By Chris Larson

On a bitterly cold January morning in 1994 workers arriving at the Garfield Park Conservatory, the huge west-side showcase of exotic plants, discovered that an overnight storm had sent strong winds gusting through numerous broken panes of glass that had never been fixed, freezing pipes and cutting off heat to the entire building. Plants had been killed throughout the conservatory, but in the aroid house the temperature was 25 degrees and nearly every plant was dead.

For years the Chicago Park District had neglected the conservatory, one of the largest in the world, with 1.8 acres under glass at the corner of Lake and Central Park. Maintenance had been ignored. The Park District didn’t seem to care if anyone visited, and few did. Attendance figures are sketchy, but by some accounts the conservatory had fewer than 3,000 visitors a year in the early 1990s. Not even the four annual flower shows, the only organized events, attracted big crowds.

In the weeks after the freeze, rumors spread through the neighborhood that the Park District was going to tear down the conservatory. The rumors weren’t true, says Julia Sniderman Bachrach, the Park District’s planning supervisor and historian. “We were already working on the conservatory,” she says. “There was a master plan, and we were pretty much set to restore the fern room.”

But the district hadn’t publicized its plans. Fearful that the conservatory could be lost, a number of groups–including Friends of the Parks and Bethel New Life, a community-development organization–formed a loose coalition to mobilize public support. “We had, a number of years before, identified the conservatory as one of our community assets–a sorely neglected one,” says Mary Nelson, Bethel New Life’s president. The coalition held a press conference at the conservatory, declaring it a national treasure that had to be saved.


Conservatories were popular across the country in the early 1900s. Chicago had five when the Garfield Park Conservatory was built in 1908 to replace smaller conservatories in the three large west-side parks. Landscape architect Jens Jensen laid out all of the interiors and designed the building in collaboration with an engineering firm. Most conservatories at the time were Victorian, with turrets, gables, and other exterior ornamentation. Jensen, who belonged to the same Prairie School movement as Frank Lloyd Wright, designed a much simpler conservatory with no ornamentation. The rounded shape of the palm house that dominates the front of the building was inspired by the haystacks he saw on the Illinois prairie.

The interior design was even more radical. Jensen ignored the typical conservatory style–potted plants sitting on pedestals or on the floor–and instead designed full landscapes for the greenhouses, an important turning point in conservatory design. The palm house, the first room visitors enter, has always been densely planted. A small stand of bamboo now occupies one corner, and there are many giant palm trees, some of which nearly reach the top of the structure, 65 feet up. Among the palms are probably the world’s largest indoor double coconut, a tree that grows naturally on just one Pacific island, and several rare Scheelia palms, including one whose fronds stretch almost across the entire width of the room.

The conservatory’s centerpiece was the lush fern room, which was designed to evoke the pre-ice-age midwest. Paths still snake through small stone canyons; and ferns hang heavy over the rocks, brushing against visitors as they pass. At the back of the room two waterfalls trickle over the walkway into a large, fish-filled lagoon. The collection now includes nearly 40 cycads, tall palmlike plants, some of which are 300 years old.

The conservatory’s rise and fall paralleled that of the neighborhood surrounding it. When it was laid out in 1869, Garfield Park was on the edge of the city, but development soon followed, as the park, transit lines to downtown, and nearby industrial jobs attracted residents. European immigrants dominated the neighborhoods; the predominant ethnic group was Irish, then German, and by the 1920s and 30s Russian and Italian.

During the housing shortage following World War II, many homes were converted to inexpensive apartments, and when tens of thousands of African-Americans from the rural south began migrating north looking for work, many settled in them. In the mid-1940s most area residents were white; by 1965 they were almost all African-American, as they are today.

As whites left, they took jobs and commerce with them. Banks redlined most of the west side, so the area saw little new investment and the housing stock began to deteriorate. Most political power remained in the hands of absentee white aldermen and ward committeemen, who did little for their constituents. After Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968 the Garfield Park area saw some of the worst rioting in the city, and still more businesses left.

The conservatory had been very popular after it opened; in 1917 more than 200,000 visitors came to the four flower shows alone. Some improvements were made in the 40s and 50s, but the last major work was done in the late 50s, when the palm house was reconstructed.

After that the conservatory declined rapidly. The staff limited themselves to making sure the existing plants didn’t die. The annual flower shows became the only public events, and little thought was given to improving them. Nor was any effort made to reach out to the conservatory’s new African-American neighbors. Sniderman Bachrach says, “People said it felt like this elite club when you walked in.” Meanwhile visitors from the rest of the city were scared off by the neighborhood’s increasingly tough reputation.


