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Adopting new ways: Robert Allerton
by Marie J. Kuda

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As part of the ongoing Chicago Gay History Project, Windy City Times will present a series on Chicago gay history events and people over the coming months. This essay focuses on philanthropist Robert Allerton.|

Robert Allerton ( 1873–1964 ) was the only son of Samuel Allerton ( 1828–1914 ) , who had cornered the Chicago hog market and made a corollary fortune ( Union Stockyards, First National Bank ) . Samuel had 40,000 acres of farm and ranch land in rural Illinois and a home on Prairie Avenue among the other civic leaders. After his wife died, Samuel married her younger sister, and Robert was raised by a stepmother barely 15 years older than he, whom he adored.

To escape the city in summer, Samuel built the 'Folly' on 26 acres at the narrows of Lake Geneva in Wisconsin. Robert watched as young architect Henry Lord Gay built the imposing redwood structure. His stepmother Agnes ( 1858–1924 ) loved the Folly and, with young Robert in tow, created extensive gardens there.

Robert skipped college to go abroad with a friend and study art. At 24, he destroyed all his work and returned to the United States. Samuel gave him a few thousand acres in Piatt County; Robert had architect John Joseph Borie build a 32-bedroom Georgian mansion. He created perennial gardens, placed sculpture throughout, and set aside a 40-acre stand of virgin timber before settling into the life of a gentleman 'farmer.' He continued traveling extensively to purchase furniture and art for the new house.

Robert was the first of many generous donors to enrich the collections of the nascent Art Institute of Chicago ( his gifts of major 19th- and 20th-century art included Rodin's six-foot bronze sculpture, Adam ) . He lent sculpture and paintings from his personal collection for exhibition at both the 1893 and 1933 World's Fairs. A 1970 Art Institute guidebook states that 'the original Michigan Avenue edifice was named to honor Allerton for his long service as a trustee, officer and benefactor of the museum.'

In 1922 he met young John Wyatt Gregg ( 1899–1985 ) at an event at the University of Illinois in Urbana, and they decided to make a life together. They traveled extensively from Thanksgiving through the winter each year, returning to Chicago and the 'farm' in the spring. As a concession to their age difference, they presented themselves as 'father and son.' When his stepmother Agnes died, Robert destroyed the Folly in Wisconsin and built the Allerton Hotel on North Michigan Avenue in Chicago ( its penthouse club, the Tip Top Tap, had a reputation as a gay-friendly meeting place until it closed in the mid-1960s ) .

In the 1930s on a stopover in Hawaii, Robert fell in love with the Lawai-Kai river valley on Kauai. He bought a 54-acre plot and constructed a house and gardens. Returning to Illinois briefly after World War II, he and John Gregg closed the 'farm,' donating almost 5,000 acres to the university. Part of the Robert Allerton Park is now designated a National Natural Landmark.

Meanwhile, the aging Robert explored the possibility of adopting Gregg. Under the law at the time, Illinois had no provision for adopting an adult. Apocryphal history credits Allerton with using his connections to initiate a revamp of statutory Illinois adoption law. A comprehensive reworking of the law ( now known as 750 ILCS 50/0.01 to 50/24 ) passed in 1959 and, in part, permitted legal adoption of an adult provided the adult had lived in the petitioner's home for two consecutive years. John Gregg Allerton's oral history states that Robert Allerton was the first to adopt under the new law, in front of Judge Dighton of Monticello, Piatt County.

After Robert's death, the Kauai gardens and home and $1 million were given to Hawaii. The property is now part of the National Tropical Botanical Gardens.

With research contributions by William B. Kelley

Copyright 2008 Marie J. Kuda

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