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Beloved West Side children’s garden to undergo $5.6 million renovation

The Elizabeth Morse Genius Children’s Garden at the Garfield Park Conservatory will reopen in 2023 with more ADA accessibility and new learning spaces.

The indoor children’s garden at the Garfield Park Conservatory, 300 N. Central Park Ave., will reopen in 2023 after extensive renovations.
The indoor children’s garden at the Garfield Park Conservatory, 300 N. Central Park Ave., will reopen in 2023 after extensive renovations.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

The beloved children’s garden at the Garfield Park Conservatory will soon undergo major renovations, more than 20 years after it first opened.

“At the time it was built, it was quite innovative,” said Jennifer Van Valkenburg, president and CEO for the Garfield Park Conservatory Alliance, which is helping lead the project in partnership with the Chicago Park District. “It was the largest indoor natural playscape in the United States. The idea came a few years back that it’s definitely time for a face-lift.”

The 6,000-square-foot indoor garden is expected to cost $5.6 million to redo. Nearly $4 million has been raised for the project. Van Valkenburg said the money has come from tax increment financing, public donations and a $1 million grant from the Elizabeth Morse Genius Charitable Trust.

The project will focus on a commitment to be “the most inclusive nature education center in the United States,” said Van Valkenburg.

With things like improved ADA accessibility and new sensory spaces, the renovations will help create an accessible and inclusive space for all.

One of the biggest costs is a spiral ramp from the ground to the top of the roof of the Conservatory. This, Van Valkenburg said, will ensure an equitable experience for all, regardless of mobility limitations.

One of the new structures to be built during renovations will be a 20-foot climbing structure.
One of the new structures to be built during renovations will be a 20-foot climbing structure.
Hitchcock Design Group/Chicago Park District

“Accessibility isn’t just an afterthought,” said Cathy Breitenbach, director of the park district’s Department of Cultural and Natural Resources. “Kids with disabilities can really engage with the garden fully, and that’s exciting.”

Visitors can also expect to see things like an art and nature gallery, a 20-foot climbing structure, a toddler-specific gallery and a texture trail. The biggest crowd-pleaser, the Caterpillar Slide, will remain, although it will be updated.

Van Valkenburg said renovations will help contextualize global climate change for children.

Just like a large banner at the Conservatory’s entrance depicting the importance of plants. Jennifer Van Valkenburg said she hopes the renovations will help contextualize climate change for children.
Just like a large banner at the Conservatory’s entrance depicting the importance of plants. Jennifer Van Valkenburg said she hopes the renovations will help contextualize climate change for children.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

“For people to be connected to nature, understand ecosystems, understand that these plants talk to each other and to us and that we rely on them,” she said. “We are extremely excited and privileged to have the opportunity to connect people to that understanding of nature in a way that’s not scary and that is embracing our relationship with plants and nature.”

Breitenbach said the project is unique to the park system because of its indoor learning status.

“To have this kind of experience where you have the physical components of a playground and all the climbing and active play, but also all the nature exploration and educational opportunities in an indoor setting, you could experience it year-round,” she said.

While the children’s garden is closed as part of pandemic safety precautions, it’s normally a popular site.

In pre-COVID times, the garden welcomed close to 20,000 schoolchildren yearly on field trips. With the garden’s own 20 hours of weekly hands-on learning programs, said Van Valkenburg, the number increased to 50,000. In 2019, before it closed for safety precautions, a total of 260,000 people visited.

“The Children’s Garden has seen so much love,” said Van Valkenburg. “We have stories of generations of people that have been there as kids and now bring their own kids 20 years later.”

The project, which is still raising money at www.gpca.givecloud.co/emg, is expected to break ground in the spring and reopen in fall 2023.

Visitors to the children’s garden can expect to see the popular Caterpillar Slide even after renovations.
Visitors to the children’s garden can expect to see the popular Caterpillar Slide even after renovations.
Hitchcock Design Group/Chicago Park District

Cheyanne M. Daniels is a staff reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times via Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster the paper’s coverage of communities on the South and West sides.