Cultural Connections: Ragdale

Artist Community & Retreat

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In 1976, Ragdale officially became a nonprofit artists’ community and retreat, but the site has been home to artists since it was built by Arts and Crafts architect Howard Van Doren Shaw in 1897. On Chicago Tonight at 7:00 pm, we take a look at Ragdale under renovation to see what’s in store for its future.

Shaw originally built Ragdale as a summer home in Lake Forest, Illinois. However, the architect wasn’t the only artist in the family, and with its edenic, prairie setting Ragdale soon became a haven for all kinds of artists. In 1976, Alice Hudson Hayes—Shaw’s granddaughter—made Ragdale an official artists’ retreat by establishing the Ragdale Foundation. Ragdale is now a nonprofit artists’ community.

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Since 1976, Ragdale has grown into a full-fledged retreat with seven full-time staff members as well as two part-time employees, interns, volunteers and more. Over 200 artists are in residence each year, in disciplines ranging from writing and painting to music composition and dance. Ragdale’s philosophy is that time and space are necessary to creating important new work. Residences can last anywhere from two to six weeks, during which artists can focus solely on their work.

“At Ragdale, I can fully enter the dream of my own work,” declared poet and author Robin Behn. “I don’t just write more here; I write more wildly, like the prairie itself.”

In addition to hosting artists, Ragdale also provides programs for the public, such as workshops, readings and open studios. Tours of the buildings and grounds are also available.

“Ragdale is true to the vision of Howard and Frances Shaw, which is a vital, living commitment to the creation of new artwork,” said Executive Director Susan Tillett. “I think that is extremely valuable to any community. It is certainly a source of pride and identity for Lake Forest.”

On March 16, 2010, Ragdale announced plans to renovate Ragdale House. The $3 million project—“Operation Renovation”—should take over a year, and began on March 20, 2011.

Health and safety concerns—largely due to the House’s age and original intention as only a summer residence—are among the primary motivators for the renovation. Consequently, the electrical, plumbing, heating and cooling systems will all be updated.

“The plan is to also include geothermal heating and to increase electrical service to the residents,” said Vice President of Ragdale’s Board of Trustees Roland Kulla.

Artists will continue to reside at Ragdale despite the construction. With five less rooms available, Ragdale will host eight artists at a time.

“The renovation will make the Ragdale House safe and comfortable for future generations of writers and artists,” said Tillett. “This building, which so many artists consider the home of their creative spirit, will be preserved in a way that we trust the muse will still be happy to live here and visit the residents working on the great American novel, screenplay and poem!”

View a timeline of Ragdale through the ages below.




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