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A Living Masterpiece When the Garden Guild of Winnetka does a housewalk, the homes are merely canvases for the beauty their members create inside and outside. We were granted exclusive access to the club’s “Timeless Expressions” event last September, and are bringing you along for a tour. by Sherry Thomas

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Photos by Tao Zhang


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t was nearly midnight. Clippers out.

Flowers, in pieces on the floor. Tiny petals. Buds. Stems. Reindeer moss. The

women had been up all night, pruning, attaching and contemplating. Is it good enough yet? No. Not quite. Move the hydrangea over here for balance. There. Much better. What about texture? Is there enough wheat grass? It was late. There had just been a heavy rain, a thunderstorm. Then someone had an idea. The storm had left pieces of bark in the back yard where the pavé design was being created. “Yes!” someone said. “Let’s go get some of that.” And so they did, and those little fragments, attached to a metal fireplace screen with the detail of a surgeon, became the finishing touches on the pavé, just one of this home’s masterpieces. They were everywhere, these floral creations — from the bench in the entryway to the flower arrangements to the massive tableau that greeted visitors in the family room. Each piece was a work of art. Each room was a canvas. But when that Wednesday in midSeptember finally came and visitors arrived by the hundreds for the Garden Guild of Winnetka’s home and garden walk, all those hours and days and months of planning and late-night creating were all worth it.

“Timeless Expressions,” the Sept. 14, 2011 garden house walk and boutique, had four stops. Two of the homes and gardens dated from 1893 — a George Maher landmark in Kenilworth and Victorian painted lady in Winnetka. The other two were more modern, including a 1935 “country” home with a labyrinth garden and a contemporary Paul Florian home with views over Lake Michigan. But unlike similar walks on the North Shore, where grand homes and interiors steal the show, the

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A Living Masterpiece star of this event is the floral design that is planned and created by

study, there were creative expressions of another kind — the ones that the

Garden Guild of Winnetka members days, weeks, and sometimes months

Garden Guild of Winnetka is most known for.

in advance. This is why people come, and when we toured last year for the first time, we understood why.

The floral displays are elaborately crafted vignettes, some big and bold and demanding attention; others quietly catching you by surprise, sometimes out of the corner of your eye.

The first stop was the home owned by a Garden Guild member we dubbed The Constant Gardener, not just for her lovely taste in garden design with the labyrinth lawn but for the work she does herself, every day, to

According to Dora Aalbregtse, president of the Garden Guild of Winnetka,

maintain the lush exterior.

committees began planning the floral designs for each house last January.

“To me, gardening is just another creative expression,” the homeowner said, sitting on the back terrace before the crowds arrived. “I learned gardening by visiting other gardens. When the kids were little, I’d put them all on their bikes and we’d head up to the Chicago Botanic Garden.” Inside, where the pavé fireplace screen masterpiece was on display in the

■ Aside

“Overall, each walk is a year in planning,” she says. “But like with everything else, the real work — the more intense work — comes at the end.” Each home gets at least one committee of club members to work with the homeowner and share ideas for how to transform the spaces into living galleries.

from the labyrinth-patterned lawn, which is cut and manicured by professional landscapers, all the plants in this Winnetka garden are tended by the homeowner herself. She takes special interest in succulents and espaliers.

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■ Top: An elaborate pavé design adorns a fireplace screen as an interpretation of the

“Constant Gardener’s” labyrinth garden (shown on the opposite page) in Winnetka. ■ Bottom: A table is set for conversation in “The Artist’s” Kenilworth back yard.

