In the late 19th century, each of the three large West side parks had its own small conservatory and propagation greenhouses. After 20 years of use, these conservatories had fallen into disrepair and administrators believed it redundant to show similar plant collections in three facilities located within close proximity of each other.
In 1905 Chicago’s West Park Commission’s general superintendent and chief landscape architect, Jens Jensen, demolished the three smaller greenhouses in Humboldt, Douglas and Garfield Parks to create what was intended as “the largest publicly owned conservatory under one roof in the world” in Garfield Park. Many of the original plantings came from the three earlier conservatories.
Constructed between 1906 and 1907, and opened to the public in 1908, the Garfield Park Conservatory was designed by Jensen in collaboration with Prairie School architects Schmidt, Garden and Martin and the New York engineering firm of Hitchings and Company. It represented a unique collaboration of a prominent landscape architect with architects and engineers.
Jensen conceived the Conservatory as a series of naturalistic landscapes under glass, a revolutionary idea at the time. The simple yet strong shape of the structure, which is meant to emulate the haystacks of the Midwest, complements the collection of plants and foliage that it houses.
Located in the midst of historic Garfield Park on Chicago’s West Side, the Garfield Park Conservatory is one of Chicago’s best kept secrets and one of the nation’s botanical treasures. It ranks among Chicago’s most unique sites, attracting visitors from a variety of cultures, disciplines and interests.
Both Garfield Park and its conservatory are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Over the years the Conservatory has been recognized as an internationally significant horticultural facility as well as a cultural asset to the surrounding community and the city of Chicago.
This text is excerpted in part from Inspired by Nature: The Garfield Park Conservatory and Chicago’s West Side, by Julia S. Bacharach and Jo Ann Nathan. (top photo) Garfield Park Conservatory Fern Room, 1908, Courtesy of Chicago Park District Special Collections.