The Sanctuary is an 1,800-acre wildlife refuge, private estate and residence located along the Mississippi Flyway in rural northwest Illinois, dedicated to habitat restoration, conservation, education and research. This unique property, a privately funded Wildlife Foundation established in 1989, is an Illinois not-for-profit corporation dedicated to the long-term restoration of habitats and the judicious use of our natural resources.

The unique granite stonework and landscape boulder walls of the property are extraordinary. The millwork, casework, ceiling and wall paneling was all specially designed and fabricated from kiln dried and milled black cherry wood trees, harvested and selected from the heavily forested property. The Sanctuary's Built Environment is tranquil, enchanting and spiritual.

The property is the site of multiple research and educational projects - including Habitat Management and Development; Food Plots and Agriculture Plantings; Vegetation Manipulation; and Nesting Surveys. Additionally, it hosts several educational institutions for field trips and accommodations for a multitude of organizations and universities, including the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

Design concepts

The primary design goal for the Dirsmith Group was to carefully craft a building and landscape environment that would blend into that marvelous piece of land and respect the natural landscape and existing lakes, ponds and trees. The owner's (our client) father had actually bought much of the original property, and during the Depression started a program with the WPA and Boy Scouts to plant over 30,000 trees on the gently rolling Illinois farm (corn) land. There were a series of small natural lakes or ponds spread out among the tilled fields.

When we first arrived to walk the land, it was a bright, sunny spring day, and we spent 10 hours walking the 1,800 acres and talking to the client as to what were his and his family's dreams and visions. It was very clear that this was sacred ground, traversed by native American Indians only a century or so before us, and now carefully cared for by the new owner.

He wanted to preserve the land in some fashion for the future. And in the meantime, he envisioned some form of a strong structure - wedded to the earth - that could be used as a large weekend retreat for now, and perhaps maybe a longer-term retirement residence down the road, or maybe even as a study-type facility. The land was on the Mississippi Flyway, which was the route of some 300,000 Canadian Geese yearly, coming and going from the Bering Straits South to Crab Orchard Lake in Southern Illinois.

Although he had no firm idea of what the future would hold, he was a relatively successful International Industrialist, owning outright the world's largest manufacturing and distribution facilities for electronic vacuum tubes for industry, a company his father had formed years before. It was and still is a family-run business, and he envisioned that this land would probably always be in and a part of the family. Little did any of us know - including him at that time - that he would eventually establish a private, irrevocable trust for the entire property and buildings, and dedicate it to the future.

The built environment

As we walked around the property, we outlined the approximate sizes, number of spaces, rooms and the way the original house/residence/study/retreat might be used over the course of a year. About a mile of road would have to be cut into the land to reach the general area that we agreed would be an ideal location to build such a structure. We took about 500 frames of images during that walk to study back at our studios. Additionally, a helicopter was chartered to take some aerial photos of the overall environment, which is a common approach during our study programming work, and we gave him a copy of all the filmed images for his use also.

The owner left us a good amount of freedom to come up with a concept. His secretary had been saving our marketing materials, photos, drawings and sketches that he had been receiving from us for nearly four years, waiting for the day that he wished to do something on that land. Although very pensive and concerned about preserving the marvelous natural character of the land, he wanted to build upon it, and we agreed upon how we would start.

Initial considerations focused on preserving the natural beauty; how to site the basic structure; the preservation of the trees; overlooking the ponds with their nightly arrival of waterfowl; the solar orientation; sunsets across the water; the mile of road that would have to be run into the location chosen; and the thought that whatever was eventually to be built should look as though it had been there forever. We came up with the name - The Sanctuary - which seemed to fit the challenge and describe the project, and it has always been called just that.

Choosing the stone

There were some five kinds and character of stonework that had to be considered for various uses in this project.

