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updated: 6/26/2016 8:02 AM

How best to preserve Cuneo estate's legacy?

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  • Video: Cuneo renovations planned


For 100 years, the salmon-colored mansion west of Milwaukee Avenue in Vernon Hills has provided a distinctive glimpse of a house and lifestyle few could imagine.

Designed to resemble an Italian villa, the sprawling house emerged from farmland as a country comfort and status symbol for one of the richest and most powerful men in the country.

Visionary utility titan Samuel Insull's poured-concrete estate remains a seemingly sturdy reminder of another era. But no fanfare or centennial celebration is scheduled as the current owner, Loyola University Chicago, concentrates on a plan to generate millions for needed renovation and reinvestment of what is best known as the Cuneo Mansion and Gardens.

Loyola wants to sell 53 acres of the 97-acre property to Pulte Homes to create an exclusive, gated community. In an agreement with the village, $3 million of the proceeds will be set aside and used by Loyola for repairs and improvements to the mansion, where public tours were last held two years ago.

But the sale isn't anticipated until November, creating some uncertainty for village officials. They want the mansion, gardens and contents, including valuable artwork, ornate components and pioneering features, to be upgraded, preserved and eventually reopened to the public.

Until then, there are many questions to answer, including when will the work begin, how long will it take, and funding concerns.

"What happens if the money doesn't come forward?" asked longtime village Trustee Cindy Hebda.

Village officials appear to favor the housing proposal, but there are many details to be worked out before a formal vote is taken. The residential development plans under review by the village are characterized by Pulte executives as respectful and sensitive to the character of the building and grounds, defined by cathedrallike aisles of 70 foot spruce and fir.

As the mansion is considered the centerpiece of the site, 44 of the 128 proposed home sites with backs or sides facing it are considered "key lots" that warrant upgraded architectural elements. In an early presentation, Pulte said the plan calls for ranch and two-story houses with starting prices for basic models in the $600,000 range.

"It's been quite a process, and we've needed the money to reinvest in the building," said Tim McGuriman, Loyola's associate vice president for business. "We want people to see it."

Community asset

In Vernon Hills, known for its expanse of shopping malls and chain restaurants, the Cuneo mansion is regarded as a community gem to be shared with the public.

For 21 years until 2014, the village partnered with Cuneo and then Loyola for a drive-through holiday light show along the heavily wooded interior roads. The mansion was always decorated for the season.

Beginning in 1991, guided tours of the house let the public to see how the other half lived.

Sharp-eyed movie fans might recognize what was then called the Cuneo Museum & Gardens from the reception scenes in the 1997 movie "My Best Friend's Wedding" starring Julia Roberts.

Long before that, thousands of visitors during a 20-year period visited a portion of the Cuneo holdings known as Hawthorn Mellody Farm, a modern dairy that opened for tours and milk tastings in the late 1940s. A children's zoo with exotic animals was added in 1951. In 1955, a frontier town, with a country store, dance hall and other features, was added. Cuneo sold the dairy in 1967, and the farm park operated until 1970.

Another tradition that has wowed many visitors will end July 2, with the last scheduled wedding reception. The last bride, Lauren Wolf of Long Grove, succinctly summarized the allure of the locale.

"I loved the regal feel of the grounds and mansion and everything about it," she said.

In March 2010, Loyola acquired the mansion, property, valuable artwork and collections, cash and other assets estimated at $50 million from the Cuneo Foundation with a requirement that it be operated through 2030. The intent was to create a self-sustaining campus, but the mansion was in poor condition.

"We told them (Loyola) right from the very beginning, we want to keep it as something the public can still use," said Thom Koch, a longtime village trustee and history teacher.

Whether that will be weekend or occasional tours, special events or programs depends on proceeds from the land sale and other factors.

"Their people have been forthcoming about it," Koch said. "Right now, I feel pretty comfortable with them."

What's to come

The university already has invested about $7.3 million in the facility, mostly for a pavilion addition. Built to blend seamlessly into the main structure, the facility has been used for wedding receptions and other functions to produce income for improvements.

Other expenses have included $590,000 to replace the original boilers, which still worked but were not able to efficiently heat the expansive, 31,000 square foot interior.

Loyola said it also spent $15,000 to repair the oldest-functioning elevator in the Midwest and rebuild its motor.

But more work is needed before the building is watertight and considered structurally sound and safe. That includes an estimated $700,000 in repairs to the main roof and original 30 foot glass skylight crowning the Great Hall that was designed to open in the center to create an indoor garden but was sealed long ago.

Other work includes: repairing concealed roof drains, replacing 21 lower-level windows, installing sprinklers and repairing the west patio. Costs are estimated at $2 million.

"We've taken care of the sides of the building. Now, we have to take care of the top," said Michael Loftsgaarden, project manager for Loyola.

And as with renovation and restoration at any old house, there will be unknowns along the way.

"The issue you really deal with here are the ornate components, Loftsgaarden said. "Back then, there was a level of craftsmanship you don't see today. Everything was done by hand."

The hope among village officials is that when all is said and done, the mansion, artwork and the opulent gardens again will be accessible to the public.

A specific timetable for that has not been established, although general parameters are outlined in an agreement with the village for preserving the facilities and developing the campus.

Because the property sale will take place in two phases, the restoration and repair reserve escrow account will be funded in installments. The first transaction is anticipated in November, and the second must occur within 18 months.

Restoration funds can't be used to develop or improve academic programs.

"Once they get things done and finished, that would be a nice piece to add to the community," Hebda said. "It may take awhile."