SHERIDAN ROAD, with its views of the Lake Michigan shoreline and many historical residential facades, is a popular Midwestern destination drive for locals and tourists alike. Now, Benjamin Lenhardt’s recently published book, Gardens of the North Shore of Chicago, provides a rare behind-the-scenes look at the landscapes surrounding 25 of these and other private suburban homes, including his own Winnetka retreat. He reveals the intriguing collaborations at play between house and horticulture. Influences abound ranging from an owner’s travels and a favorite flower from childhood, to the basic practicalities of what property design and structure allows. Each profile, however, presents a curated vision as told through the lens of Lenhardt’s trained eye and extensive scholarship.
A retired successful investment management executive, Lenhardt seems to have been taken by finance and long-term strategies at an early age. “My grandfather offered me what I thought at the time was a princely sum to mow his lawn,” says Lenhardt, “and while cutting grass I started to take note of my grandmother’s garden.” That summer in North Carolina, where Lenhardt grew up, he planted marigolds and zinnia seeds. The rewards of their return bloomed as did a lifelong hobby. “This was always a weekend passion until I retired in 2003,” shares Lenhardt, who now spends part of his time in Charleston, South Carolina. Over the years he worked on his gardens in both regions, and his network of like-minded enthusiasts expanded along with an interest in a publication on the topic. “I was like a kid out of school pounding the pavement in New York City visiting publishers with my flash drive of garden photos in hand,” jokes Lenhardt, talking about the beginning stages of this ambitious editorial pursuit. In the interview exchange below, he further discusses the people, plants, and personal connections at the root of making the project so special and successful.
Talk about taking on the role of author: writing, working with photographer Scott Shigley, and how the two of you were able to orchestrate just the right time in season, sun and shade for each featured residence?
Never having written a book before, my Editor, Elizabeth White at Monacelli Press, always reminded me, “Ben, writing a book is a process.” As I detail in the text, the term “North Shore” generally means the 22 miles of suburbs from Evanston to Lake Bluff, incorporated between 1857 to 1896. The railroad made it increasingly accessible and desirable, especially to industrialists and bankers, among others, seeking land and stately dwellings. My first job was to secure permission from private garden owners to include their exceptional gardens. I am happy to say that every owner I contacted agreed. I then interviewed each garden owner about their creation, including who was involved, their challenges and favorite parts of their garden.
I knew when I began this project it would be best if I could have a local photographer so we could capture gardens during different months of the year and at their prime. I contacted Doug Hoerr and Craig Bergmann, prominent Chicago area landscape architects, for their recommendations. Both said, “Scott Shigley is the man!” He was the lead on all photography, and his activities were determined by weather forecasts. He endeavored to get the proper conditions. Sometimes, we would also get a welcome surprise while shooting such as a fog bank rolling in, or the sunset in just the perfect spot. Scott is not only an outstanding photographer—as can be seen from his images—but easy to work with, and importantly, he has become my friend.
Do you find that trends and tastes for exterior layouts change over time as is often the case with interiors and other design disciplines?
I classified each of the gardens according to their predominant style—classic, contemporary, country, and naturalistic. You will note that many of the gardens fell into the classic- or country-style garden. This is because when the older gardens were established these styles were preferred. One of the principal goals of any garden design is to complement the architecture of the house. Homes that are included in the book and were designed in the first half the 20th Century by acclaimed architects Howard Van Doren Shaw and David Adler, for example, present interesting case studies in the tasks of restoration and preservation of gardens.
Today, contemporary-style gardens have increased as many contemporary houses have been built. Likewise, we find more naturalistic gardens than in the past as owners want more natural and native-planted gardens and less maintenance, although this does not always turn out to be the case. In the book there are several gardens with native-planted prairies which echo original landscapes or restoration of major ravines.
What advice would you give to a budding local gardener working with any size range of land?
I suggest all gardeners, whether novice or expert, visit as many gardens as possible across the country. By doing so, you will see what others have created in small and large spaces, different
climates, topographies, plantings, and styles. And don’t be afraid of trial-and-error. I have always played around with the limitations of sun and shade requirements, frequently testing new spots for plants, and figuring out what works best in the soil in my backyard. Not all gardens need to be formal, and part of the fun is finding your own signature.
All of the royalties from the book go to the Garden Conservancy. How did you first get involved and what other resources have contributed to your connoisseurship?
A good friend and consummate gardener asked me in 2004 to meet Frank Cabot, the founder of the Garden Conservancy when he was visiting Chicago. After our meeting, I was honored to be asked to join the Board, and I became Chairman in 2011. In 2018, I stepped down as Chairman as required by term limits and now serve on the board as Chairman Emeritus. I am always learning more about horticulture and garden design by my current or past service on the boards of the Garden Conservancy, Chicago Botanic Garden, and the Charleston Horticultural Society. The most fun and important contributor to my education has and continues to be visiting gardens as mentioned earlier. The Garden Conservancy (gardenconservancy.org) has a national Open Days program in which several hundred private garden owners open their properties annually. Due to COVID-19, Open Days this year will be modified but will provide access to private gardens beginning in June.
Gardens of the North Shore of Chicago by Benjamin F. Lehnardt Jr. is available at the Lake Forest Book Store, 662 N. Western Avenue in Lake Forest, and The Book Stall, 811 Elm Street, Winnetka.