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on the savanna

Formal and Native Elements Coexist on This Illinois Property

Written by Catriona Tudor Erler    Photography By Linda Oyama Bryan

The winding driveway weaves through restored native prairie and oak savanna. Those arriving get intermittent glimpses of the house, but the entire structure is never revealed until the end. This approach creates a delicious tension of anticipation and mystery, captivating and attracting the viewer.

Upon arrival, visitors discover a house that is a modern abstraction of a traditional farm complex. The guest apartment recalls a grain elevator, and the library looks somewhat like a silo. The farm motif is a fitting nod to the one-hundred-year period when the fourteen-acre site near Chicago had been grazed as pastureland.

When the clients acquired the property more than twenty years ago, they turned immediately to John Mariani, second-generation owner of Mariani Landscape in Lake Bluff, Illinois. “I’ve known them a long time,” says Mariani. “They were clients of my father.”

They asked him to site the house, a huge privilege for any landscape architect, as citing a house allows him or her to take into account the approach to the house from the road, the sun patterns and prevailing winds, view shed, and other important factors. Due to Mariani’s excellent house siting for this project, from the front door, the viewer sees over the garden rill (a narrow waterway), through the rose garden, and into the savanna. At the end of the view, the eye rests on the best oak on the property with a spectacular, spreading canopy.

His next challenge was to create a landscape that honored the family’s preference for formal gardens while at the same time celebrating and preserving the native savanna. How could the two disparate looks be reconciled in one setting? Mariani’s solution to the problem is a brilliant example of superb landscape design. He kept the two styles separate, but also linked them with glimpses from the formal garden to the savanna beyond and with a path that leads from one to the other. The formal and the native coexist in harmony.

For the formal gardens, he created an interior courtyard that’s visible from the house’s large windows. Perpendicular to the house on one side, Mariani planted a colonnade of paired fastigiate maples placed close enough together to serve as an exterior wall for this one-quarter-acre, formal space. The tree branches begin about five feet up from the base of the trunk, creating a “hedge-on-stilts.” The spaces between the trunks are like windows, allowing views onto the savanna.



ABOVE FROM LEFT: Blooming Phlox paniculata. A narrow rill runs along the house and spills into the swimming pool. Paths mown through the savanna reveal a beautiful native landscape.


Stone pillars imported from Italy support the pergolas that run along two sides of the courtyard garden. Twining trumpet vines covering the pergola create a leafy bower from which to view the formal rose garden.

Echoing the tree trunks on the opposite side of the courtyard is a series of classical columns imported from Italy. These form the sides of a pergola that runs along two sides of the courtyard. Robust trumpet vines (Campsis radicans) spiral up the columns and spread over the western red cedar rafters, providing dappled shade and a rich orange floral display throughout the summer.

The pergola section that covers the raised terrace is a passageway that leads to the savanna. It protects the rooms inside the house from the blazing summer sun and is a cool bower where it is a pleasure to sit in the shade and enjoy the garden.

Running perpendicular to the terrace, and also covered by the vine-covered pergola, is a rill that runs along the house between a border of cushwa brick before spilling into the swimming pool.

The space inside the courtyard is divided into two distinct outdoor rooms. One room houses the rectangular swimming pool. The decking around the pool is the golden-hued Iowa limestone laid in a grid defined by cushwa bricks. The intersection of each grid has a square of green, polished granite. The green granite is echoed in the green tile that lines the pool.


From the patio at the house-end of the swimming pool, the eye is drawn across the water to a series of shallow steps that cover the entire width of the pool and decking. The steps that rise out of the pool are the creamy Iowa sandstone. The lowest stair at the water level has a small rectangle cut out from the center. A slightly larger rectangle is cut out of the next stair, and so on to the top, creating an embracing amphitheater effect. The stairs on either side leading from the decking are paved in brick. Although the entire staircase is all on the same plane, the red brick visually recedes while the white Iowa stone appears closer, adding to the interest.

In contrast to the stone and brick paving used in the rest of the courtyard, the rose garden is "paved" with Kentucky bluegrass. Low boxwood hedges outlined with a narrow planting of white sweet alyssum frame the four rectangular beds that are planted with the award-winning ‘Peace’ rose—a double hybrid tea with ivory yellow petals tinged with pink at the edges. At the center of the axis in the middle the four beds is a grass circle defined by the red cushwa brick. An arc cut from the corner of each rectangle bed makes them appear to be pointing toward the circle, adding to the power of the focal point.

A perennial bed, also enclosed with boxwood, defines the side of the rose garden where the pergola runs over the rill. Filled with flowers, such as perennial phlox, daylilies, and Sedum spectabile, they are a delight to be seen from both inside and outside the house.

Beyond the courtyard, the savanna is nurtured by the loving care of man. Paths mown through the native grasses and forbs lead wanderers through a wonderland landscape of ever-changing textures, light, and shadow. Microenvironments abound, such as a vernal creek bed that Mariani planted with skunk cabbage, sedges, and other wetland lovers.

This midwestern garden combines the best of fine design with the best of environmental stewardship. It is truly a triumph.

Sharon Medairy, Realtor

Sharon Medairy, Realtor





Real Estate Source, Inc.

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