In addition to The Constant Gardener, last year’s event also had a cast of characters affectionately referred to as The Artist, The Art Collector and a Victorian Lady. The boutique, an important fundraising part of the annual event, was held at the home of The Artist in Kenilworth. Her garage, back yard and patio would be the perfect backdrop for the floral designs, artifacts and other household treasures. Inside, her English-style Maher home would evoke autumnal colors and hues. Over in Winnetka at the home of the Victorian Lady, another design aesthetic was at play. This stop on the tour was filled with teacups and bright cobalt blues, accented by roses and delicate floral artistry. The Art Collector balanced out the other three with a different approach, using the collection of 19th and 20th century Midwest impressionists as the canvas for life to imitate art — literally. Paintings inspired each of the floral masterpieces, which were shown side-by-side, art gallery style.

■ Top: Staged to look like a tea party about to happen, the Victorian porch comes alive

with color.

The success of the September event, explains longtime Garden Guild

■ Center: A pavé pillow creation catches the eye in this Kenilworth stop on the tour.

member Brooks Morgan, reflects the importance of collaboration between

■ Bottom: Life imitates art — literally — in the Winnetka home of the art collecting

the homeowners and the club’s floral designing members.

homeowners.

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A Living Masterpiece

■ Top: Penny Greenspahn of Winnetka carries topiaries to the boutique, where they will be sold along with other floral designs by club members. ■ Center: A lantern is illuminated with an elaborate floral sculpture in the kitchen of the Winnetka Victorian. ■ Bottom: An outdoor room on the tour is anchored by these ornamental plants.

“They really need to know that homeowner, know where she’s coming from,” explains Morgan, a former Winnetkan who now lives in Chicago. “The design team needs to know how to interpret that (homeowner’s style)

The Garden Guild of Winnetka was founded in 1941 and

best with flowers and horticulture because it is a reflection of their life and

accepted into the Garden Club of America in 1949. Like other garden clubs

their family that we want to enhance.”

in the area, it is a private organization that specializes in certain aspects of

The strength, she adds, is all in the interpretation. This is also where mentoring comes in. Some novice members are

garden design and takes on specific projects within the community. While floral design is one of the main areas of expertise for the Garden

excited to do the work, but need direction. That’s when the experienced

Guild of Winnetka’s more than 100 members, they also share a common

designer might step in and say, “Here’s the vision. Let’s create it together’.”

interest in horticulture, conservation, photography and civic improvement,

“It was a group effort,” says Aalbregtse. “With these fine award-winning members having just finished the Show of Summer (at the Chicago Botanic

as well as garden history and design. The Guild’s annual housewalk and boutique is a major fundraising

Garden) they became willing mentors of the new members. It’s the best way

event, and its members have fun doing it. But some of the more

to do it.”

important work is what they do for the Winnetka and New Trier

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While floral design is one of the main areas of expertise for the more than 100 Garden Guild of Winnetka members, they also share a common interest in horticulture, conservation, photography, and civic improvement, as well as garden history and design.

■ This gracious entry shows a view to the garden, blending floral creations inside with the carefully tended exteriors.

Township community — all on a volunteer basis. “We have been working on our tree project for the last three years, with the help of the village (of Winnetka) and the Winnetka library,” Aalbregtse

collaborative things with other local garden clubs like the current landscaping project at the entrance to Tower Road beach. “Our club is very hard working and we pride ourselves on that. What

explains. “We planted an American beech with parks and rec. They were

makes our club great is the talent of our members, but what makes us strong

fabulous to work with. We’ve also worked with the library on classes where

is the energy of our members,” Aalbregtse adds. “They are all so committed

we help ID plants, seeds, leaves and bark. And we’re also working with the

to our club and that’s showcased in our housewalk. From organizing the event

Chicago Botanic Garden and the Morton Arboretum regarding trees that

and selling those tickets to creating items for the boutique, the number of hours

are recommended for the North Shore area, which will be listed on their

everybody puts in is how we raise money to give back to the community.”

web sites.” Garden Guild members do small things like providing and maintaining container gardens at the Winnetka post office and city hall. And they do big,

Clippers and dried rose petals aside, that gesture is perhaps the ultimate “timeless expression,” and part of the legacy garden clubs throughout the New Trier Township leave for generations to come.

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A Living Masterpiece