Winter in Chicago is a long and dreary business. One thing that always saves my sanity is visiting the conservatories. Here, my eyes are filled with lush green and growing things, exotic fragrances fill the air and it’s warm and humid.
One of my favorites is the Garfield Park Conservatory tucked away on the city’s West Side. Designed by Jens Jensen, the conservatory opened in 1907. Jensen wanted to create naturalistic landscapes under glass, which gives Garfield Park a very organic feel to the spaces.
When I walk into the Palm House, my heart lifts at the sight of the huge trees brushing against the ceiling. The hyper-oxygenated air fills my lungs and I can hardly wait to find some tropical flower blooming around the next corner.
I like to visit the Dr. Seuss-like pony tail palms in the Desert House and see the changing blossoms in the Show House. The Aroid House is filled with giant foliage and is graced by the Persian Pool filled with yellow Chihuly glass lilypads.
My favorite place, though, is the Fern Room. Here is prehistoric Illinois nestled in rocky valleys and musical waterfalls. Tree ferns and cycads stretch elegant fronds above your head. A lagoon filled with goldfish and koi reflects the saturated green of ferns, mosses, and vines. I can get lost here within moments.
Garfield Park gives me a chance to imagine new possibilities, refine ideas, and get inspiration. "We believe that plants change the way you see the world and all life on earth depends upon plants," commented Mary Eysenbach, Director of Conservatories for the Chicago Park District. "Here at the conservatory, we hope visitors take away a new way of seeing the world."
Beyond the indoor spaces, there are acres of outdoor gardens including the Monet Garden, City Garden, and Demonstration Garden. Here there are beds brimming with flowers, grasses and evergreens. Lily ponds greet you and children can explore natural areas.
Unfortunately, on June 30 2011 tragedy struck in the form a of a hailstorm that shattered 85% of the glass in the Fern Room, Show House and ten propagation greenhouses. Other rooms and halls were also damaged. The glass has been temporarily replaced with plastic panes and beginning this May, full restoration will begin. This is a massive undertaking to replace not only the glass, but upgrade the infrastructure. There is still a need for donations and several ways you can be involved. Bryan Northup has created “Catching Hail”, beautiful fused glass pieces using the roof fragments. One Pane at a Time is the official donation campaign.
Perhaps the most fun, though, is the annual Fleurotica benefit, a runway fashion show of clothing created from plants and flowers. Held on March 23, this is a wonderful event for party-lovers.
I urge you to visit Garfield Park Conservatory and check it out for yourself. They even rent both the indoor and outdoor spaces. The neighborhood is in the midst of gentrification, so there is security present. You can find out more about Jens Jensen and his vision at a unique exhibit at the Sterling Morton Library at The Morton Arboretum which runs through the end of the year.