    A. Very large-scale natural, uncut landscape and retaining wall boulders
    B. Boulder stones - natural and uncut - for the columns and piers
    C. Rugged and natural, cut-to-design stone for the fireplace interior
    D. Rugged and natural, cut-organically-to-fit stone for the fireplace exterior mass
    E. Honed, polished, flame-textured and cut stone for the stairs, floors, decks and exterior paving.

One of the critical design requirements from the owner was that he did not want to see a "fruitcake" kind of color and texture when it was all finished. The character and feel of all the stonework had to appear very natural, as though the stone had simply been gathered up from the same farmers' fields. Granite was chosen over all of the other types of stone for its permanence and ability to collect in a tight range of color and texture, mostly in shades of a medium-warm gray.

The very large landscape stones had to be as large as practical to be in scale with the 1,800-acre property, nestled into the landscape, shores of the lake and around the base of the buildings, cascading up into the enormous fireplace mass, and blended into the numerous retaining walls. The effect had to suggest that we had simply built the building into this natural landscape. One of the first such stones set in building the approach driveway was about the size, shape and color of an elephant.

The boulder stones for the columns should be like younger brothers and sisters of the landscape stones, obviously not as big, but "in the family." The stones for the fireplace interior, as well as the textured and flamed stones, were hand cut to reflect the shape and design of the organic sunburst effect that had been created. Yet, the scale of the pieces had to be massive in scale to reflect the overall character of this powerful and spiritual site.

The stones for the exterior fireplace mass, some 9 feet long, were to be in the character of both the large landscape boulders and the interior fireplace. The material was wire and hand cut, textured and flamed to "grow up" out of the land itself.

All of the interior and exterior flooring, slabs, stairs, decks and trim pieces had to be cut, honed, polished or flamed out of the same color and range of material to blend into the composition. This was quite a task to orchestrate. We took the owner on trips to a variety of resource sites, quarries and yards - both our own and our mason contractor's - for him to see exactly what the realistic possibilities were during the early design stages. Somehow, everyone agreed that this unusual combination of stone materials and design could be achieved - even if from a variety of sources, which was the reality of how the stone was accumulated.

In fact, some of the stone was searched out and purchased before the drawings were finished. We all realized that the natural, artistic character of the stone available on site could be hand picked and chosen by the masons as they built each area.

We had recommended a mason contractor, Linari Masonry, to the owner as a firm that we had over 20 years of experience with in constructing organic and natural stonework like that created for The Sanctuary. They had a special crew of Modenese Italians, craftsmen of incredible artistic and technical skill that knew our work well. In fact, they were a primary resource for the stone itself, that they accumulated from a variety of their own sources.

The work by Dominick Linari, the stonemason, really is a testimonial to his sharing of his knowledge and experience with us over the years. We had the privilege and honor of working side by side with him on many of our projects, which eventually led us to create the stonework for The Sanctuary.

Implementing the stone

From our initial interview with the owner, it was very clear that he really liked and respected nature and natural stone, and he wanted something organic, sculptural or spiritual in nature to reflect the power of the site. We discussed many kinds of materials and how they could be combined or used in a natural setting. Moreover, we listened to him detail what the land meant to him as a little boy growing up, and what it meant to his family and history of the midwest of America.

The color, scale and texture of natural granite seemed just right for him - and for us as well - as we thought of varying the size and shapes organically to always pose a change of pace, a new view or scale against which to appreciate the landscape. We spoke much about the total environment appearing as though it had simply always been there to a visitor arriving for a first glimpse.

It was a fascinating challenge as a design concept to attempt to create a structure in such a remote place that would gently blend into nature. Stone, in one form or another, seemed the most appropriate material for any number of reasons, but primarily because of the incredible spiritual power and feeling that stone provides.

Implementing the stonework was a challenge, but it was eased by the team of people that was assembled to actually construct this uncommon project. The remote location of the site - in a rural area, and buried deep within a large parcel of land, miles away from any hardware stores, restaurants, material yards, gas stations or shops of any kind - obviously had its challenges in simple logistics of building the project. All of the craftsmen and women had to carefully plan their day's work well in advance and bring everything with them, including food and water for each day.

