Monday, May 30, 2016

A Walk in the Park

The brouhaha surrounding the Lucas Museum makes it easy to forget that the mission of the so-called "elitist" organization, Friends of the Parks, doesn't end at the lakefront. Rather, Friends of the Parks advocates a commitment to and the preservation of the parks and open spaces throughout the entire Chicago area.

The industrial ruins and decaying residential neighborhoods of the west side are the last place you might expect to find the crown jewel of Chicago's storied park system. But there it sits at the intersection of Central Park Boulevard and Lake Street, Garfield Park and its magnificent Conservatory.

Before the Great Fire of 1871, architect and engineer Willam Le Baron Jenney was hired by the commission who oversaw the parks on Chicago's west side to lay out plans for three major landscape parks and the boulevards to connect them. Jenny is most famous for having designed the first multi-story commercial building whose interior metal skeleton would support the outside wall, or in pure Chicago parlance, the world's first skyscraper. Fourteen years before the Home Insurance Building opened, the parks Jenny laid out would become Humboldt Park on the north. Douglas Park on the south, and appropriately enough, Central Park in between. Central Park would get a new name in 1881 after the assassination of the 20th president of the United States, James Garfield.

A tiny bit of the landscape of the Garfield Park community peaking though
the lush plants of the tropical house of the Conservatory.
One might consider Humboldt, Garfield and Douglas Parks and their connecting boulevards to constitute one greater park, much as you would the south side Jackson and Washington Parks and Midway Plaisance, the wide swath of park and boulevard that connects the two. The idea of a Chicago boulevard system creating a ring of parks that would connect the city and the lakefront goes all the way back to the 1840s and was the brainchild of one John S. Wright, an early real estate speculator and developer. Alas politics and the economy got in the way as they usually do, and no action was taken until the idea was picked up upon by the Chicago Times newspaper who in 1866 published a plan of a park system "one quarter mile wide and fourteen miles long" that would encircle the existing city starting at the northernmost part of the Chicago lake shore and ending at the southernmost.

The three west side parks of Jenny's would be among the first sections of the boulevard system to be realized. Unlike today's emphasis on recreation, the west side parks were designed with the typically mid-nineteenth century principle that parks were intended first and foremost to be a relief from the city, in the words of Lewis Mumford, they provided "refuge against the soiled and bedraggled works of man's creation."

Jenny's west side parks did just that. Curving carraige paths and walkways contrasted sharply with Chicago's practical but relentless street grid. Berms and strategically planed flora would wall off the everyday functions of the city from the parks' interiors. Quite the contrast from the typical architecture found in the city, the parks were filled with fanciful, ornate buildings that served as bandstands, conservatories, observation towers and field houses. The limited area set aside for the west side parks inspired Jenny and his associates to import species of plants from all over the world to make up for less than promising land features. Most of all, Jenny's liberal use of water, especially in Humboldt and Douglas Parks resulted in over fifty percent of their respective areas comprised of lagoons and small rivers.

Some of Jenny's plans were realized but yet again, fate, the economy, and a trait at which Chicago particularly excels, political corruption, all got in the way. It would take a scrupulous laborer from Denmark who had a particular talent in horticulture to see the project through to its completion. Along the way, Jens Jensen would become one of the most influential landscape philosophers and architects of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

It's well known that Jensen began his career in Chicago as a laborer in Humboldt Park then quickly made his way up the ladder to become park supervisor. Just as quickly, he lost that job because he wouldn't play along with the "Chicago way." Soon bygones became bygones and Jensen found himself as the director of the West Parks as well as their chief architect. Jensen, who came to love the prairie landscape of his adopted home, the American Midwest, was a strict advocate of using only native species in his plantings. Unlike his predecessors and many of his peers, Jensen did not believe you could improve upon nature.

"A great Midwestern haystack" The southern facade of the Garfield Park Conservatory
Slowly but surely, Jensen transformed the Humboldt, Garfield, Douglas trifecta into a glorious reflection and tribute to the landscape in which we inhabit. Gone were many of the trappings of Victoriana including the exotic buildings and more exotic flora, replaced by Prairie Style buildings and plantings. Jensen was not only a great landscape architect but he knew his way around a building as well. He designed the current Garfield Park Conservatory along the same principles of adherence to regional influence as his philosophy of planting. In an interesting contrast to the Lincoln Park Conservatory which looks like it could have been plucked straight out of nineteenth century London, Jensen's building, according to Julia Bachrach, author of The City in a Garden: A Photographic History of Chicago's Parks, is designed "to emulate the simple form of a great Midwestern haystack."

Throughout his career, Jensen had an on again off again relationship with Chicago and the West Park Commission. (The Chicago Park District which consolidated the many different park commissions in the city was not organized until 1934.) During one of those off again times, the baroque style  "Gold Dome Building" was built in 1928 to be the headquarters of the West Park Commission. After the establishment of the CPD, it would become the park's field house. Surely Jensen hated it, despite the fact that it and its eponymous dome are enduring symbols of the Garfield Park neighborhood that has to put it mildly, had its ups and downs over the years.

The Conservatory too has had its ups and downs, but in the last dozen years or so, much effort has been put into its restoration and today, despite being slightly off the beaten path, is one of the premier cultural institutions of this city.

Certainly in my lifetime and perhaps since it was built in 1908, the conservatory and its environs have never looked better. Most recently, several acres of land directly to the west of the conservatory were turned into The City Garden

Bridge spanning the vast lily pond of The City Garden.
As the newest public garden in Chicago, The City Garden, much like the great Palmisano Park on the site of a former limestone quarry in Bridgeport, embraces the industrial landscape surrounding it rather than walling it out. Built upon land that once was the site of tennis courts and a wading pool, The City Garden, according to the Garfield Park Conservatory website,
takes urban greening as its guiding principle, and it gives expression to that principle at multiple levels, from its structure to its materials and plantings. It also provides an important link in an ever-growing lacework of boulevards, gardens, and open spaces scattered beyond its borders.
City Garden in front of reminders of the west side of Chicago's industrial past
It is a little disconcerting to hear the rumbling of the L as you stroll through the multiple "garden communities" of The City Garden, including a grove of hawthorn trees supposedly planted by none other than Jens Jensen. But as Elwood Blues told his brother Jake when he spent the night at his place whose open window was about ten feet from the extremely busy Loop elevated structure, "you get used to it."

Although not as well known nor understood as Chicago's commercial and residential architectural history, Chicago has a distinguished history of landscape architecture. The legacy of Jenny, Jensen, Frederick Law Olmsted, Calvert Vaux, Alfred Caldwell and others, is one we can be proud of, one worth caring for. The City Garden, the Conservatory, Garfield Park and its sister parks Humboldt and Douglas, remain treasures to behold, no small effort, thanks in part to the tireless efforts of groups like Friends of the Parks.

Thanks folks for a job well done.

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