum collection consists of more than just “modern stuff,” and Alan liked a stunning Wedgewood vase elaborately decorated with a 1785 John Flaxman design. One of Neil’s favorites was a Romantic “moon” painting by Albert Blakelock (1847-1919) from its collection of 19th-century American and European paintings; the Krannert also possesses a fairly large number of 18th-century works on canvas.
Near the Krannert is the Spurlock Museum. An ethnological collection of art and artifacts from around the world, the Spurlock also features a stunning assemblage of plaster reproductions of classical sculpture.
Once staples of major museums and universities, plaster casts are now interesting artifacts in their own right. Interspersed among original artifacts, these seemingly out-of-date reproductions somehow fit in with the narrative mission of the Spurlock.
Meanwhile, the original artifacts come from the diverse cultures of ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece and Rome, as well as those of East and Southeast Asia, Oceania, Medieval Europe and both North and South America.
The Guys also visited the new Champaign Public Library designed by Ross Barney Architects of Chicago. While eye-catching, the exterior does not “spill the beans” about its “rocking” interior. With abundant natural light, easy-to-navigate spaces and a harmonious blending of materials, the interior steals the show.
Not a library regular, Neil was pleasantly surprised by the number of people taking advantage of this technologically up-to-date facility and its relaxed ambience. Alan (Mr. Librarian) thought it the best public library he has seen – even discounting being married to the architect Carol Ross Barney.
Unlike the Amish environs of Lancaster, Penn., Arthur, Ill., is not chock-a-block Amish everything, but a small, agricultural community where up-to-date transportation and black, one-horse buggies coexist just fine.
In addition to bearded men and women in long dresses going about their chores, there are several friendly shops devoted to merchandise made locally, most notably exquisite quilts and finely crafted furniture.
While Arthur is quite pleasant, neighboring Arcola, Ill., is a real surprise. At the Arcola Depot and Welcome Center, the Getaway Guys saw the world’s largest collection of corn brooms and learned that Arcola was once the corn-broom capital of the world, with ten factories devoted to production.
Who would have given a corn broom a second thought? None other than the late Charles Kuralt while doing his memorable “On the Road” pieces. Mr. Kuralt visited Arcola frequently.
The Depot and Welcome Center also has a collection of Raggedy Ann and Andy memorabilia, which led to another discovery: The Johnny Gruelle Raggedy Ann and Andy Museum.
The doll’s creator, also a writer and illustrator, was born in Arcola, and a granddaughter maintains an incredible collection of all things related to these American icons of childhood. Never a fan of dolls, and with a childhood aversion to reading, Neil was aware of these two fictional characters, but not overly curious until visiting Arcola. Of course Alan knew all about them. Unfortunately for Arcola, this museum will move to the Strong
National Museum of Play in Rochester, N.Y., in December.
Along with a well-preserved main street, Arcola can boast of another remarkable attraction: the Amish Interpretive Center Museum. Outwardly undistinguished, this museum contains a fascinating, professionally designed interpretive display of Amish artifacts and information panels to explain Amish beliefs and folkways.
Editor’s Note: The authors maintain a free website, www.getaway-chicago.com, which offers recommended outings to nearby destinations that are often overlooked, but of genuine interest and delight.