The team of stone masons, old world craftsmen, lived about 135 miles from the site and had the most challenging task. They arranged with the owner and their union officials to work 40 hours per week, but in four 10-hour days, living and sleeping in one of the owner's buildings on the site. That way, they did not have to drive 270 miles round trip each day, and they could be with their families for a long weekend each week. Everyone was very happy with this plan, and the workmanship and craftsmanship shows it.

The masonry stonework and boulder work was the most exciting part of building The Sanctuary, as the size of the stones and boulders were enormous. Some of the landscape boulders were 8 to 10 tons, and so large that only one could fit on a truck at a time. Each of them was set and positioned by a large, 95,000-pound hydro crane.

The average size of the boulder stones used in the columns, piers and wall work was about 20 to 30 inches round, carefully selected for a natural, uncut fit. Most of these stones had to be set with a chain fall, as they were 300 to 400 pounds each on average. All of the boulder stones were carefully matched for size, color and fit to minimize the size of mortar joints so as to appear as natural as possible.

The large fireplace and chimney stones posed a unique challenge all to themselves. Setting up the crane and moving the stones along the small, one-mile access road winding through the wooded landscape into the wall was an artistic as well as "Old Roman" engineering feat all in itself.

Over the course of the project, the masons were living on the land itself, and the environment was almost like the TV program, "Survivor," but without the intrigue. Moreover, the workers became artists rather than mechanics as they saw their hand work take shape day by day. They were proud and worked almost as a family would on a farm. We remember that they actually looked forward to leaving their homes on Sunday evening so they could start very early Monday morning, and they had set individual goals as to how they would approach each section of the artwork/stonework, as each column or pier became a special piece of sculpture to them, each unique in and of itself.

Site supervision

The first four months of construction was very time consuming, as we were asked to be on the site three to four times each week. The round trip drive was five hours alone. We actually stayed on the site the full working day, selecting the individual stones with the masons for them to install, thus setting the character and feel for their hand work for different areas so that everyone would have a good feeling for what was intended and hoped for.

Setting the one "elephant" landscape boulder nestled into the side of the new approach road was an incredible experience. The 95,000 hydro crane could just make it between the trees, and it had to be carefully positioned so that it could reach the back of the truck to lift it up and over the truck. Access was so tight that the equipment could not turn around; the existing trees were a critical resource that had to be protected, and, in fact, not one tree nor branch was ever lost during the entire construction phase.

Once the character was established, and the first columns, piers, base walls and landscape stones were set, it became a little easier, and we only had to be back at the site about once a week or twice at critical times. We would generally go out on Monday and set out a week of work, and walked the site with lead mason Enzo Fiorenza, master mason Fernando Benassi and crane man Louie Bernardi to pick the stones to be used that week.

The coordination worked terrifically, especially with constant phone calls and filming of the project. We could communicate to the crew with actual photographic images in our studios while they had the reality on the site.

Probably the most difficult aspect of the project was the erecting of the organically cut stone to fit exterior fireplace wall mass. This feature had to be set one or two stones per day, and then it had to sit to allow the mortar to harden. These organic, overhanging and interweaving stones were gigantic in scale and weight, and they had to be blocked, wedged and counter-weighted as they went up. This was all possible due to the "Roman" blood genes from the masons' historical heritage.

Looking to the future

The first structure was primarily designed to be a large residence and family gathering place with outer buildings that were remodeled for guests, visitors and work staff. It still is being used in that same spirit, but with a remarkable twist.

The owner, in his generous gentle and kind wisdom, has given the entire property in trust to his family Wildlife Foundation as described above. In addition to forever preserving this wonderful land and building complex, he has also endowed a fund to perpetuate forever the running of the research study and conservation programs established and being performed yearly. The entire property is now a research/study/conference center as well. We are honored to have been a part of this uncommon project.