Garfield Conservatory races against the weather to protect historic plants

August 17, 2011

By Ken Davis

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It's been more than six weeks since a hailstorm clobbered Chicago's Garfield Park Conservatory on the city's West Side, causing severe damage to the century-old glass house. The staff is still cleaning up and assessing the situation, and it now looks like the damaged parts might not open for another year.

This is where the reality of  the destruction really hits home. If you've ever been to the Garfield Park Conservatory, you've almost certainly been to the soaring show house. A hundred and three Christmas shows and spring flower shows have graced this room, but today there's an eerie presence of nothingness.

"As you can see the ceiling is open. There is no glass overhead," said Mary Eysenbach, director of this and the sister conservatory in Lincoln Park. That's because workers have pried, pulled and knocked every last shard out of the metallic latticework above.

Eysenbach leads the effort to try to figure out what to do, and in what order. Four major rooms were damaged, but this and the historic fern room took the heaviest beatings, along with a slew of production greenhouses out back. "Mainly what we are doing in this house right now is we are removing all the soil," Eysenbach said.

So in the show house they'll pretty much just start over. But the fern room, that's a different story.

This is a video shot hours after the storm by Matt Barrett, a conservatory foreman. He's entering the fern room, walking down the stairs into the sunken garden in horror.

"I walked in, the whole place was dark, and it took my eyes a moment to adjust," said Barrett. "I stopped dead in my tracks, my jaw hit the floor. I'd never seen anything like it. And it was just pane after pane continuing to fall, hitting the ground, it was like a waterfall of broken glass."

So, it's six weeks later, and not much has changed in the fern room. Described as one of the most beautiful indoor spaces in America, it presents such a complicated reconstruction challenge that only now are the last of the hanging shards being removed from its ceiling. The room is so dangerous that many parts of it still haven't been assessed for plant damage. And they're in a serious race with the weather.

"It's what August now, it's the second week in August. The fern room we need to have winter protection on that by the middle of September. Because we could have some cold nights," said Eysenbach.

Every gardener knows that tropical ferns just have to have high temperatures and humidity all the time. One night of 40-degree temps and a bunch of these decades-old plants are goners. They're already stressed because the missing glass has lowered the humidity and the extra sun is burning some of their fronds. But how do you rebuild that glass ceiling while thousands of finicky plants cover the floor and walls? As Mary Eysenbach said, the only solution is to first enclose the room with some kind of temporary, insulated, semi-transparent roof, almost a giant plastic tarp.

"We think it's gonna take anywhere from four to six months to repair, to put a new roof on," Eysenbach said. "So now we're gonna hit winter on the other side of that so it's quite a challenge." And Chicago, as we all know, doesn't offer six-month frost free window, so they might have to stretch the work out over two summers.

At this point, nobody knows how much it's all going to cost, or how much will be covered by insurance. The clean-up is costing $2 million. Reconstruction will be millions more. 

And in the spirit of never wasting a crisis, the park district sees a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to not just fix the place, but improve it with modern, energy-efficient materials and systems. But that costs money, too.

In the meantime life still goes on here, as summer camps arrive for tours and about half of the public spaces remain open. Spaces that, by the way, were reglazed in a recent major renovation and stood up to the hailstorm.

And a new funding campaign is kicking off, asking individuals to buy a single pane of glass. There are plenty to buy, because tens of thousand of them were shattered. And through it all, some of Chicago's most revered elder statesplants, like the 250-year old cycads in the battered fern room and the azaleas from the 1892 Columbian Exposition, hang on, maybe glancing skyward as the days get shorter and colder.