One of the reasons the conservatory was neglected is that the Park District was controlled by whites. In the early 1980s two lawsuits against the Park District charged that parks in white neighborhoods were well taken care of, while those in minority communities such as Garfield Park were ignored. The Park District won the first suit, which had been brought by the Midwest Community Council, a west-side activist group. But the second suit was backed by the U.S. Department of Justice, and in 1983 the Park District settled out of court, agreeing that for the next six years 65 percent of its spending would be in minority communities.

Many other factors also contributed to the conservatory’s decline. For one thing, conservatories are hard to maintain. The structure is almost all glass, and they’re full of exotic plants with very specific light, heat, and water requirements. “The Park District wasn’t equipped to deal with these technically difficult buildings,” Sniderman Bachrach says. She also cites an attitude that was shaped by the federal WPA program in the 1930s, when the Park District, which had been formed in 1934, was awarded tens of millions of dollars for various projects. The money would be lost if it weren’t spent quickly, so thousands of unemployed workers were hired and put to work on projects they’d never been trained for. Many improvements were made, but doing things quickly in the easiest way possible became institutionalized at the young Park District. It wasn’t a good way to run conservatories.

But the biggest problem was patronage. For decades the Park District was a key part of the city’s Machine. “The parks became the political arm of the Democratic Party, going back probably to the 1940s,” says Erma Tranter, executive director of Friends of the Parks. “The Park District was a place for jobs, which you got through clout, not necessarily through your skills. They hired people who brought in the votes.” The conservatory was always well staffed, but these were plum jobs in a place with few visitors, little management oversight, and no plans for the future. “What they lacked,” says Tranter, “was somebody who would create a vision for the facility.”

In a messy political battle in 1986 Harold Washington fired longtime Park District superintendent Ed Kelly, an important cog in the Machine. Washington then installed Jesse Madison as superintendent and Walter Netsch as president. “They began the reform,” says Tranter. “They decentralized some, but it took a long time–the system was seriously flawed.”

Robert Penn became superintendent in 1989; the current superintendent, Forrest Claypool, took over in July 1993. “We think he’s done a very good job of reforming the Park District,” says Tranter. “He’s decentralized, brought in additional revenue, and downsized the administrative levels downtown. I think the parks look better. We haven’t seen a significant change in park programming, and there are still many facilities that are underutilized. But things are clearly better.”

The conservatory is now run by professionals hired on merit. In 1996 the Park District hired Lisa Roberts, who previously spent eight years as the manager of public programming at the Chicago Botanic Garden, to be director of conservatories. Last summer Adam Lifton-Schwerner became deputy director, having come from the New York Botanical Gardens, where he’d played a major role in the renovation of the Enid Haupt Conservatory.

Roberts is the first director of conservatories the Park District has ever had, the first person responsible for developing a long-term mission for the facility. “Because of my background,” she says, “I represent a real commitment on the part of the Park District to the public side of the institution and to making it accessible to people, making it relevant, making things happen here so that people will come again.”


In December 1994, nearly a year after the freeze, the city and Park District announced a commitment to restore the facility’s physical structure, promising $8 million over the next six years. The aroid house, the room hardest hit by the freeze, was the first to be fully renovated. Home to a family of plants known for their distinctive flowers, it reopened early this year after a 16-month, $1.2-million gut rehab. Everything–the glass, cypress mullions, and copper stripping–was removed from the steel structure, which was sandblasted to remove many layers of paint. Some of the copper was reused; some was replaced with new material. All of the mullions and glass were replaced. The new glass is laminated, so that if a pane breaks it won’t fall down; a coating will help the room retain heat. The original brick walkway, which had been covered with asphalt, was also restored, and new lights and plumbing were installed, including an automated misting system to keep the room at the proper humidity.

The room was replanted last fall and now looks much as it did when it was first planted in 1928; Jensen originally designed the room as a conifer house, but it had to be converted to aroids because it was difficult to keep cool enough for the pines to thrive. The aroids aren’t lush yet, but over time they’ll fill in and hanging vines will again cover the steel structure.

Every room in the conservatory will eventually get the same full-scale renovation. The economic house, a room of plants with economic uses, will be renovated next, starting in February. It’s now the least interesting room; it has a few tall trees, but most of the ground is bare. After the renovation it will become a children’s garden, perhaps including a tree house, animal topiary, and interactive displays.

