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Garfield Park Conservatory

Landscape under Glass in Chicago, Illinois

by Carrie Williams
and Lee Nelson

When visiting downtown Chicago, you probably don’t expect to step into a garden spanning as far as the eye can see, but that’s what you’ll get when you make your way to the Garfield Park Conservatory located in the west side of the city.

One of the largest conservatories in the United States, the Garfield Park Conservatory Campus covers about 4.5 acres inside and out.

Guzmania growing in the ConservatoryThousands of plants are grown each year, not just for displays inside the Conservatory, but also for the landscapes in all of Chicago’s parks and public spaces.

Garfield Park Conservatory History

On the National Register of Historic Places, the Conservatory has existed for over 100 years.
Two years after his 1905 appointment as superintendent of the West Park System in Chicago Jens Jensen consolidated plants at the Garfield Park Conservatory because three smaller greenhouses—located in Humboldt, Douglas and Garfield Parks—had became dilapidated.
Danish-born architect Jens Jensen was the chief architect of Garfield Park Conservatory. Jensen planned the Conservatory to display naturalistic landscapes under glass in a structure meant to emulate Midwest haystacks.
Several architects, sculptors, artisans and, of course, landscapers collaborated on the conservatory. Prairie School architects Schmidt, Garden and Martin worked alongside Jensen with engineers from the New York firm of Hitchings and Company.
Garfield Park Conservatory is subdivided into several large rooms:

In the Palm House at the ConservatoryPalm House

You don’t have to go the islands to see lush, tropical plant life. From the main entrance of the conservatory, you walk directly into the Palm House—filled to the 65 foot high vaulted ceiling with 84 representatives of the 2,000 different varieties of palm trees known to exist today.
One of the most intriguing of these palms is the Double Coconut Palm. Growing off the coast of South Africa, this baby produces 30 to 50-pound seeds believed to be the largest seed of any plant in the world.
Double Coconut Palm have been grown at Garfield Park Conservatory since 1959.

Fern Room

Fern Room at Garfield Park ConservatoryNext, you will enter the Fern Room. Jensen created this space, which acts as the main room in the center of the conservatory, in order to show people what Illinois may have looked like millions of years ago.
Some of the ferns here are over 300 years old, indicative of how every inch of the conservatory, and every plant in it, has been very well cared for. Cycads join ferns to evoke prehistoric Chicago and the swampy landscape that most likely dominated this area.

Desert House

Desert House plantsThe Desert House, a smaller room on the opposite side of the Fern Room from the Palm House, features varied collections of cacti and succulents.
These plants are known for being able to withstand harsh, dry climates so it’s interesting to think that these plants are housed in the same building with ferns, palms and plants you would see in your mother’s flower garden.

Elizabeth Morse Genius Children’s Garden

Next to the Desert House on the southwest corner of the conservatory, the kid-friendly Elizabeth Morse Genius Children’s Garden is full of interactive displays and a huge meandering vine where kids can play.
So while the children are having a ball, they’re actually learning something about plants!

Aroid House lagoonAroid House

The opposite corner of Garfield Park Conservatory, on the other side of the Desert House, is home to the Aroid House. Similar in feel to the Fern Room, the Aroid House contains a lagoon and “Persian Pool” stocked with yellow lily pads by glass artist Chihuly.
Aroids, which grow in the lower levels of tropical forests where sunlight is scarce, are popular house plants. They are displayed in a landscape setting in the Aroid House.

Sweet House

Orchids overheadFour botanical environments demonstrate how sunlight is used to transform air and water into sugar. Oranges, bananas and papayas may be ripening next to a waterfall with orchids overhead in this room.
Other plants that tickle your sweet tooth such as pineapples, mangos, sugar cane and chocolate. The west side of Chicago had a role in making it the Candy Capital of the World and the Sweet House honors that heritage.

Show House and Horticulture Hall

Annual flower shows: Azalea, Chrysanthemum, Spring, Summer and Holiday Shows take place in the Show House and Horticulture Hall at Garfield Park Conservatory.

Monet Garden

Monet Garden at the ConservatoryBased on the garden at Giverney, France belonging to Claude Monet, the impressionist painter, the Monet Garden began as an outdoor display for the 2000 Flower and Garden Show at Navy Pier. It was transplanted at the Garfield Park Conservatory when the show closed.
A Living Wall at the Monet Garden incorporates over 300 flowers on a vertical surface. Demonstrating an option for city-dwellers with limited space the Living Wall is a beautiful example of living art.

City Garden

City Garden Lily Pool and ConservatoryA large lily pool, gravel garden, lawn and bluestone terrace just outside the Desert House with multiple access to winding foot paths makes the City Garden at Garfield Park Conservatory more like a delightful public backyard for the neighborhood than a typical enclosed horticultural museum.
Boulevards, gardens and green spaces in an open lacework pattern cover approximately 12 acres, plenty of room to roam.

Sensory Garden

Zen Maze in Sensory Garden at Garfield Park ConservatoryThe most obvious feature of the Sensory Garden at the Garfield Park Conservatory is the Zen Maze.
The Sensory Garden is a quiet environment just outside the Sweet House.
Parking is available at the conservatory which is located at 300 N. Central Park Avenue.
Another, smaller botanical conservatory in Chicago—Lincoln Park Conservatory— is located near the zoo in Lincoln Park. A 385-acre garden, the Chicago Botanic Garden, is north of Chicago in Glencoe.
Other botanic gardens and conservatories on iNeTours.com:
Lincoln Park Conservatory, Lincoln Park, Chicago IL
Conservatory of Flowers, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco CA
Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Brooklyn NY
Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, London UK — 5 large glasshouses.
Slideshow—all photos on this page

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Website and all photos copyright © 2001–2016 Lee W. Nelson