The Past, Present and Future
The Garfield Park Conservatory in Chicago, Illinois is one of the largest and most stunning conservatories in the nation. Often referred to as "landscape art under glass," the Garfield Park Conservatory occupies approximately 4.5 acres inside and out, and includes cold frames and propagation houses where thousands of plants are grown each year. Garfield Park Conservatory is located in Garfield Park — an 184-acre site located on Chicago's redeveloping Westside designed as a pleasure ground by William LeBaron Jenney — serving as the centerpiece of the three great original Westside parks (Humboldt, Garfield, and Douglas).
Garfield Park Conservatory History
Designer Jens Jensen, 1938,
Courtesy of Chicago Park
District Special Collections
In the late 19th century, each of the three large Westside parks had its own small conservatory and propagation greenhouses. After 20 years of use, these conservatories had fallen into disrepair and administrators believed it redundant to show similar plant collections in three facilities located within close proximity of each other.
In 1905 Chicago's West Park Commission's general superintendent and chief landscape architect, Jens Jensen, demolished the three smaller greenhouses in Humboldt, Douglas and Garfield Parks to create what was intended as "the largest publicly owned conservatory under one roof in the world" in Garfield Park. Many of the original plantings came from the three earlier conservatories.
Constructed between 1906 and 1907, and opened to the public in 1908, the Garfield Park Conservatory was designed by Jensen in collaboration with Prairie School architects Schmidt, Garden and Martin and the New York engineering firm of Hitchings and Company. It represented a unique collaboration of a prominent landscape architect with architects and engineers.
Jensen conceived the Conservatory as a series of naturalistic landscapes under glass, a revolutionary idea at the time. The simple yet strong shape of the structure, which is meant to emulate the haystacks of the Midwest, complements the collection of plants and foliage that it houses.
Located in the midst of historic Garfield Park on Chicago's West Side, the Garfield Park Conservatory is one of Chicago's best kept secrets and one of the nation's botanical treasures. It ranks among Chicago's most unique sites, attracting visitors from a variety of cultures, disciplines and interests.
Both Garfield Park and its conservatory are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Over the years the Conservatory has been recognized as an internationally significant horticultural facility as well as a cultural asset to the surrounding community and the city of Chicago.
This text is excerpted in part from Inspired by Nature: The Garfield Park Conservatory and Chicago's West Side, by Julia S. Bacharach and Jo Ann Nathan. (top photo) Garfield Park Conservatory Fern Room, 1908, Courtesy of Chicago Park District Special Collections
Frequently Asked Questions
Please Note: the following are frequently asked questions regarding the history of the Garfield Park Conservatory. Click here for FAQs about visiting the Conservatory.
Where can I learn more about the history of the Garfield Park Conservatory?
Visit our Gift Shop to pick up a copy of Inspired by Nature: The Garfield Park Conservatory and Chicago’s West Side by Chicago Park District Historian Julia S. Bachrach, and Jo Ann Nathan. Published in honor of the Garfield Park Conservatory’s Centennial in 2008, Inspired by Nature blossoms into a living history that looks to the future, and covers everything from the history of the conservatory and Garfield Park to the revival of the surrounding community. This fascinating and comprehensive volume includes historical essays, archival photography and plans, as well as contemporary color photography by Brook Collins. The book is also available by calling our Gift Shop at 312-746-4147.
Has restoration taken place at the Garfield Park Conservatory since its original construction?
1994 marked the start of a multi-year, multi-million dollar plan to restore the entire Conservatory. Each greenhouse received new and improved systems for heating, plumbing, and ventilation while remaining sensitive to the building's historic and architectural integrity.
The Garfield Park Conservatory is currently undergoing restoration following catastrophic damage resulting from a hailstorm that rained down on the Conservatory on June 30, 2011. New roofs and other improvements are being installed in the Fern Room and Desert House. New roofs were completed in the Show House and Propagation Houses in 2012 and 2013. The configuration of the Show House was restored to its original Jens Jensen design. Visit our 2011 Hailstorm page to learn more about the storm and the restoration.
Where can I learn more about Jens Jensen’s contribution to Chicago’s Parks?
Learn Jens Jensen’s philosophies and teachings straight from his own writings in Siftings, which is available for purchase in our Gift Shop.
Additional information is available on the Jens Jensen Legacy Project website, and on the Chicago Park District website.
A recent documentary movie has been released detailing Jens Jensen’s life and work. Information about Jens Jensen: The Living Green is available on the documentary’s website.