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By Devin Rose
For Oak Parker Robin Dunn and her 7-year-old son, Roger, the historic Cheney Mansion has been like a backyard. But with the help of some dedicated volunteers, she's leading the effort to turn it into an educational destination spot.
"I think it's a real exciting thing to have two acres in the middle of a busy, busy setting to work on and to establish," Dunn, 48, said recently.
She's chairwoman of the volunteer Gardens of Cheney Mansion group that was formed to restore the former home and its grounds.
After Roger was born, Dunn would often take him to the mansion to play. They got to know the gardener, who would let Roger run through the hose in the summertime. The staff at Cheney would welcome his class for picnics during the school year. And around Halloween, they'd lie in the grass in the evenings and look for bats.
"I love it just a tad less than my own home," Dunn said about the mansion, which now has many features in disrepair.
She found out from the staff that they were in need of help convincing people that the mansion was worth a restoration. Dunn attended a few of the meetings of the group interested in saving it, and "I just really felt the cause," she said.
Dunn has always loved gardening, and was able to learn different techniques during the almost 12 years she and her husband lived overseas.
While her husband worked in finance, Dunn got to be part of rose societies in South Africa — "very British colonial," she said — with high tea and white gloves.
They lived in Dubai for about two years, but Dunn said it was a bit limiting for women. In Singapore, she started her own business selling French carpets and wall tapestries, and eventually transferred the business to Chicago. She also began creating water gardens for people in front of their homes.
The couple lived in an area near the embassies during their time in Singapore, and Dunn said motorcades of world leaders would often travel up and down their street.
"They thought it was interesting to see a blonde-haired, blue-eyed woman knee-deep in pond water," she said
Dunn joined the Garden Club of Oak Park and River Forest after they moved to Oak Park about 10 years ago.
Now, when she feels stressed, she says digging, clipping and pruning is her go-to activity. The club will be working with her in the restoration effort, she said.
Since becoming chairwoman of the Cheney group, Dunn has also built relationships with the Parks Foundation, Park District of Oak Park and other plant and animal enthusiasts that are interested in bringing educational opportunities to Cheney.
She said it could be possible to harvest fish in the greenhouse, teach composting workshops or hold events. They'll try to reuse as much existing material as they can.
The group is about halfway done with its business plan, and Dunn they'll start brainstorming ideas for the greenhouse in September.
She said she's excited to soon be able to "sink our teeth into education," and bring more people to Oak Park.