If you have gone past or visited the Garfield Park Conservatory recently, you probably noticed that it is currently undergoing reconstruction on its exterior. The renovation is a two-part effort to both open a new exhibit at the conservatory and improve the building’s aging structure.

The exhibit, titled “Sugar from the Sun,” will focus on the four elements of photosynthesis: air, water, light and sugar. It seeks to educate patrons on this often overlooked but vital component of plant life.

The project began in 2004 when the Garfield Park Conservatory Alliance (GPCA) received a $1.7-million grant from the National Science Foundation to create an exhibit focusing on photosynthesis.

“The National Science Foundation loved the idea, mainly because no other botanical garden was teaching it in the country,” said Eunita Rushing, president of the GPCA. “It’s a process that many adults know less about than their children in the fifth and sixth grades. We wanted to create an exhibit that both parents and their children could learn from.”

However, there was one problem.

Once staff began rearranging the Sweet House where the exhibit was to be displayed, organizers concluded that first, repairs on the room were badly needed.

“Many of the steel trusses that were buried in the concrete were rusted, the old glass roof was aged and several of the windows were opaque and allowed much less light in than was required,” said Michael Fus, preservation architect for the Chicago Park District.

The glass encapsulating the room needed to be replaced, supporting structures required reinforcement, and improvement on utilities was necessary. The walkways will also be replaced, and plants and new trees will be planted.

“Many of the repairs that we are correcting were structural damage that occurred since that last major upgrades to the facility back in the 1950s. However, we wanted to make the new repairs more in tune with the original 1920s design of the building.”

As a result, the Chicago Park District board accepted a bid from Berling Builders Construction that proved to be the most economical (offering to renovate the site for just over $2.1 million) and most in tune with the conservatory’s basic structural outline.

Nevertheless, the board was concerned about compromising the historical standing of the building.

It was first constructed in 1906-07 by now famous landscape architect Jen Jensen along with architects affiliated with the Prairie School of Architecture-Schmidt, Garden and Martin-and the New York engineering firm of Hitchings and Company.

Since its opening nearly a century ago, the 4.5-acre conservatory has become one of the foremost botanical gardens in the country, housing thousands of plants, grown here each year, and educating visitors with its captivating greenery. It, along with the Gold Dome of the Garfield Park Refector nearby have become familiar landmarks of the West Side community, which makes maintaining their historical standing all the more important.

“We were not going to do anything until the plans were approved by the Illinois Preservation Agency. We wanted to restore it to the way it looked in the 1930s with a restored catwalk, laminated glass windows and repaired steel trusses,” said Fus. “Once our plans were approved, we felt more comfortable. This is a very important building, and we did not want to compromise its value.”

The renovation began in January and is expected to be finished in July, though it’s likely to overlap with the installation of the “Sugar from the Sun” exhibit which is scheduled to begin in May. The exhibit is expected to open in October 2007.

The Garfield Park Conservatory is owned and managed by the Chicago Park District. The Garfield Park Conservatory Alliance is “a private, non-profit organization dedicated to growing community through the unique combination of people, plants and place.”