Families tightened their scarves and pulled on their gloves as they left the Garfield Park Conservatory on a Saturday afternoon this month, walking toward brick buildings in the blistering cold. But people who made their way inside crossed over from Chicago’s gray, bitter winter to an indoor tropical forest.
On any given Saturday, 600 to 800 people come in and out of the conservatory, 300 N. Central Park Ave., but on this particular afternoon, well over 1,000 people visited.
“It’s nice to have an outside when you’re stuck inside,” said Robin Cline, assistant director of programs with the Garfield Park Conservatory Alliance.
The Garfield Park Conservatory, which turns 105 years old this year, is the largest of the Chicago Park District’s three botanic gardens. These facilities preserve and display exotic plants from around the world. The conservatory’s eight plant rooms and outdoor space add up to 4.5 acres, according to the conservatory’s website.
It’s also one of 10 institutions in the nation to receive last year’s National Medal for Museum and Library Service, awarded to educational facilities that “make a difference” in communities.
At no charge, families can take off their coats and walk on winding paths through a large, warm space that looks and feels like a tropical forest. Almost 84 types of long palm tree leaves brush visitors’ heads as they walk through the structure’s eight rooms while small plants and shrubs fill virtually all the space on the ground.
People stare at exotic fruit plants and bright flowers from Brazil, Australia, Madagascar and southern China — just to name a few of the countries represented.
About 30 percent of visitors come from surrounding neighborhoods, like Austin or East and West Garfield Park, but the other 70 percent come from all over the city or suburbs, Cline said.
“We come here almost ever year, especially when it’s snowing and gray outside,” said Namita Checker, a resident of Elgin, a suburb that is about an hour’s drive from Chicago. “It’s just nice for the kids to get to know nature.”
But Checker said there is more here than just the museum walk-through. Her two kids love the Children’s Garden, where kids can peer inside a man-made, 6-foot-tall walnut and learn how to plant a seed with a hands-on tutorial.
Children can become gardeners by digging for worms and bugs in a large vat of dirt — toy worms and bugs, that is.
“Scavenger hunts” are held each month with a specific theme. February’s theme was Black History. Families get a list of plants to find that depict different significant lessons, such as “roots” to depict the importance of cultural and familial ties.
Families can also sing to a plant in March, intertwining music and nature, Cline said. Different songs are sung to different plants, so the two 300-year-old cycad plants get their own tune.
“Kids were still humming the tunes as they left last time,” said Cline, noting that more families flock to the conservatory in the winter, but she believes there’s more to a visit than just escaping the cold.
“I think when you live in an urban environment, you have less of a chance to connect to the natural world,” she said. “This is a powerful way to connect with nature, your family and yourself.”
Cline added that the conservatory attracts all kinds of visitors, even people who have “never planted a seed in their life.” As a child, Cline recalled, she herself had never visited a conservatory.
The 100-plus year-old structure was built in 1907. The chief architect, Jens Jensen, wanted the conservatory to look like a collection of habitats under one roof. The building, which officially opened in 1908, underwent a multimillion-dollar reconstruction in 1994 to improve things like plumbing and heating.
But those who frequent the Conservatory wouldn’t mind some more small changes.
Joe Fruci, an Evanston resident who has come 10 times with his wife and two kids, said he “wouldn’t mind” a larger children’s space. He would prefer if park district workers watered plants after the Children’s Garden closed at 4 p.m. so the paths would stay dry and his son could crawl around freely.
Austin resident Cheryl Lucas’ son has visited the conservatory with his school, Polaris Charter Academy, but she said he loves coming anytime. She agreed a larger family area might be a nice addition to the Conservatory.
Fruci and Lucas’ suggestions may mean more families are coming to the conservatory, something Cline said she wants to maintain during the summers.
Outdoor campfires will make a comeback this summer after proving “a hit” last year, Cline said. She plans to have free music events and live goats for children to pet, as they also did last year.
The city boasts a large museum campus, but Cline said conservatories have their own unique beauty. People, she said, need to wander in a no-cost, natural environment to relax.
“You don’t have to know how to use a conservatory,” Cline said. “You end up being together as a family and have a chance to talk about nature. We don’t have a lot of places of restoration to do that.”