Despite the crunching sounds of demolition, the feel of privileged life on a country estate still permeates the serene wooded grounds of the former Cuneo property in Vernon Hills.
After more than two years of planning, review and approval, Pulte Homes on Monday began preparing the site west of Milwaukee Avenue for the Residences at the Cuneo Mansion and Gardens, a subdivision featuring grand views and homes expected to sell in the mid to upper $700,000s.
"It's not like the square cornfields we generally develop," said Ty Morris, land manager for Pulte. "It's not your normal cookie-cutter subdivision."
It got that way because of intense interest from village officials in what would be built on the centerpiece property.
"It was an estate in the traditional sense," Village Manager John Kalmar said. "From that perspective, it's something we haven't seen occur in this village."
Two weeks ago, the homebuilder closed on the first portion of the 52 acres it eventually will buy from Loyola University Chicago in a multifaceted transaction. The process involved a guarantee by Loyola to invest $3 million of the sale proceeds in the 100-year-old mansion on the site and eventually reopen it to the public.
Loyola was given the 97-acre property, including the massive Italian villa-style home and contents valued at $50 million, by the Cuneo Foundation in 2009. Their intent always has been to sell a portion and use the proceeds to enhance what has become the university's Vernon Hills campus.
But there were multiple facets to consider, given Loyola's expansion plans, the village's desire to protect the mansion, and needed Lake County approvals to allow homes on the property and extend utilities.
"We had to work through a series of agreements with them (Lake County) to allow this to occur," Kalmar said. "There are a lot of moving parts on this."
Considerable time was spent on the site plan and the architecture of homes.
"We wanted them to build what we felt was an appropriate level of housing for a very, very special development," said village Trustee Jim Schultz. "This will be a unique enclave."
To start, Pulte is having two houses, an office, four miscellaneous maintenance buildings, two well pump sheds and the water tower on the property demolished. Loyola previously razed a barn that had living quarters upstairs.
Next will come tree clearing and site grading, Morris said.
Clusters of trees on the north and west property lines and throughout the site will remain. However, many will be removed, including invasive and dead trees along Milwaukee Avenue on the east side of the property.
The soaring Norway pines, the salmon-colored mansion and Jens Jensen-designed gardens are on Loyola property and will remain.
"Our model homes (will) sit right here, overlooking the historical garden," Morris said during a walk-through the site.
Sixty-six homes will be built in the first phase. In all, 128 are allowed on the entire site.
"They have their standard set of plan," Kalmar said. ""Vernon Hills wanted higher quality and more of it."