Jan. 18 2010 12:00 AM


Picture yourself in a villa in Florence, Italy .

Walking through a garden courtyard, you’re surrounded by sculptured fountains, a circular pergola and hand-carved limestone columns. Breathe deeply and inhale the fragrance of succulent roses that transport you to an era of the early Renaissance, where art and imagination combine exquisitely with function and design.

It’s hard to believe that this beautiful unification of classic period architecture and landscape creativity is actually a residence located just 30 miles north of Chicago, Illinois—right here in the good old U.S.A. It’s no wonder that Chalet of Wilmette, Illinois, received the Grand Award and Judges Award from the Professional Landcare Network (PLANET) and that this Lake Forest residence project took top honors at the 2009 Illinois Landscape Contractors Association Excellence in Landscape Awards.

The success of the project was due to the perfect mix of dedication and passion which were the driving forces behind Chalet’s project team, led by Senior Landscape Architect Robert Milani and Project Designer Troy Ripley. Working closely with their client, crew, and even government officials, the project defined the true meaning of excellence in craftsmanship from the very first day.

When the project was first presented, all the team had to go on were a set of architect’s blueprints and their client’s dream. “The clients were customers of ours for many years, and we knew how much they loved Florence. Before the ground was even broken for construction of the house, we had the conception of the design for the gardens and landscape that would create the feeling of living in an Italian villa,” said Ripley.

Turning that vision into reality was no small task. Because the house itself was under construction at the same time, there was a great deal of heavy equipment and machinery running back and forth over the ground, compacting the soil.

With a crew ranging from three to 12 working full time on the job, the project took two-and-a-half years to complete. The landscaped area covered 110,846 square feet, and the cost to the client was more than one million dollars. There were some unusual challenges and some wonderful surprises as well.

Before any planting could even begin, an extensive drainage system had to be installed throughout the entire property. Once the drainage system was installed, a great deal of work was taken to prepare the soil and create the conditions necessary for plants to grow and thrive in a Midwestern environment. “We used a special attachment on our machines to pierce the ground from three to five inches,” said Robert Milani, senior landscape architect. “We then removed some soil and applied gypsum to help improve the soil structure. We also incorporated varying amounts of organic matter into the topsoil.”

With the soil prepared but before planting could begin, the irrigation system had to be installed. Ripley’s design paid careful attention to ensure that the plants received specific amounts of water. Special consideration was given to not overwater

the boxwood, yews and roses, while allowing adequate water for high-need plants such as annual flowers and turf, that would run consistently throughout the season.

Once the irrigation was installed, the team had to choose the plant material that would sustain the beauty of the landscape in a seasonal climate. There were a number of different options available.

However, since the ground freezes in the winter, there were certain limitations. “Knowing the climate of this area pretty much made the selection easy,” Milani said.

The majority of the plantings were a form of hedges that created the structure of the garden. “Somewhere between 300 yews and about 2,000 boxwoods were used. Knock out and nearly wild shrub roses were used to give a splash of color in the backyard. The surrounding landscape includes Judd Vibrunum, Carolina Allspice, Kousa Dogwood, and Balboa trumpet vines.

Most of the plant material was acquired less than a state away.”

The team placed ornate boxwood parterre gardens between the sunken garden and the residence. The parterre, which contains more than 1,000 Green Velvet Boxwoods, defines pathways and creates the structured gardens. The central

panels enclose an artistic, dramatic boxwood design set off with limestone chip gravel. Oversized terra cotta pots with multi-floral displays are utilized for accent as well as to create a sense of scale and dimension. Completing the parterre garden, Ripley designed two matching limestone water fountains. All was going very well, until the owners came to him with an unusual request.

They wanted a hot tub in the garden. The original design didn’t have any place for such a feature; Ripley and the team weren’t even going to consider putting a pre-fabricated hot tub on their masterpiece, so they came up with the idea of converting one of the fountains into a dual-purpose fountain and hot tub. “During the time they’re using the hot tub, it functions perfectly and when they’re finished, the jets turn off and the fountain comes on. Anyone coming to the property sees it as a fountain and not a hot tub.”

Indian limestone, quarried in the northwestern part of Indiana, was used on the sunken garden steps. The columns and the pergola that surround the spa/fountain feature; it was all purchased locally.

While constructing the limestone steps leading down from the pergola edge to the sunken garden, another challenge arose that brought the entire project to a screeching halt. That’s when the team’s ingenuity and their client’s patience was given the ultimate test and passed with flying colors.

Chalet had obtained all the plans and necessary permits from the village of Lake Forrest, or so they thought. After the pergola and the fountain were installed, the crew was in the process of executing the installation of the second set of garden steps when the village came out to mark the water and the sewer lines. The village official saw a potential problem and called the public works department, who then called the building department, who ordered the entire project stopped.

