Tuesday, December 08, 2009

....$50 million Cuneo mansion a gift to Loyola University....

Adorned with European antiques, 17th century tapestries, classical sculpture and other works of art, the entry to the Cuneo Estate is a portal to privilege most can't comprehend.

Casual visitors once included business titans like former Chicago Blackhawks and Bulls owner Arthur Wirtz and insurance mogul James Kemper. A hand-carved table of walnut and olive wood was a gift from publishing giant William Randolph Hearst, a friend of printing magnate John Cuneo.

What was once the family home for more than a half-century, the Cuneo Museum and Gardens was opened by John Cuneo Jr. in 1991 to share his father's collections with the public.

"It shows people another way of life," Cuneo said of his boyhood home.

But after all this time, Cuneo, 78, is ready to move on. Although his immediate involvement will end, the legacy and family largesse will be preserved with the gift of the Cuneo Estate and nearly 100 acres to Loyola University Chicago.

The home, grounds, collections and cash have an estimated value of $50 million - a historic gift and by far the single largest donation Loyola has ever received.

"This is a signal moment in the history of the university," said Jonathan R. Heintzelman, vice president for advancement. "He's been looking for a way to perpetuate his father's legacy. Fortunately for us, he's decided Loyola will be a good steward."

The university board voted to accept the gift on Friday. Paper work is expected to take a few months, with the official transfer estimated in March.

The gift from Cuneo and his wife, Herta, will support several initiatives, including student scholarships and a new building to be known as Cuneo Hall on the university's Lake Shore Campus.

It comes with a guarantee the well-known museum and gardens in Vernon Hills will be managed and maintained by Loyola for 20 years, but a school official said they intend to run it well past that date.

"It took a long time to decide. I looked for a proper party to handle it," Cuneo said.

Loyola has the authority to make adjustments, add programs and potentially develop a portion of the property, but officials say it will remain a museum open to the public and the annual holiday light show will continue. Plans are to increase the use of the property for weddings, special occasions and corporate events.

Any ideas at this point are only conceptual but changes eventually will be coming.

"I think the plan is to have it be self-supporting in a short period of time," Heintzelman said.

The Jesuit Catholic university doesn't intend to erect an academic building on the site. But using existing facilities for faculty and student musical performances, reinstating a summer Shakespeare festival or hosting specialized classes if there is a demand, are among the possibilities.

Building a permanent structure for year-round weddings and conferences also is in the long range plan.

Unspecified capital improvements are planned.

"We are bringing in various landscape architects who are specialists in restoration work," said Steve Bergfeld, assistant to the president and project manager for Loyola.

Maintaining and operating the 31,000-square-foot home and extensive grounds has been subsidized by the Cuneo Foundation, which spent nearly $953,000 for that purpose in 2007, according to federal records.

Specific details were not disclosed, but the gift apparently would provide enough cash and property to cover those expenses going forward. Cuneo said 10 acres on the northern portion are quite valuable.

"That land is almost $1 million an acre now. That would give plenty of money to make up for any loss," he said.

Loyola estimates about 50 acres along Milwaukee Avenue could be developed for commercial or other uses, perhaps to include a long-term care facility. None appear to be immediate possibilities.

"Given the current rent real estate market, we're assessing our options now," Bergfeld said. "You don't want to sell or lease an asset at the bottom of the barrel and fortunately, we don't have to."

Proceeds eventually would help fund operations, improvements and provide scholarships.

The Venetian-style home was designed in 1914 by architect Benjamin Marshall, whose projects included the Edgewater and Drake hotels in Chicago, for Samuel Insull, founder of ComEd.

John Cuneo, whose fortune was made in printing, real estate and other business ventures, bought the home and large tracts of surrounding farmland when Insull's vast holdings went into receivership in 1937.

"When I was a boy, we had 18 miles of roads - our own roads - on the property. We used to ride horses," John Cuneo Jr. said.

His father meanwhile was involved in a variety of activities on the estate and elsewhere. That included acquisition of controlling interest in the National Tea food store chain, which became an outlet for his iconic Hawthorn Mellody milk.

Hawthorn Mellody Farm, dairy, zoo and other attractions comprised a popular destination during the 1950s and '60s.

Aside from his extensive contacts with top businessmen of the day, the devoutly religious elder Cuneo strongly supported Catholic causes and related activities.

Cardinal Samuel Stritch was a personal friend who fostered the consecration of a private chapel in the Cuneo home, a rare occurrence.

"The support from the family goes back to John's father in the late '40s, early '50s, with help supporting the medical school at Loyola," Heintzelman said.

In 1950, Cuneo helped found the Stritch School of Medicine annual award dinner, which now is its largest annual fundraiser.

That same year, Cuneo was invested with the Grand Cross of the Order of St. Sylvester, the highest honor accorded a lay person, because of his many services to the Catholic Church.

John and Herta Cuneo also have been supportive of Loyola's Stritch School of Medicine.

In 2000, the couple partnered with the school to name the John & Herta Cuneo Center on the medical school campus. At the time, their $14 million donation was the largest single gift made to Loyola.

With the latest Cuneo gift, the school has raised nearly $400 million of its $500 million goal for The Campaign for the Future of Loyola.

"It's quite a story not just for Loyola," Heintzelman said. "Nothing has ever come in before of this dimension."