Tropical weather is coming back to Chicago – at least inside the greenhouses of the Garfield Park Conservatory.
The display gardens are being prepped for winter by installing protective insulation while continuing repairs from the damaging hailstorm this past June.
“For visitors, the buildings don’t look different,” said Zvezdana Kubat, Chicago Park District assistant press secretary. “We have been removing all the window panes, cleaning up the displays, especially in the Fern Room, and replacing destroyed panes with plastic, polycarbonate corrugated sheets that look similar to the old displays.”
More than 60 percent of the park district’s 4.5-acre conservatory, including all 10 of the growing houses, were damaged during the storm. As a result, the plants have been exposed temporarily to an uncontrolled environment. The growing houses nurture plants for display in the garden greenhouses.
The conservatory’s staff includes 19 floriculture specialists who maintain the greenhouse temperatures between 68 and 72 degrees during the winter with the help of the newly installed insulation.
Garfield Park Conservatory features more than 2,000 different species of plants with 40 species of palm trees, 150 species of ferns and 600 species of cacti and succulents.
The structural damage from the hailstorm, while extensive, caused minor damage to the plants inside the conservatory, at first.
“We couldn’t tell the immediate effect of the plants being exposed this summer,” said Kubat, noting that the plants’ environment was not maintained consistently and left open to elements.
One result of the storm was overcrowded greenhouses, because staff had to move plants from damaged areas. But that turned out to be an opportunity as well. In October, the Garfield Park Conservatory Alliance hosted a plant sale for common tropical plant species.
The event raised more than $17,000, supplementing the conservatory’s budget for reconstruction. Adopted species included perennials, aroids and ferns.
“We were able to sell plant species that we can get back easily in the future and kept the exotic plants in the four temporary protected production houses,” Kubat said.
While reconstruction is underway, the conservatory has put some events on hold, including the Holiday Plant Show, although seasonal plants such as poinsettias will be on display for those holiday pictures in the Horticultural Hall.
The conservatory has gone through a series of renovations in the past 20 years in an effort to expand and allow for more educational areas.
Built in 1906, the conservatory involved the collaboration of architects, engineers and landscapers. Famed landscape architect Jens Jensen, architects of the Chicago-based Prairie School and the Hitchings and Company engineering firm in New York all contributed to the park and its conservatory, now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Despite the damage, the conservatory continues to function as an educational and event center for community organizations. GreenNet, a coalition of community gardeners and nonprofit organizations, held an annual potluck dinner at the beginning of November in Horticultural Hall at the conservatory.
“The conservatory is beautiful,” said Ehren Dohler, an intern with GreenNet who was in charge of planning the organization’s event. “The conservatory has the space available and run a lot of community gardening programs. It seemed like a natural fit.”
Next spring, the conservatory will begin rebuilding the greenhouses hit the hardest, after design plans have been approved.