A Publication of WTVP

From farm boy to prominent landscape architect

by Linda Smith Brown | Photos by Ron Johnson |
Opening the door to a Doug Hoerr—designed garden
Opening the door to a Doug Hoerr—designed garden

Peoria-born Doug Hoerr has helped to launch something of a green revolution in America’s major cities

Landscape architect Doug Hoerr
Landscape architect Doug Hoerr

He’s the man who brought nature to Chicago’s Michigan Avenue. He’s the guy who helped make the Magnificent Mile magnificent. He’s the one who looked at empty, desolate urban roofs and saw a place to add sport, leisure and beauty to an unused space.

He’s Doug Hoerr, senior partner at the renowned Hoerr Schaudt Landscape Architects of Chicago, and former landscape designer and builder at Peoria’s Hoerr Nursery.

Born in Peoria 66 years ago, Hoerr’s family moved on his first birthday to a farm in Millford, Indiana, where he grew up.

After graduation from Purdue University with a degree in landscape architecture, Hoerr returned to Peoria to work with his second cousins Rudy, Jim and John Hoerr at DA Hoerr, the landscape design/build firm now known as Hoerr Nursery.

“Basically, I learned the craft of how to landscape from them,” Hoerr said of his nine and a half years there.

The Doug Hoerr-transformed Zimmerman property in north Peoria
The Doug Hoerr-transformed Zimmerman property in north Peoria

A turning point

In 1988, at the age of 32, Hoerr decided to leave everything behind and go to England to study the hottest trend in landscaping.

“At the time, the rage in all the lifestyle magazines, such as Elle Décor and House Beautiful, was English gardens,” said Hoerr, who wanted to learn more about perennials and layering. “I realized that none of my projects was ever going to be in a magazine.”

Hoerr worked with celebrity gardeners John Brookes and Beth Chatto. “It was almost like getting my doctorate in landscape horticulture,” he said. “I ate, drank and slept gardens, doing two or three gardens a week around the country” while lending a student’s ear to the nonstop chats he had with Chatto and Brookes over dinner.

After two years, Brookes told Hoerr it was time for him to go home and put his knowledge to work.

Midwest, Michigan Avenue beckon

Hoerr chose to open his own landscape architectural firm in Chicago, initially working out of his home in Evanston.

His first job after returning to the United States was landscaping a Peoria home recently purchased by Tom and Mary Ann Zimmerman in Thousand Oaks. Hoerr had landscaped their previous home.

Plants, trees, perennials, a sprinkler system, new patio, gravel paths and a walled courtyard were installed.

“Doug can look at a site and visualize what it’s going to look like, right away,” said Mary Ann Zimmerman. “He knows what needs to be done and he’s fun to work with.”

After a happenstance meeting, the owners of Crate and Barrel asked Hoerr for landscape lighting for their new flagship store on Michigan Avenue.

“Michigan Avenue basically had some impatiens and plastic chains and petunias and I didn’t think it was the Magnificent Mile,” said Hoerr. “I mean, horticulturally it wasn’t.

“Nature wasn’t really in the city at that time, just some trees along the sidewalk that were healthy or maybe not,” said Hoerr, who suggested that Crate and Barrel go all in for landscaping around the store. The owners agreed.

“When I did the gardens there at Crate and Barrel, it got a lot of attention,” Hoerr said. “People waiting for the shops to open in the morning started waiting around the gardens in front of Crate and Barrel, not the other stores.”

The bountiful horticulture became a “thing” on Michigan avenue, with merchants on Michigan Avenue and then State Street asking Hoerr for landscaping at their stores.

The gardens at the Zimmerman residence in Peoria’s Thousand Oaks subdivision
The gardens at the Zimmerman residence in Peoria’s Thousand Oaks subdivision

Hizzoner takes notice

Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley also took note of the beautification. Hoerr was recruited to be part of a public/private endeavor to bring horticultural beauty to the medians on Michigan Avenue.

The city installed four blocks of planters along the Mag Mile, and three times a year Hoerr selected the vegetation to fill them. It was all completely new to Chicago.

“I came in with this sort of natural landscaping that overflowed the planters. It was a unique look. It took a couple of years for people to say ‘Oh, we like that.’”

Hoerr kept at it for 25 years. The city kept adding planters, with those initial four Michigan Avenue blocks becoming four miles. More neighborhoods and shopping areas wanted the beautification experience. Today, there are 100 miles of heavily landscaped median strips in the Windy City, and the concept has branched out across the country.

Hoerr sees the Michigan Avenue phenomenon as the “defining difference” that got his foot in the door with clients, growing his business.

Steve Jobs reaches out

One of the new clients was Apple Inc., which hired Hoerr Schaudt to devise sidewalk plantings at their first standalone store in Chicago. As the mayor’s recently appointed chairman of the Green Roof Committee, Hoerr approached Apple’s local representatives about putting a green roof on their new store.

His proposal made its way to Apple founder and CEO Steve Jobs, who summoned Hoerr to Cupertino, California, to discuss the unusual plan.

Hoerr told Jobs how a green roof would help mitigate the building’s heat island effect and slow the runoff of rainwater into the city’s storm sewers. Hoerr asked Jobs to lead by example. They reached an agreement, and what resulted was the first commercial green roof project in Chicago.

That trend, too, would catch on. Hoerr Schaudt has designed green roofs for private homes and businesses across the country, including two of the largest — a 4.5-acre green roof in Chicago and another in Houston.

A partnership

In 2008, Hoerr’s firm merged with the landscape architectural firm of Peter Schaudt, becoming Hoerr Schaudt Landscape Architects. Schaudt died in 2015.

Hoerr Schaudt never relegated itself to one specialty, designing landscapes for residences, universities, commercial developments, corporate headquarters, hospitals and retail developments, winning tons of awards in the process.

With a staff of 80 employees, the firm has been busier than ever the last four years. “It’s pretty exciting,” said Hoerr. “We have projects coast to coast and north to south.” There are many international clients, as well.

Hoerr and his wife of 25 years, Tracy, have two children: son Malcolm, 23, a graduate of Wake Forest University, and daughter Amelia, 19, a sophomore at Miami of Ohio.

Hoerr’s goal is to mentor. “I want to teach a whole new crop of landscape architects and give them the chance that my cousins gave me in Peoria.”

Linda Smith Brown

Linda Smith Brown

is a 37-year veteran of the newspaper industry, retiring as publisher of Times Newspapers in the Peoria area