GARFIELD PARK – After a summer hailstorm severely damaged the Garfield Park Conservatory’s glass-paned roof, resulting in damage to its exhibition halls below, its nonprofit arm embarked on an aggressive fundraising campaign to repair the structure.

The Garfield Park Conservatory Alliance on Sept. 14, hosted a reception at the 300 N. Central Park botanic Garfield to officially launch their effort. The campaign’s name is fitting-‘One Pane at a Time.”

Individuals are being asked to buy a glass pane for $250, $1,000 and $5,000 to rebuild the conservatory’s roof. Other donation amounts include $25, $50 and $100, and all can be made at the conservatory’s website (www.garfieldconservatory.org).

“People have come forward. They want to do something,” Eunita Rushing, the Alliance’s president, said. “They want to support the effort for the restoration, so we feel this is a way that they would be able to do that.”

More than 40,000 out of 65,000 glass panes were shattered when golf ball-sized hail pelted the conservatory’s roof on June 30. Fourteen rooms were damaged in all. But two of the conservatory’s main exhibition halls-the Show House and the Fern Room-were hit the hardest when tiny shards of glass rained down on plants. 

Both rooms were closed, along with the Desert House, which sustained minimal damage. Conservatory staff feverishly worked to put a temporary roof up made from polycarbonate materials before the cold weather sets in.

Rushing still cannot shake the images of seeing the destruction left by the hailstorm-she was speechless.

“At first I was like, ‘Oh! How could this happen? We’ve worked so hard and come so far,'” she said, noting that the alliance had already begun restoring the Palm Room in the 103-year-old facility before the storm hit.

The cost of repairs has yet to be determined, Chicago Park District (CPD) officials said because the district has to bid out the restoration project. The city does have insurance, but it may not cover the cost to bring other improvements up to date, officials explained, such as adding an automated mist system or energy efficient lighting. 

“These are questions we need to figure out,” Park District spokesperson Zvezdana Kubat said. “This is where we hope the public can step in and help out to donate to offset any extra cost we may have to incur.”

“A construction project is challenging enough when you have been planning for it for a year and half, added Mary Eysenbach, the park district’s director of conservatories. “It’s about 10 times more complicated when it gets dropped in your lap,”

Cleanup cost already totaled $2 million. Crews had to handpick glass from the plants and walkways, and what couldn’t be removed by hand was removed by vacuuming.

Damage has already been done to some plants, especially in the Fern Room, but not by the glass shards themselves, Eysenbach explained. Sunlight seeping through a temporary shade cloth burned some ferns, turning them a brownish yellow. In addition, missing panes made it hard to control humidity levels, said Eysenbach, explaining that ferns like humid conditions.

The conservatory has also experienced a drop in visitors, Kubat added-her office is getting the word out that the conservatory is open for business

“Donations are down,” she said. “The gift shop isn’t being utilized. We had to cancel some events and scale back others, but we are still open. We are still providing educational programming. So, we certainly want people to still come out here.”

One bright spot in the conservatory’s rebuilding efforts has been the overwhelming responses from individuals wanting to help. The conservatory has received $56,000 in donations from community groups alone.

“We have little children bringing in their lemonade money and their piggy banks,” Rushing said. “It has been the most encouraging aspect of this whole ordeal.”

Her organization was founded in 1995 to restore the conservatory to its original grandeur when it opened in 1908. Landscape architecture Jen Jensen designed the conservatory to resemble a rolled haystack. Rushing called the conservatory “a museum for plants.” Their collection contains rare plants from all over the world, including an endangered evergreen called a Wollemi Pine that is native to Australia, and a double coconut palm, which is only grown in one place in the world.

“We’d love to restore [the conservatory] to its original state so we can continue the education process of helping people appreciate how important plants are to our everyday lives,” Rushing said.

Steve Eastwood, the Alliance’s board chair, agreed.

“Right now, we’re the biggest educator of science for school-aged kids in the entire West Side,” he said. “That’s where we are now, and we want to build from there.”

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