After my day-long stressful job interview yesterday, I had to unwind … and what better way to do that but to photography in none other than The Garfield Park Conservatory – which – fortunately was next door to the interview place. I wasn’t the only one interested in photographing the plants over there. There were plenty of kindred spirits roaming around the conservatory, each nodding to one another, recognizing our addiction to the craft hahahahah.
We’ve been supporters of the Conservatory since the mid 1990s – we “discovered” the place by happenstance. I was a beginning photographer at that time, just got a new digital camera, and I was looking for new places to photograph. I had the idea to drive around the West side of Chicago since I have never been there. While driving around the run down neighborhoods of the West side, we saw this beautiful conservatory at the periphery of an enormous park, next to the el tracks.
We went in, and was amazed of what we saw inside – palm trees, ferns of all varieties, aroids, cacti … and most especially, plants and fruit trees of my childhood growing up in the Philippines – red variegated gumamela (hibiscus), bananas, sugar cane, cacao, balimbing (star fruit), mango, papaya, and yes, calamansi (a citrus plant native to the Philippines that we use as a drink and sometimes, as condiment and as a souring agent). Calamansi growing and fruiting in the middle of Chicago – what a concept!
During the visit, we found out that this was one of the largest conservatories in the US and at that time there was rumbling that it might be closed because it was too expensive to maintain. They received only a few visitors, it seems like Chicagoans forgot all about this magnificent structure; the glass roof, especially, is in disrepair. But there was a movement to rehabilitate the facilities and modernize the conservatory while respecting the original architecture. So we signed up for membership right away. We felt that it was well worth the money (which turned out to be not much anyway) to support the effort to save this historic plant conservatory.
About a year later, someone had a brilliant idea to show the works of Chihuly – beautiful glass sculptures placed among the plants. It was a big hit. The show was so successful that they had to extend it for a longer time. Since then, they mounted other successful exhibits, always showcasing the unique collection that they have – the aroids, the palms and the ferns and also the tropical fruit trees that I mentioned earlier. One exhibit of note was the skeletons of new dinosaurs that the University of Chicago paleontologist, Paul Sereno, discovered. Like the exquisite Chihuly glass sculptures, the dinos were interspersed among the plants – those in the fern room transformed the viewers to step into a lush primeval environment.
Since then, the Conservatory became a popular destination – especially for wedding and quincenerea pictorials.
Last year, the Conservatory suffered a setback – a freak hailstorm with ice the size of golf balls – destroyed the roofs of several of the rooms, endangering the plants that are housed in them. But concerted efforts are being undertaken to quickly restore the damage parts of the conservatory. It has been there before, and it rose magnificently from the brink of closure. It will rise again.
More information: Garfield Park Conservatory.
Here are more photos of what’s going on in Garfield Park Conservatory right now: