Ryerson Woods in Deerfield may be one of the North Shore’s best-kept secrets. Despite its sprawling size of 552 acres (279 of which are officially dedicated as an Illinois Nature Preserve), Ryerson’s Assistant Director Deb Donnelley says many visitors to the woods are “shocked to find it exists.”
Surprise soon turns to wonder, as they explore the many facets of the Ryerson property, including one of the area’s best examples of early “green” architecture: Brushwood, the summer house built in 1942 by Chicagoland philanthropist and Ryerson Steel Chairman, Edward L. Ryerson.
Inspired by a Greek Revival Farmhouse from the 1840s in Marengo, Ill., the home was designed by architect Ambrose Cramer, who later cited his work on Brushwood as one of the best of his expansive career.
Though Brushwood was created with an “early Illinois home” aesthetic in mind, Edward L. Ryerson was truly ahead of his time, making a point to incorporate refurbished and recycled materials into the construction of the house. Floorboards and fixtures were reused from another old building, and pink bricks were salvaged from a wooden mill that was being torn down near Galena.
Today, Brushwood is home to the staff of the Friends of Ryerson Woods, as well as a collection of rare nature books and changing art exhibitions. During the summer, Brushwood hosts art openings, nature talks and outdoor music during the annual Sights & Sounds series.
Ryerson’s foresight didn’t only apply to architecture; he had a larger, philanthropic vision for the land. During the 1920s, Ryerson and several friends purchased plots of land in the woods, and together built log cabins to use as vacation homes. As one of the early establishers of the Lake County Forest Preserve in the late 1950s, in the late ’60s Ryerson donated more than 250 total acres to the organization. Donnelley says he eventually convinced all his neighbors to do the same. Thanks to his forward thinking (and persuasiveness), a piece of the North Shore’s natural history remains intact for generations to come.
Today, Ryerson’s dream for the woods lives on through the Friends of Ryerson Woods, a group that protects the ecosystem of the land and promotes education. The newest building at Ryerson Woods, the Environmental Education and Visitors Center, was constructed with that aim in mind. Designed by Serena Sturm Architects of Northbrook, the center utilizes a geothermal heating and cooling system and a cistern that collects rainwater for fire protection, toilet flushing and landscape watering.
Additionally, they have carefully chosen building materials with minimal environmental impact to produce or transport. Showcasing a host of classes, art exhibitions, activities, events, and resources, the center is a bastion of ecological education on the North Shore.
For more information, visit www.ryersonwoods.org.