Considered revolutionary when it first opened in 1908, the Garfield Park Conservatory was described as a work of “landscape art under glass.” The structure replaced three small Victorian glass houses that were built in Chicago’s West Park System in the 1880s. Renowned landscape architect Jens Jensen designed the new conservatory in conjunction with Hitchings & Company, a New York engineering firm that specialized in greenhouses.
The structure, one of the largest conservatories in the world, was quite unlike its nineteenth century predecessors. Jensen wanted the exterior to emulate the simple form of a Midwestern haystack. Inside, he displayed plants in the ground as opposed to potted containers. Jensen also hid pipes and other mechanical systems behind beautiful walls of stratified stonework, and created magnificent views across the landscape.
The centerpiece of the Garfield Park Conservatory, the aquatic house or Fern Room, as it is known today, includes some of Jensen’s most beautiful stone and water elements. Jensen marveled that the waterfall looked so natural that people often assumed that the glass structure was built around it. He wanted his idealized “prairie waterfall,” to sound just right, but the stone mason made it sound like “an abrupt mountain cascade.” The workman became frustrated when Jensen had him dismantle and rebuild the waterfall several times. Jensen suggested that the workman listen to Mendelssohn’s “Spring Song.” After hearing the music, the mason constructed the waterfall perfectly so that the “water tinkled gently from ledge to ledge, as it should in a prairie country.”
Jensen severed his ties with the West Park System in 1920. Despite this, chief florist August Koch, who began at the Garfield Park Conservatory in 1912, made some notable improvements. Koch’s work includes converting the original conifer house to the Aroid House in 1923. He made this transition in a manner that was quite sympathetic to Jensen’s philosophies.
By the late 1920s, the conservatory’s attendance had reached half a million visitors per year. As a result, a major show house addition—Horticulture Hall—and new propagating houses were constructed in 1928. Over the next several decades, however, the structure began to deteriorate. The Chicago Park District responded with major construction projects in the 1950s including the demolition of the Palm House and its replacement in fiberglass instead of glass. Nonetheless, attendance had begun to wane, and the conservatory lost its popularity.
In 1994, the Chicago Park District embarked on a multi-million dollar restoration plan that has brought vast improvements to the aging facility. Renovations and improvements continued with the opening of a brand new exhibit, Sugar from the Sun, in 2008, during the facility’s centennial year, teaching visitors how plants capture sunlight and use it to change small parts of air and water into sugar – the energy that sustains life on Earth.
In 1995, the Garfield Park Conservatory Alliance was created, a private organization that has raised millions of dollars for educational programming, community relations, and visitor services. The Alliance has worked to connect the community to this historic west side gem with its innovative and popular programing and events that include Sweet Saturdays, County Fair, Creatures of the Night, Beer Under Glass, Meet the Bees, Creatures of the Night, Fleurotica, to name a few. Attendance and interest in the historic facility has grown tremendously over the last decade, to the point the Garfield Park Conservatory is now well on its way to becoming, once again, one of Chicago’s premier cultural institutions.