Images from within the Garfield Park Conservatory's Fern Room, which reopened to the public on April 22. (Tanya Harris/Contributor)

“This room was completely damaged,” said Eunita Rushing as she walked a group of high-profile visitors through the Garfield Park Conservatory’s newly restored Fern Room. This was the first time it had been open to the public since an eerie July 2011 hailstorm shattered the verdant environment’s thin-paned glass ceiling.

The conservatory hosted an official grand reopening ceremony for its Fern Room last Wednesday, April 22, the result of what some officials there estimate may be more than $5.3 million worth of repair work when it’s all said and done. Chicago First Lady Amy Rule and Cook County Commissioner Richard Boykin were among local dignitaries to tour the newly opened grounds. The concert choir from Westinghouse College Prep sang several tunes.  

Rushing, the president of the Garfield Park Conservatory Alliance, recalled workers combing through flora for a million little pieces of glass days after discovering the damage; the room’s many varieties of fern — Mexican Marsh, Hammock, Japanese Bird’s Nest — open to injury.

In all, nine of the conservatory’s growing houses, in addition to the Fern Room, the Desert House and the Show House, suffered extensive damage and had to be closed down indefinitely — effectively stopping the century old West Side institution’s beating heart. Nobody was injured physically, but the damage stung the institution’s caretakers and stewards — people such as Gwendolyn Rogers. 

“I cried,” Rogers said, recalling the moment she learned of the damage. “We were all just devastated, but we’ve been working hard to restore it.” 

For Rogers, 83, a longtime member of the conservatory’s board of directors, the 12-acre West Side monument is like a living room, an extension of her personal history. She was here when the Green Line ‘Garfield Park-Conservatory’ stop didn’t exist.

“[Former] Senator Emil Jones (14th) made available for us a bus while we were having problems getting people transported,” she said. “And then we got the stop on the train and we didn’t have to bug [Springfield] any longer.” 

Rogers is a prominent educator and the wife of John Rogers, Sr., father of John Rogers, Jr., the investment banker and founder of Ariel Capital Management. Ariel was one of the corporate sponsors the board leaned on to help cover renovation costs, although a majority of the damage was insured. 

Paul Levy, the conservatory’s board president, said the institution’s semi-closure in the wake of the storm — parts of it remained open during the renovations — may have ironically been a source of rejuvenation for the institution. 

“The Garfield Park Conservatory was sort of a forgotten relic and that [storm] caused everybody to refocus on it [and remember] how important this is to Chicago,” Levy said. 

For one, the board has been infused with new blood in members such as Nick Colvin, an attorney who worked in President Obama’s White House and who served as his aide when he was in the Senate; and Erika Summers, the vice president of corporate events at Ariel and a close friend of Rogers. Both Colvin and Summers were appointed to the board after the storm. 

And newly renovated spaces such as the Fern Room and Desert House are now covered by double-paned laminated glass, as tough as the windshields on a car. They’re meant to last another century.

Then there’s the board’s vision of increasing programming at the conservatory and opening its doors to a wider public — both within the West Side and beyond. Currently, according to the conservatory’s account, about 160,000 people visit to see the structure’s 10,000 plant varieties. 

Rogers said that, in the past, board members would put on Sunday teas to get people through the doors. 

“That was one way we started getting people in here,” she said. “We’d open it up and have tea. People were at the door when it opened. That went on for quite a while. Then we had music choirs come to sing. We did everything we could think of to attract people and it just grew and grew. It’s a beautiful gem.”

Now, said Levy, it’s time for the conservatory to bloom again. 

“Our goal is to rebuild activities and create a whole new center on the West Side,” he said. 

Something like a renaissance? 

“Exactly,” said Levy.