Mary Eysenbach, director of conservatories for the Chicago Park District, shows off the progress made in replacing the glass roof at the Garfield Park Conservatory. Peter Holderness | Sun-Times
Updated: November 21, 2013 6:08AM
If you’ve ever fixed a broken window, you know it can be a chore: finding the right glass in the right size, getting the right tools if you’re doing the work, or the right glazier if you’re not.
That’s for one window.
Now multiply the problem by 4,000. And put many of the windows 40 feet off the ground in a cluster of 106-year-old structures, some of which need to be almost completely rebuilt. Then jam delicate plants, too fragile to move, directly underneath the work.
One more thing: welcome the public during the process.
That’s the enormous task facing the Garfield Park Conservatory since June 30, 2011, when a severe hailstorm broke 70 percent of the windows in the conservatory’s massive greenhouse buildings, sending shards of glass cascading down upon its collection of rare and exotic plants.
The conservatory consists of eight “display houses” — enormous mounds of steel, wood and copper that Jens Jensen designed, not to look like the chateau conservatories of Europe, but as “great haystacks” evocative of the Illinois prairie.
After the damage, it was discovered that the structures were badly corroded and needed major refurbishing. But the immediate task was securing the environment inside.
“Winter comes very quickly,” said Mary Eysenbach, conservatory director. “We had to get protective covering in place so we could get through the winter for all the houses that had tropical plants.”
Plastic sheeting kept the cold out, temporarily. The conservatory, which has struggled to keep in the public eye even before it was damaged, couldn’t afford to shut down during the lengthy process of planning, financing and performing repairs.
“The conservatory is open and has been since the day after the hailstorm,” Eysenbach said. “People were left with the impression that we’re closed until we rebuilt, and that’s not true. We’ve gotten as much open to the public as we can.”
Some $9 million has been spent on repairs so far, with $7 million of that coming from insurance. Two more houses have yet to be repaired, their missing glass still covered with plastic sheeting.
Even damaged, the houses are in better shape than they were previously. In the mid-1990s, the future for the conservatory looked bleak. News accounts routinely referred to it as “forgotten” and “unknown.” A cold snap that had Chicago temperatures falling to minus 10 included winds that rattled panes loose, sending icy blasts onto the tropical plants below. Then a burst steam pipe in the Aroid House on Jan. 19, 1994, caused temperatures inside to plummet to 25 degrees, killing or severely injuring 80 percent of the desert plants there. Workers frantically wrapped centuries-old cycads in plastic to keep them warm.
Park district officials wondered aloud if the place was even worth saving.
“The conservatory is just old,” Robert Megquire, the park district’s director of landscape architecture and management, mused at the time. “The social question is whether or not there is value to society in keeping an old building like this.”
That wasn’t a question after the 2011 hailstorm.
“The park district really rallied together to make sure we protected the plant collection and got the building back in shape,” said Eysenbach, noting that the conservatory is not only a gem of the city, but was named one of the 10 best in the world.
Right now the Show House is in the midst of complete reconstruction, its weight supported by a lattice of screw jacks supporting timbers, while 34 corroded load-bearing I beams are replaced. At the same time, workers remove strips of copper that held broken panes and replace decaying wood.
The plan is to get the work on this house done by Mother’s Day.
While you might imagine that repairing the conservatory to be an undiluted headache, Eysenbach says it isn’t so.
“The whole project was just fascinating to me,” she said. “After I got over the initial shock, of course. I didn’t know anything about greenhouses in terms of construction. I have learned a lot about glass houses. Some really cool stuff.”
“When they took all the glass off the Show House, [removing] the weight of the glass caused the side of the structure to lift a bit, and the doors separating the Show House from the rest of the houses fell off. Who would think the glass would weigh that much?”
Even after the work is done, the challenge is to get people inside. East Garfield Park is one of the poorest areas of the city — 40 percent of its residents live in poverty.
The conservatory has been trying to draw visitors from outside the area with art shows, performances, public campfires, with a renewed focus on children.
“Our emphasis moving forward is to really connect kids back to nature,” Eysenbach said. “This is a really great, great place, fun experiences in a beautiful, beautiful setting. We are rebuilding this conservatory to last for another hundred years.”