Photographs by Matthew Benson
Written by Rebecca Christian
When it came on the market in the 1980s, Old Mill Farm looked like the setting for Sleeping Beauty’s castle: A forest preserve had virtually swallowed the acreage and the once magnificent Tudor home in Lake Forest, Illinois.
Frank Mariani, who played on the fields of the estate as a boy, saw past volunteer trees poking through the home’s massive double-hung windows. As owner of Mariani Landscape, he envisioned how to incorporate what remained—interesting tree selections and a few ornamentals—into the spectacular grounds of today.
He and wife Sherri bought the 1929 home and its contents in 1986, a few years after the death of its original owner, George Rasmussen, a Danish immigrant and member of the family that started the National Tea grocery chain. Sherri, a yoga teacher whose studio is on this pesticide-free property, loves the vegetable garden, where she can pick dinner and serve it on a silver platter “that always makes me smile.” A remnant from the days when the place was a prizewinning dairy farm, the platter is engraved “Bessie, 1937.”
After the Marianis moved in, Sherri was thrilled to find plans by acclaimed landscape architect Jens Jensen rolled up in the attic. (See page 115 for more on Jensen.) She had them framed as a surprise for Frank, who kept the woodland garden Jensen had designed, nursing 90-year-old lilacs along and continuing Jensen’s use of native plants, including bluestem grass in the prairie area. “Mother Nature does a pretty nice job,” Frank notes. He uses the grounds to test plants for his family’s landscaping business. The eldest of five sons, he went from high school to running the firm while attending college at night after his father died. Now, son Frank Jr. works there as well.
Coming upon the property at the end of a street of big suburban homes with manicured lawns, sidewalks, and buried power lines is like stepping back in time, Frank says. “All of a sudden you see nothing but forest preserve, and after 1,500 feet, our property, with telephone poles with wires and a ditch instead of storm sewers.”
The driveway is edged in a carpet of hellebores and ferns instead of the usual North Shore hostas, with a gate that keeps deer from making the grounds a buffet. From the front of the home, you see smooth turf with peeks of yew hedges enclosing perennial gardens and a Belgian fence with espaliered trees around an orchard. These glimpses give the garden an air of mystery. Further discoveries include a pool area along with a berry patch and shade and butterfly gardens. Among unexpected touches are shaped boxwoods—which can only be achieved with time—that draw oohs and aahs in the vegetable garden.
Frank doesn’t want people to enjoy all this only from afar or from inside the house. “I want it to be so beautiful that people can’t wait to get their hand on the doorknob and go outside.”
Sherri loves the indoor-outdoor flow; whether it’s crocuses peeping through the snow in winter or sumac flaming in the fall, the grounds are on view throughout the house. Proud of their garden’s heritage and deeply committed to its future, the Marianis love the idea of making it gorgeous for generations to come.