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Revisiting Mr. T's 1987 Lake Forest Chainsaw Massacre

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Now, in honor of Curbed Outdoors Week, let's take a look back at one of the Chicago area's most infamous landscaping debacles: Mr. T's 1987 inexplicable destruction of more than 100 trees (actual tree counts vary) on the old Armour estate in Lake Forest. Long-time Chicagoans know this story well, because every time a tree is threatened in the area, Mr. T's name is invoked. Why dredge up this dark chapter in suburban landscape history now? Because, well, 1987 was a long time ago, and it gives us a chance to screw around with Photoshop.

Twenty-four years later, here's what we think we know: The home in question was built in 1910 for a banker named Orville Elias Babcock, and it was later occupied by meatpacking magnet Laurance Armour. Famed landscape architect Jens Jensen designed the grounds, and architect David Adler was hired to renovate the home in 1928. In 1986, Mr. T (a Chicago native, by the way) bought the sprawling English Tudor estate for $1.7 million and immediately sought to add a few personal touches to the historic property, including a huge iron 'T' on the front gate (which the town rejected), and a big, white stockade fence encompassing the property (which the City Council ordered him to sandblast). Then, a year later, he went all Paul Bunyan on the hundreds of trees that filled his property. He even wiped out four 12-foot topiary trees that had been sculpted to represent birds in nests. ''He's smiling and laughing about all this,'' said one horrified neighbor in 1987. ''He thinks it's a joke.''

The papers called it the 'Lake Forest Chainsaw Massacre.' Arborists were stunned. And for his part, Mr. T never bothered to fully explain why he fired up a chainsaw and, alongside hired workmen, got busy clearcutting the oaks, elms and maples that populated his seven-acre estate. (When a Sun-Times reporter caught up with him at a grocery store, Mr. T reportedly wrote, "I don't talk to press," on a piece of paper and handed it to him.) His brother told a reporter that Mr. T suffered from allergies, but perhaps realizing how ludicrous that sounded, he later denied it. What did he do with all that lumber? It was believed that Mr. T dumped some of the trees in a marble pool and covered it with dirt.

If there's a silver lining to the story, it's this: In 1988, prompted largely by the public outrage over Mr. T's clear-cutting, Lake Forest enacted a tree preservation ordinance to prevent developers and homeowners from chopping down trees.

In 2003, a pair of developers, operating under the name Legacy Preservation Partners LLC, acquired the property, now known as "Two Gables." When they took over the estate, the seven-acre grounds "looked like a big parking lot with the grass and fence and the few trees that remained," one of the landscape architects told the Tribune in 2003. They tore down the controversial stockade fence and set to work planting new trees and shrubs to the ravaged grounds and renovating the house. Inside, they stripped out Mr. T's red shag carpeting and the black and red toilets he had installed, restored the elevator, and added a 5,000-square-foot addition to the original 10,000-square-foot house. (See interior photos here.)

When the rehabbed 9BD, 13BA home hit the market in 2006, rumors swirled that Jennifer Aniston was interested, but it wasn't to be. The estate was finally sold in 2009 to the current owners, Neil and Jane Cummins, for $4.625 million. How are the new trees doing these days? Hard to say, but judging from the satellite images on Google Earth, it still looks like an excellent place to land a small airplane. According to a 2009 story in the Lake Forester, the new owners are pretty private people, and they erected a gigantic wall to keep curious visitors from peeping in.
· Genteel Chicago Suburb Rages Over Mr. T's Tree Massacre [NYT]
· The Real A-Team [Deal Estate]