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The ‘train lady’ elegantly chugs along

Updated: July 25, 2013 6:13AM

‘I live in heaven,” says Elaine Silets, exaggerating only slightly. “I do. Isn’t it beautiful?”

It is. Though where she lives is not actual paradise, but an elegant terrestrial home on 10 manicured acres in North Barrington.

Silets refuses to say how old she is, as ladies are prone to, and while she is not elderly, she is of that age where false modesty gives way to a bracing directness. Compliment her on the loveliness of her home — go ahead.

“Thank you — I agree with you,” she says, leading into the gardens. Her philosophy of gardening is equally direct: “All it takes is a vision and bushel baskets of money.”

Those bushel baskets came, in large part, thanks to her late husband, Harvey, who was among the top criminal tax attorneys in the city — he once defended Jimmy Hoffa. Harvey died in 2007 after 44 years of marriage, but he is never far from her thoughts.

“He was very academic, he had no airs,” she says. “Except when he walked into the courtroom, he was Mr. Nice Guy.”

She gets behind the wheel of a golf cart.

“This is a big place to see,” she explains. “I’m going to take you on the grand tour.”

What follows is a blur of roses, carefully tended hedges, arching arbors, burbling waterfalls and fountains, a lake, with its own blue heron that summers here, and a parade of notable trees: a massive, centuries-old burr oak, the oldest in Barrington; a 100-foot Norway spruce; a Japanese butterfly maple; a Korean fir whose white-tipped needles look covered in snow; a cottonwood casting off white tufts. And one unexpected tree.

“Don’t let anybody tell you can’t grow peaches,” she says, pointing to golden orbs of fuzzy adolescent peaches. “Full of peaches.”

“How do you do that?” I ask, amazed.

“Put it in a micro-environment,” she says. “See how it’s protected?” Foliage around the peach tree keeps the warmth in.

Silets does not normally show off her garden to strangers, but she has invited me because she is a loyal Sun-Times reader and wants me to serve as a vanguard to the 5,000 guests she’s expecting Saturday, when she opens her estate for the day to benefit the Interlochen Center for the Arts. Her son, Jonathan, who died in 1982 at age 17, “absolutely adored Interlochen.”

But that isn’t why I am here. I don’t ballyhoo charity events, and have a garden, albeit far smaller. What I came for is the toy trains.

Silets fashions herself as “The Train Lady,” a role she assumed after her husband merged his law practice into the firm Katten Muchin Rosenman — up to then, she had helped him with his office and, deprived of that outlet for her considerable energies, she turned her husband’s train hobby into a thriving business, Huff & Puff Industries, where she and her staff construct complicated and expensive train setups for offices, homes and gardens. It is a testimony to just how much you can cram into 10 acres that we rode for quite a long time before I saw any garden trains.

Just as I note how she uses a hedge to protect her vegetable garden — clever — an expanse of trains finally roll into view: a G scale track set up with bridges and flowers, spread out before a life-size train station.

That isn’t the incredible part, though. She leads me inside the station to a huge, unexpected trainscape of Chicago — from Wrigley Field to Union Station to Millennium Park, down to the Gehry bandstand, built of aluminum flashing and a Bean sculpture that she carved out of Styrofoam and had plated.

“Everything you see here, I hand built,” she says. The whole thing was to beat the Reaper.” Beat the Reaper?

When her husband Harvey got sick, he told her that while she was building all these train landscapes for customers — strangers — she had never built one for him.

She took the hint, and built this.

“He was supposed to live for six months,” she says. “He lived for two and half years. Harvey lived to see it finished, ran it twice, and died.”

When she’s with the trains, it’s as if he’s still around. Only, of course, he isn’t.

“It hasn’t been the same since,” she says. “He was my partner in crime.”

Garden visitors line up for an hour to get into this labor of love, and I would say it is time well spent. Admission is $10, there will be music by Interlochen students and refreshments sold by Giordano’s, plus 800 cupcakes donated by a local pastry chef.

She has held the event for 23 years, with the tents and logistics and parking woes.

“I always say, I am never, never, never going to do this thing again. I’m not going to do it,” she says. But one thing about love — it doesn’t quit. We all do odd things for our departed loved ones. Elaine Silets, surrounded by luxury, plays with trains.

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