Chicago winters are enough to make you want to pack up and move away. Don’t get me wrong; I love this city as much as I love my left arm, and I think the city is just as beneficial to my well-being. I think the cooler weather gives Chicagoans a reality check that makes us more down-to-earth and human than people in other cities (L.A., cough cough). Still, I get cabin fever every winter, wishing there was a better way to go out and experience the city without spending tons of money on the restaurants and theaters that are the typical Chicago winter activities. And thankfully last weekend, Katie and I found the perfect balance for a frightfully cold winter day: the Garfield Park Conservatory.
A lot of people flocked to this Conservatory back in 2001 when Dale Chihuly’s glass art was on display. But I haven’t heard a lot of people talk about this place since then, and for the life of me I can’t figure out why. This place is amazing. Just starting out with the fact that the greenhouses let you be in the sunlight, in January, without a coat on—heck yes! I didn’t even realize the things I was missing about the warm weather, like the heavier, moister air, the sweet-fresh smell of moss and flowers, and my muscles relaxing in the more forgiving temperatures. Even though we were only there for an hour, it was the perfect break from an unavoidable winter.
The Conservatory has over 7 indoor greenhouses, with even more outdoor gardens once the soil defrosts. You first walk in to the Palm House, a hugely dramatic room that carves small paths that let you get up close to dozens of different types of trees and plants. From there, we went through the Show House (currently changing exhibits) and to the Horticulture Hall, where plants were being cultivated for display. Then came the Aroid House, my favorite. Greenery surrounds a koi pond, still decorated with some Chihuly glass art, and there is a little bench on which to sit and admire the fish, feel the comforting humidity, and take in the flora. A young woman sat on the bench doing her knitting, and while mostly I was really annoyed at her for taking up the space and not letting anybody else sit there, I know I would have been blissfully content if I were in her place doing the same thing.
The Desert House was surprisingly cold and obviously dry, so we skedaddled through there (let’s be honest, cacti are never as exciting as blossoming tropical flowers) to the Children’s Garden, which looked super fun with a big slide and lots of interactive plants and path designs. We didn’t linger too long because that would have made us the creepiest childless people in the building, so then we moseyed through the Sugar from the Sun room, which is filled with interesting biological tidbits (science teachers, this would be a great destination for you!) and sensory activities. We even got to scratch the bark of a cinnamon tree to release the spicy scent, and I got to brag that I knew that cinnamon comes from tree bark because I saw that once on a Kashi commercial.
The final room we visited was easily the most dramatic: the Fern Room. I learned that designer Jens Jensen (yes, that Jens Jensen—did I neglect to mention that? No wonder this place is so intelligently and beautifully designed) wanted the public to experience what an Illinois landscape would have been like millions of years ago. Hence, moss covering every square inch of the room, water falling down the walls and into a pond in the room’s center, and leaves sprouting out at every possible angle. The room had such a calming effect that I even noticed the guests becoming a little more laid back, spending a little more time taking in the experience and quietly waiting if there was a hold-up in the path ahead of them. (Surprisingly for a Sunday afternoon on a holiday weekend, it was never that crowded. There was a good amount of people, but we never had that sheep-in-a-turnstile feeling.)
Sporadically placed throughout the gardens were small activity tables for children, staffed by Conservatory workers who helped the kids appreciate more about their visit. The workers were all so friendly and excited, and not only did they make me want to be a little kid again, but they made me want to be at an age when it would be perfectly acceptable to be underpaid in such a job. Sigh.
The best part is, this entire experience was free, and there was plentiful street and lot parking that was also free. There was also a green line stop about a block away. Basically, you have no excuse not to go. But just in case you’re thinking, “I need one more reason…”, firstly know that you sound like a pretty high-maintenance person, but also know that just south of the Conservatory, Garfield Park continues. And it is impressive.
About a block south rests the Garfield Park Fieldhouse, one of the top 5 impressive buildings I have seen in Chicago. Built in the Spanish Revival style, it has a façade more ornate than any I’ve seen in the city, and is capped with a golden dome that recalls a brighter time in Garfield Park’s past. Because it was a Sunday, the building itself was closed, but Katie and I (being the creepers we are) peered inside to a striking art deco-looking interior. A pool sat in the back, overlooking a lagoon, and the expansive park was a wonderfully open, if deserted, area to take in the not-so-distant skyline.
And to address the elephant in the room, we felt safe the entire time. A neighborhood’s never going to improve if you keep ignoring it. If you haven’t been to Garfield Park in a long time, then it’s time to go back. Now.
300 N. Central Park Ave., Chicago
Garfield Park Field House
100 N. Central Park Ave., Chicago
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