New roofs, new life for Garfield Park Conservatory

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Michael P. Kelly, general superintendent and chief executive officer of the Chicago Park District, talks about repairs and upgrades at the Garfield Park Conservatory. | James Foster for The Sun-Times

A day after golf-ball sized hail shattered Garfield Park Conservatory’s glass roofs that had survived more than 100 years of cruel Chicago weather, Mary Eysenbach noticed a sign near a small plant.

“There used to be a carpet of selaginella and there used to be a sign that said, ‘Please stay off.’ It’s a very sensitive plant,” said Eysenbach, Chicago Park District director of conservatories. “Right next to that was a huge piece of jagged glass that had fallen right next to it.”

After nearly four years of extensive cleanup and meticulous glass repair, the historic conservatory will reopen all of its showrooms to the public Wednesday.

It’s been a long journey for the conservatory’s 18 staff members, who witnessed the devastating damage at its worst. The massive storm that roared through the West Side on June 30, 2011, shattered 60 percent of the conservatory’s glass roofs, leaving pieces of jagged glass across the conservatory’s rooms.

“It was this juxtaposition of this really jagged, hard, ugly glass and, of course, the beauty of the plants,” Eysenbach said.

Eysenbach said most of the plants survived the storm, but cleanup efforts — workers stepping on plant beds — damaged some plants. In the conservatory’s Fern Room, which sustained the most damage, employees hand picked glass, then vacuumed the rock walls and soil to make sure the glass was gone.


The Fern Room at the Garfield Park Conservatory will reopen to the public Wednesday, April 22, 2015. | James Foster for The Sun-Times

In the Show House, which is home to temporary seasonal exhibits, plants were in pots and were easily moved. But staff had to remove about 12 inches of soil from each plant to make sure there was no glass.

One of the Fern Room’s cycads — a tall plant with long leaves — appeared swirly. Eysenbach joked she now called it the psychedelic plant. Its leaves were swirled because of a construction canopy placed above it as crews repairs the room’s roof.

‘Anchor to the West Side’

Chicago Park District Supt. Mike Kelly was just weeks into his tenure when the storm hit, damaging one of the park district’s most popular venues that sees about 160,000 visitors annually.

“It really was the 100-year storm,” Kelly said. “Had it not happen in June, we might have really lost everything, because of the temperature sensitivity.”

Instead, hundreds of workers went straight to work removing the glass, cleaning up the area and replacing 31,000 individual glass panes for the conservatory’s Fern Room, Show House, Aroid House and Children’s Garden spaces. Each glass pane was cut by hand to fit tricky dimensions. Additional repairs were made to 10 propagation greenhouses that provide plants to the conservatory and to the Lincoln Park Conservatory.

The new roofs now have quarter-inch double-laminated glass to defend the building from the next storm. Wood framing on the roof was reinforced with steel to accommodate the heavier glass, and trusses were made out of cypress trees.

The damage was largely covered by insurance, with the park district spending $5.4 million.

“Our investment became a redo. In a weird way, it was an opportunity. It was almost like a modernization of the building, taking advantage of the space. We made the investment to essentially make it more functional,” Kelly said. “It’s a 100-year-old building. It just doesn’t operationally lay out the way you’d want it to lay out, so they convinced me to make that investment.”

Despite the storm, the conservatory hosted a wedding a day later. And the public wasn’t shy about visiting either.

“We had the public back in here the next day,” Kelly said. “It was very important to me that we didn’t want to ever shut our doors. The building was always open.”

To Kelly, the space is about more than a beautiful place to visit nature.

“It really is our anchor to the West Side. Between the Gold Dome, which serves as our field house across the street, and the conservatory, this is the anchor now to the West Side of the city of Chicago and we’ve done a good job of not only making it available for special events but for children,” Kelly said. “It really is this platform for us to everything we’re going to do, and Garfield Park is sort of this special place and the conservatory is part of that.”


The glass roofs at the Garfield Park Conservatory were damaged in a hailstorm in 2011. | Sun-Times file photo

A fenced in City Garden area behind the conservatory, where some weddings are held and the park district holds events, is frequently visited by West Side locals who want to escape the bustle of the neighborhood.

“It’s beautiful, of course, and it’s secure, so we found out that a lot of people from the neighborhood like to come here and use it as their go-to spot because they feel very safe here because it’s fenced,” Eysenbach said.

The 14-acre Garfield Park Conservatory was designed by Jens Jensen and was opened to the public in 1908. It’s home to 1,330 species of indoor plants and 300 species of outdoor plants.

To Eysenbach, and to the many gardeners who take care of the conservancy, new roofs mean less fear of the next big storm.

“We’re bulletproof now,” Kelly said.

“I don’t start hyperventilating when I hear the word hail now,” Eysenbach said. “Tornadoes, yes. But hail, no.”


Much of the Garfield Park Conservatory’s glass roof had to be replaced after a 2011 hail storm. | James Foster for The Sun-Times

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