Saturday, July 2, 2011
Garfield Park Conservatory smashed, needs donations to rebuild
I was dismayed to learn that the Garfield Park Conservatory, one of my favorite places in Chicago, was badly damaged by a hailstorm Thursday night -- so badly that it is closed until further notice, and the conservatory is begging for donations to rebuild. Donate here.
The golf ball-sized hail smashed the glass roof in nine propagation greenhouses; the Show House, where they put on the annual azalea-based show in spring and chrysanthemum-based show in fall; and, most tragically to my mind, the Fern Room, my favorite.
When pioneer landscape architect and conservationist Jens Jensen designed the conservatory in 1908, he looked at ferns -- ancient plants that predate the invention of sex -- and recalled fossils that showed how little they had changed in millions of years. So he created the Fern Room to evoke how the Midwest would have looked in the Jurassic era, 150 million years ago, when the climate here was much warmer and wetter. He brought in stonemasons to set natural limestone into cliffs and grottoes and cloaked them with plants of ancient forms: ferns, mosses, cycads.
He did all this in a vast room that is set aside, lower than the rest of the conservatory, so it seems like a different world. Jensen was a pioneer in displaying plants in natural relationships all over the conservatory, planted in the ground instead of displayed in rows in pots, as they normally were in conservatories of the time. But in the Fern Room he surpassed himself.
Stepping into the Fern Room is like arriving at another planet. You follow paths that wander behind mysterious cliffs, cloaked in mosses of an unearthly green, to pools with ancient reptiles (well, painted turtles). You encounter plants that seem unearthly, totally unlike what you see in your garden or in the woods (actually, some you would see in the Midwestern woods, but they would be so mixed with more typical plants that you would hardly notice). Creating the Fern Room was one of Jensen's greatest leaps of imagination, and he made many.
You may not know it, but some of the plants you are looking are rare, endangered and tremendously valuable in the collectors' black market. (Bad collectors!)
The conservatory, which in addition to being an indoor wonderland of palms and cacti and orchids has a gorgeous outdoor garden and is a center for education on gardening in urban Chicago, also has a history of hard times.
When it was built, the area around it was prosperous and fashionable, but since the 1950s it has fallen on hard times. Little visited and scorned by the Chicago Park District's leadership, the conservatory fell into disrepair. Its glass was replaced with cheaper fiberglass panels. The horticultural staff declined to a skeleton. The low point was in 1994 when the pipes froze in the Aroid Room and killed 80 percent of the plants there.
This event caught the Park District's attention. Money was discovered in the budget to fix the pipes. Major donors stepped up to help with private money. The Garfield Park Conservatory Alliance was formed to support the conservatory, connect it to the community and raise funds. An exhibit of Daley Chihuly glassworks in 2002 helped hundreds of thousands of people discover the conservatory's wonders. The Green Line L stop was spruced up to emphasize how accessible the place is.
Just a few years ago, the grand Palm House, where you enter this horticultural fantasyland, was re-roofed with glass instead of fiberglass. That meant moving gigantic palm trees to relandscape the imagine landscape. Then the Sugar from the Sun exhibit was installed to explain photosynthesis by way of a mysterious room full of strange fruits and exotic orchids. Things seemed to be looking up.
Then the recession hit and donations suffered. And now this.
The cliche "hidden treasure" was coined to describe this place. There's no more magical spot in Chicago to visit in the dead of winter, or at the height of summer, than the Garfield Park Conservatory.
People I know -- Mary Eysenbach, the Park District's director of conservatories; Eunita Rushing, who heads the Garfield Park Conservatory Alliance; Adam Schwerner, the director of natural resources for the Park District; Koch Unni and Miguel Del Valle and all the rest of the dedicated staff -- are now picking through shards of glass to figure out which plants have been damaged, where and how they will nurse them back to health with nine of the 12 back-end greenhouses damaged, and how to pay for all the reglazing. It may take millions. They will need all our help. I've made a donation and I urge everyone who loves gardens, plants and/or Chicago to do the same.
Got a garden question? I recommend you call or e-mail the Plant Clinic of The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, the Master Gardeners of the University of Illinois Extension or the Plant Information Service of the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe .
All contents of this post are copyright Beth Botts. Feel free to link or share a brief excerpt with a link, but please do not reproduce photos or any other part of this blog without my express permission.