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Poetic Lake Forest Garden

A respectful garden accompanies a country home outside of Lake Forest

Written by Ethne Clarke
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  • Matthew Benson

    Donna LaPietra: Some people cut broad swaths through life; others make their mark more quietly, taking each day and moment, each person and place, one at a time, as if they're connecting the dots to shape their lives in an inspiring and life-affirming order.

    And as über-dot-connectors go, Donna LaPietra takes some beating. "It's been a constant theme throughout my life," she offers, describing what motivates her, "to believe in the poetry of the moment and to always trust my instinct and to go wherever it will take me." And for the past 20-some years, that has been Chicago, where she is renowned for her ability to bring people together and build community.

    Donna and life-partner Bill Kurtis are well-known as top-rank documentary filmmakers; their company, Kurtis Productions, is based in Chicago, while Mettawa Manor, their country home, is just a stone's throw from Lake Forest, Illinois. The house, built in 1927, is a prime example of the Tudor revival style, popular at the time for the spacious executive family estates being established north of Chicago.

    "We had a town house in the city, and I worked with an interior decorator who taught me two things: Home is an important source of personal well-being and," Donna laughs, "having a professional designer's help is really important!" At that point in her life, as she self-deprecatingly explains, she had little experience of great houses or great gardens, and the design elements that set such places apart. But coming to Mettawa Manor, she realized it deserved a garden that respected the architecture of the house; she also wanted a landscape that reflected the couple's interests. So she decided to bring in Craig Bergman, the noted Chicago plantsman and garden designer. His nursery and practice are notable for their English flavor; he routinely travels to England, searching out the plant and design trends that are buzzing there and returning with them to his Midwest base.

    Photography: Matthew Benson

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    The heart of Mettawa's landscape is the walled formal garden that stretches out from the terrace at the back of the house. From there, stone steps lead down onto the sunken lawn, the perfect spot for viewing the twin 40-foot-long herbaceous borders that crown the ramparts on either side. Opposite the terrace, at the far end of the formal garden, is a boxwood-edged rose parterre anchored by a Venetian marble wellhead, one of the few garden ornaments that remain from the original garden. Backing the elegant little parterre are long double borders planted with irises and peonies, ensuring that this area nearest to the house is at its floral prime during the summer months. "You know," Donna offers thoughtfully, as she describes her garden-making progress, "when we started the garden we knew next to nothing, but we learned so much in the process, and that has deepened what the garden means to us."

    A flagstone path through the parterre garden emerges through a wrought-iron gate into the orchard meadow, where daffodils, camassia, and other bulbs are gradually colonizing the ground beneath the tree canopy. Next to this area is the productive little potager, and next to it, the lavender-hedged herb garden. It is partnered by a cutting garden where annuals are grown to augment the bouquets gathered from other parts of the garden.

    "Kathleen Roberts is our regular horticulturalist here, and not only does she advise me on the planting schemes, but she also does all the container plantings and flower arrangements when we are hosting special events," Donna explains, giving the first hint at Mettawa's other, more public side as a venue for picnics, formal dinners, garden tours, and other similar events that are a normal extension of her support for numerous Chicagoland charities and philanthropic causes. She's on the boards of many of Chicago's key educational and cultural institutions, including the Chicago Library Foundation, After School Matters, WITS (Working In The Schools), and Project Exploration.

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    The garden continues to expand, and an aquatheater was recently added. "Bill Heffernan helped us plan that area-he has a great talent for setting a stage," says Donna about one of Chicago's leading floral designers who has moved from creating faux gardens indoors to designing the real thing.

    Mettawa's mini outdoor theater is an extension of Donna's commitment to the arts. (She is also on the board of The Joffrey Ballet Company and the Steppenwolf Theater.) "I've always had a soft spot for the performing arts, particularly on the small-group level," she explains. "I believe that such organizations help expand a sense of community identity."

    But the part of Mettawa that lies closest to Bill and Donna's heart may well be the prairie restoration. Over the past 15 years, they have added 58 acres to their original holding, including a couple of small dependencies that were part of the original Mettawa Manor. "We plan to use these buildings as the headquarters for the Kurtis Conservation Foundation," says Donna, "and as a classroom where students from the Chicago Botanic Garden's courses can learn about our efforts to conserve remnant prairie, here and at Red Buffalo Ranch, Bill's conservation project near Sedan, Kansas."

    The prairie at Mettawa comprises roughly 10 acres south of the house. Here, liatris and goldenrod, black-eyed Susans and coneflowers are naturalizing along with many species of native prairie grasses. "On our Garden Conservancy open days, Bill will load guests onto our electric 'tour bus'-really an outsize golf cart-and drive them into the woodland. Then he skirts around the prairie marsh, and finally takes them through the prairie," says Donna. Bill picks up the story. "The woodland was badly degraded and overrun with buckthorn, which was cutting out the natural light and impinging on the native oak and shagbark hickory that once dominated this area. So, now part of every year is dedicated to eradicating the buckthorn and encouraging the return of the native tree canopy."

    "I do believe in the saying, 'double your joy by sharing,'" says Donna, explaining that from early on in their lives, she and Bill both felt privileged to have had access to the airwaves and so felt that it was their responsibility to give something back in return.

    When asked to comment on Donna's contribution to the Chicago scene, a friend said, "It's incredible, really. She has done so much-from donating her expertise and time to after-school programs for underserved communities to leading the Millennium Park project. She truly has made Chicago a kinder city." The garden's not bad, either.

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    A sunflower blossom in the garden is a happy sight.

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    Lavender, penstemon, chives, and sage in the herb-filled garden near the little potager.

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    The pattern of the rose parterre is outlined in clipped boxwood and red-leaved berberis and centered on the Venetian marble wellhead.

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    The aquatheater lawn is terraced to provide audience seating.

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