A subtropical collection of plants found in areas such as the Mediterranean, Australia, and South Africa will be developed in the current warm house, whose collection is now redundant and botanically vague. The palm house, which has an impressive but ill-defined collection, will be transformed into a lowland tropical rain-forest habitat.

Meanwhile smaller improvements will be made. The shabby cactus house, which won’t be renovated for three years, was heavily pruned this spring for the first time in nearly 20 years. Soon the ugly raised boxes that lined the walls will be taken out and the plants moved to ground level. Eventually a path will curve among small hills and a much wider variety of succulents. “I hope to make the cactus house one of the best displays of desert-growing plants you can see in a conservatory,” says Adam Lifton-Schwerner. “One of our biggest problems is money, making sure that we have adequate funding to do a good job. The aroid house was beautifully done. I’m just hoping that over time we have the same commitment to come up to that same level in the other renovations.”


Of course all of this work will be of little value if no one visits the conservatory. Bringing visitors back and developing educational programs are part of the mission of the Garfield Park Conservatory Alliance, created in 1994 with a four-year $1.46 million grant from the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund and matching funds from the Park District and private fund-raising. Friends of the Parks secured the grant and set up the organization, but it’s a joint venture with the Park District. “For the Park District to work with Friends of the Parks is pretty much unprecedented,” says Sniderman Bachrach. For two decades Friends of the Parks has been publicizing problems in the parks and the Park District, but both sides say they’re now working well together. Members of other community groups–including New Bethel Life, local schools, and horticultural businesses–are also part of the alliance.

Every other Saturday the conservatory now sponsors free or low-cost lectures and workshops for kids and adults; topics range from ecology and gardening to floral arrangement and insects. Area teens have been trained to lead conservatory tours, and after-school activities are offered in the school year. In the summer there’s a six-week day-camp program; last summer more than 500 kids participated.

“A lot of kids don’t know that plants change and they grow and they’re alive, and they don’t understand how dependent we are on plants,” Lifton-Schwerner says. “When a young person comes through here with an educational staff member of the alliance and is shown a tapioca plant and is then given a spoonful of tapioca, there’s a connection there that you can’t approach anywhere else.” He also points out, “People who become horticulturalists make money. The alliance is working very closely with the Chicago public school system to get horticulture more firmly footed in the schools and has done research to document how horticulture is going to grow as a career.”

The alliance also wants to have a gift shop and cafe. As a first step the Flower Pot Cafe, a student-run snack shop and caterer located across the street at Lucy Flower Vocational High School, operated a cart at the opening-day reception for this year’s spring flower show, selling coffee, juice, and snacks. The gift shop will also start small, with display cases in the lobby selling work by local artists and students at area schools.

The Alliance and several community groups are also lobbying the CTA to renovate and reopen the Green Line’s Homan Avenue station and extend the station platform several blocks west to Central Park Avenue, which would make it easy for visitors to take the el to the conservatory. But they know they need to change the public’s perception of the neighborhood. “The Chicagoland area feels that the west side is an area to be feared, that this is not a place to visit,” says Deborah Minor Bennett, who was executive director of the alliance until July. “That’s a tough one.”

Some blocks around the conservatory are full of boarded-up buildings and trash-filled vacant lots. And there are gangs, drugs, and violence, and unemployment is stuck around 25 percent. But there are also plenty of blocks that look like those in other middle-class neighborhoods. “Yes, there’s been a lot of job loss and a lot of empty industrial buildings,” says Mary Nelson of Bethel New Life. “But there’s the beginning of some other kinds of industries–not so much manufacturing, but warehousing and distribution and some of those kinds of things. The area is a little more stable than it was.”

And for the first time in many years the community is seeing some substantial reinvestment. Several private housing developments are under way, including Homan Square at the former Sears headquarters south of the park. In 1994 the city designated the East Garfield Park neighorhood a redevelopment area, which makes it easier for residents to restore the area’s historic housing and attract new businesses. The field house in the park itself has been renovated, and there’s a new ice-skating rink.

But the conservatory itself seems to have been something of a safe haven all along. “It is viewed by the community as a safe space and will become much more so as time goes by,” says Lifton-Schwerner. “When people finally come out here they say, ‘Oh, this is nothing. This is fine.'” o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Cynthia Howe.