I have a love/hate relationship with Lincoln Park. I love it for the same reasons that everybody else does—it’s pretty, it has good shops and restaurants, it’s still safe enough that when somebody gets stabbed or mugged there, the crime makes the evening news, and so on. But I also really hate Lincoln Park. Even for this sorority girl, it’s too fratty and expensive, and I get the impression that many twenty-somethings like the neighborhood for the sole reason that they don’t know where else to go. And there are parts of Lincoln Avenue that chronically smell like stale old beer, a scent I had hoped to leave back in college. No such luck.
But there are some gems in Lincoln Park that make a trip there almost—dare I say it—tolerable. The zoo is a beloved destination (even if there is no penguin house anymore [what the hell is up with that, anyway?]), the beach is awesome (even if North Ave beach can get gross and dirty), and now there’s something else that I always knew was there, but never appreciated: the Lincoln Park Conservatory.
Katie and I went to the Conservatory on a snowy Saturday, looking for a way to warm up and humidify. We had always considered the Conservatory a random offshoot of the zoo, not a destination in its own right, but man, we were wrong. We opted to take a tour with a docent, and it could just be the best decision we’ve made in 2013. (Actually, I also opted to buy extra salsa con queso for the Super Bowl, a decision which I will forever be proud of.)
Our docent was the nicest, most excitable, and most enthusiastic plant-lover I’ve ever met. And that’s saying a lot, because my dad actually talks to his plants. She began our tour reminding us just to breathe in, to experience the plants, and remarking how even being in the greenhouse helps her to breathe easier. And in this dry winter air, she’s right. The conservatory hosts plants and trees both familiar and exotic, but I have to say my favorite is the sausage tree. It bears fruit that looks exactly like a cased sausage. It’s amazing.
We strolled through the conservatory, admiring the original architecture and technology dating back to the 1890s, learning about cocoa and coffee plants, and continuing to breathe the warm, moist air. (I hate the word moist and I just used it in a complimentary way. I hope that confirms just how special this place is.) As we stood under banana trees, their fruit sprouting in bunches, our docent remarked loud enough for the conservatory to hear: “I just need to be around leaves the size of my body!” And holy hell, banana leaves really are the size of a human body. I never would have realized that before this tour. Well played, Lincoln Park Conservatory. Well played.
From the first Palm House, we then moved to the Fern House, which is designed to resemble the earliest spore-reproducing plants. Little plastic dinosaurs decorated the foliage, which our docent told us was for the kids, but I think was more appreciated by Katie and me.
The Orchid House features a beautiful variety of, you guessed it, orchids, and some badass pitcher plants, which trap flies before slowly sucking the life out of them. Nice. It’s complemented by a koi pond and enough orchids to rival your local Home Depot.
Finally comes the Show House, the most cultivated of all the gardens. This greenhouse boasts the most color, the most water, and the most open space. While we were in there, music from Lyric Opera serenaded the flowers (La Boheme, anyone?) and a couple literally sat on a bench looking at the photos that encapsulated their entire relationship. Yes, that literally happened. And it didn’t seem weird or awkward or out of place until I remembered it, just now. That’s how magical this Show House is.
When it’s winter, it’s not too crowded there; we even found street parking just outside the front doors. The Conservatory is well worth a few hours of your day, even if you’re only going to counteract all the negative experiences you’ve had in Lincoln Park. As our docent said, it’s amazing that our city has a beautiful place like this that is totally free to just walk in. It may not have the size or activity of Garfield Park Conservatory, but that doesn’t mean it’s not also worth visiting. Go to Lincoln Park Conservatory, take a tour with one of their wonderful guides, and let your eyes be opened to the beauty of this city…and all of the plants we killed to build it.
Lincoln Park Conservatory
2391 N. Stockton Dr., Chicago