Garfield Park Conservatory – An Oasis of Prairie Splendor and Luminous Sculpture

After the holidays are done and the winter festivities are over, the wintry weather can seem to drag on and on with spring almost impossibly out of sight. And while some are fortunate enough to swing a winter time vacation to somewhere green and warm, many of us are stuck in the city with nothing but more shoveling to look forward to until the first blossoms of spring.

We are fortunate in Chicagoland, however, that our forefathers saw fit to gift us with a public space where the winter doldrums can be entirely vanquished, if only for a few hours.  If you can’t afford a ticket to Florida, the Garfield Park Conservatory is only a short train or car ride away. And it is currently playing host not only to the gifts of early spring, but to a remarkable light-filled sculpture exhibition by Luftwerk – Solarise – designed to mesh perfectly with the Conservatory’s rooms.

With our modern urban sprawl, we forget that only about a hundred years ago, Chicago looked very different, with the “West Side” of Humbolt, Garfield and Douglas Parks being considered the country. The park, itself was founded in 1869, and with the fire of 1871, a few families began to move west out of the feared fire zone, settling near the park.  The area developed slowly, and it was not until 1903, under Prairie School landscape architect Jens Jensen, that the park actually began to be developed in earnest, becoming and remaining today one of the greatest testimonials to Prairie School landscape architecture in the world.


Originally all three of these western parks had small green houses, but all were demolished and in 1906 and 1907 Jensen built the grand conservatory in Garfield Park transferring the plants from the three original conservatories there to what he intended to be "the largest publicly owned conservatory under one roof in the world.” It covers 4.5 acres and remains one of the largest conservatories in the country.

Jensen built the structure with Prairie School architects Schmidt, Garden and Martin and the New York engineering firm of Hitchings and Company.  In keeping with Prairie School ethos, Jensen mean the various rooms in the conservatory to be a series of naturalistic landscapes under glass, and designed the shape of the building to emulate Midwestern Haystacks.  It is on the National Register of Historic Places and is one of Chicago’s underutilized treasures.

But it is an absolute refuge from the winter as soon as you walk in the door, as you’re greeted by a wall of living moss in the lobby, ushering you into the Palm Room.

There, you immediately discover that the Conservatory is currently playing host to a remarkable art installation by Luftwerk designed to use light to enhance the various rooms full of plants. Entitled solarise: a sea of all colors.  When you are greeted by the first work of art, Portal.  The rest are scattered through the conservatory, and will be on view from now until September 22, 2016.

As you wander, you see that the whole place has been helpfully labeled by the staff. You can learn about the plants as you go, or just, simply bask in the greens, the sunlight and the bright blossoms of exotic flowers.

The whole place is designed to encourage you to wander, with small side-pathways into the vegetation, where you can encounter something unexpected.

You should be certain not to forget to look up.  The Conservatory uses every inch of space, high and low.

And, as any well-designed pleasure-garden, it’s packed with features and little works of art.

It also includes animals.

But the entire time, you are reminded that you are inside an incredible work of Prairie School architecture.  Innovative and still breathtaking after a century.

Though you are occasionally reminded that people do not appreciate it as much as they should.

The Conservatory is a wonderful place to take children, with a specially designed garden just for them, with instructors and activities to keep them engaged and learning.

Even in the winter, the exteriors are intriguing, and it’s clear that in the summer the place will be spectacular once the gardens are in bloom.

But you’re also reminded of the facility’s age and that it is in need of care as a public place benefitting all of us.

What’s astonishing is the variety of plants encountered. While many are tropical, you can also take a brief visit to the desert.  After the lush plants of the jungle, the delicate spines of cacti and succulents are both startling and intriquing.

There’s even a room dedicated to Aroids, common houseplants like philodendron, that comes with its own Koi pond, glass lily pad sculptures and swarming fruit flies, who love the scent of Aroids.

And then, you walk into springtime.  Most of the tropical rooms are filled with color and variety, but no scent.  Here the blossoms of spring surround you with vivid color and fragrance.  It was the room that attracted the largest crowds, who lingered longest. Fortunately, there are many places to sit and the colorful sculpture to enjoy above.

Then, you return to the Palm Room, some timely displays, and your tour of one of Chicago’s greatest treasures is complete.

The Garfield Park Conservatory is located at 300 N. Central Park Ave., Chicago, IL 60624 and is open 9 a.m to 5 p.m. daily, and Wednesdays 9 a.m. - 8 p.m.

Learn more about them, the Solarise exhibit and their programming at their website Garfield Park Conservatory.


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