Much to their shock, Chalet discovered that the plans which had been approved by the planning department did not show an easement that had been put through the back of the property sometime between 50 and 100 years prior. Because the easement wasn’t marked on some of the more recent documents, no one knew of its existence, or what it would mean to the construction of the sunken garden.

The project was in limbo while Chalet and the city worked out a solution. “Specifically, their problem was a sewer line that ran maybe a foot from underneath part of the footing for the sunken garden. The village wanted us to move the installed garden five feet back,” said Milani. “The easement came on an angle through the entire parterre garden so we couldn’t move it. The only option was to take the sunken garden and ruin the essence of the major focal point, or come up with a creative solution that would appease the village.”

The team came up with the solution to remove part of the footing of the sunken garden steps; instead of having a full 42-foot concrete footing, they floated that part of the step on a gravel base. If the village has to get in to service the sewer line, they could go in there and pick up the steps without much of a problem to service the sewer line.

“The owner had complete trust in us and was very calm in trying to solve the issues with the village. They worked very closely with us so that all parties would be happy, and the final result was that we were able to put the entire project together. The finished product is what you see in the photos,” said Milani. “We pretty much saved the entire project from the brink of complete catastrophe.”

Around the first of December, when the project was near completion, the client informed the team that he wanted to have everything finished within the next few weeks. The remaining boxwoods needed to be planted, but the ground was frozen solid. “We ended up using a 90 lb. jackhammer to break the ground and plant the boxwood,” Milani said. “Even though we planted when the ground was completely frozen, we didn’t lose any of the boxwoods that we planted.”

An adjacent garden was placed on a tertiary axis in line with the rear brick terrace. This garden’s central focal point is a folly “Suzanna” purchased by the owner at an auction in Florence, Italy. This garden feature was shipped, re assembled and sited within a fountain pool surrounded by jets of water to highlight this “one-of-a-kind” artifact.

The Pee-Gee Tree Hydrangea flank the front raised entry, along with the finely clipped Brown’s Yew and Green Velvet Boxwood hedges that emphasize the magnificence of this period residence. Clay brick pavers set on their side in a herringbone pattern along with a soldier course detail creates an interesting pattern complementing the house facade while mimicking an old world feeling of days gone by.

The importance of using a hardscape material such as tumbled clay pavers introduces a sense of simplicity and elegance. The brick color range and corresponding pattern enhances the space. The bullnose limestone step beyond the wishing well signifies the front entry’s sense of simplicity and elegance.

A Merrimac Gravel driveway and corresponding landscape illustrate the seamless transition from home to landscape, blending the new with the old and therefore creating a “sense of place.” Great care was given to utilizing like materials and colors, such as the gravel driveway and the clay tile roof. To complement the classic Italianesque architecture, the team incorporated a symmetrical, manicured and formal design.

The courtyard is a replica of a period limestone wishing well that can be seen from many rooms. The team incorporated various different types of pot styles and material types to enhance that whimsical and playful feeling and call attention to detail in an intimate space.

The finely-cut lawn walkways connect the main axis to a secondary axis ending at a matching set of circular, carved limestone fountains and limestone garden urns.

Within the central parterre gardens is a 2-inch thick limestone chip gravel mulch to contrast the Green Velvet Boxwood hedge layout, as well as contrast the colorful secondary garden panels. Limestone chip gravel is used to unify like materials and to reinforce the sunken garden focal point in the distance.

Classical forms were expertly balanced by the use of contemporary native and non-native plants and materials to maintain a subtle transition to the surrounding informality of the native vegetation. This project truly brings an Italian Renaissance villa landscape to a Midwestern setting.

Asked about how he felt having his project honored, Milani said it was a truly humbling experience. “It was totally unexpected. Seeing the presentations from all over the country was very impressive and to receive the Judges Award from PLANET for this project was amazing.”

Ripley agreed. “I attended our local Illinois Landscape Contractors Association awards and there’s a vote at the end of the convention of the absolute best in show. When our name was announced, it felt really great to be recognized, but our goal really isn’t to win awards. We always work to produce the best year after year, be consistent and keep that level of excellence very high.”

“Chalet’s landscape professionals put emphasis on teamwork, and these prestigious awards recognize each person’s commitment to service and quality,” says Kevin Marko, landscape division manager. “We are honored to be recognized by the industry and our peers.”

The completed residence and surrounding landscape is a true work of Italian art, from every view-point. With projects like the Lake Forest Residence, Chalet can be certain that they have raised the bar very high indeed.