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.