A century-old garden on the West Side that deteriorated over the years is being restored to its historic grandeur thanks to a community-led initiative.
In the early 1900s, the Sears, Roebuck and Co. campus was the crown jewel of North Lawndale. Hidden within the stern Classical Revival-style buildings sprawled across the 40-acre headquarters was a pocket of lush greenery: the Sears Sunken Garden.
The Foundation for Homan Square, which took over many of the Sears buildings, preserved the 2-acre park but has lacked the funding to continue the extravagant annual flower shows and water features it had at its prime, executive director Kevin Sutton said.
Now, the foundation and several other groups are using a $150,000 grant to launch what could be a multimillion dollar overhaul to revive the space.
“I’m certainly hopeful this will be an opportunity to cast a fresh light on the cultural, historical and in this case horticultural significance of this area,” Sutton said.
The 2-acre park was an urban oasis that stood out against the red brick buildings and steel railroad tracks that surrounded it. The Sears Sunken Garden had fountains, reflecting pools, a greenhouse and flower beds unmatched by other parks of the time.
“It was a place for Sears staffers, many of which lived in the community, to have a respite, a place of peace and relaxation and enjoyment,” Sutton said.
When Sears began relocating its headquarters downtown in the 1970s, the local economy waned as residents were laid off from the warehouses and distribution facilities were being shut down. Many of the buildings were demolished, though some were preserved and turned over to the Foundation for Homan Square to be restored into schools, housing and office buildings for local nonprofits.
The foundation preserved the Sunken Garden, which has been a National Historic Landmark for a century, Sutton said.
“That garden used to have seasonal plantings three or for times a year. But over time the garden began to fall into a state of disrepair after Sears’s departure,” Sutton said. “Having this beautiful garden return to some sense of grandeur and to be a further asset to the community will be great.”
Restoring the Sears Sunken Garden into a gathering place and a major cultural attraction was one of the priorities in the 2018 North Lawndale Quality-of-Life Plan, a community-driven blueprint for improving conditions in the neighborhood like public safety, education, greenery and public health.
Plans to redesign the garden are being spearheaded by Friends of Sears Sunken Garden, a nonprofit founded by a collaborative of neighborhood groups that had been organizing projects to improve the garden for several years. Partners include the Foundation for Homan Square, the Trust for Public Land, and the North Lawndale Community Coordinating Council’s GROWSS committee, a group focused on greening and open space.
The Trust for Public Land awarded the project a $150,000 Equitable Communities Fund grant to “to jumpstart the process of raising the money and getting designers and ultimately being able to restore the garden,” said Illinois State Director of the Trust for Public Land, Caroline O’Boyle.
The Equitable Communities Fund is designed to “support community-led organizations and help them to position themselves to be ready for larger pools of funding when it became available,” O’Boyle said.
Organizers anticipate the restoration of the Sears Sunken Garden will cost around $5 million to “do the repair work, installing the garden, and establishing a fund that will allow for the garden’s ongoing maintenance,” O’Boyle said.
The Trust for Public Land and other partners are helping Friends of Sears Sunken Garden with technical assistance and grant writing support to bring together additional funds typically out of reach for small neighborhood groups, like the National Park Service’s Save America’s Treasures Grant, which organizers are seeking to use to restore a pergola in the park.
The restored garden will be designed by Piet Oudolf, a world-renowned landscape designer who planned the Lurie Garden in Millennium Park and the High Line in New York City.
Others on the design team include Roy Diblik of Northwind Perennial Farm, Lawndale resident Annamaria Leon from Homan Grown, landscape architect Camille Applewhite of BlackSpace Chicago, architect Odile Compagnon, and historic preservationist Lynette Stuhlmacher of Red Leaf Studio.
Friends of Sears Sunken Garden held community design meetings where residents contributed their ideas for how the park should be restored. The meetings were also educational sessions where residents could learn more about the history of the Sears Sunken Garden as well as current trends in landscape architecture.
The community meetings steered designers toward a color palette that suits the tastes of the community and helped them decide to use native perennials that would thrive in Chicago’s climate and be easy to maintain, organizers said.
“People are interested in awakening all the senses in the garden: what you see, what you smell. What’s the texture? What memory does it evoke? What feelings?” O’Boyle said.
By incorporating the ideas of people who live in the area, the restoration of the Sears Sunken Garden can be a reminder of the neighborhood’s history and the fond memories many people have, Sutton said.
“It’s really been amazing to have a community-led effort. Many people will tell you they have reunion pictures and wedding photos, all sorts of memories in the garden,” Sutton said.
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