A glass phoenix

The Oak Park Conservatory survived neglect, near-destruction and politics, with a little help from its friends

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By KATHARINE GRAYSON

Editor's note: For our 30th anniversary, we're reprinting some of our favorite past features. This one first ran on October 1, 2003.

Today, the Oak Park Conservatory is flourishing. With the aid of an army of over 1,000 volunteers, the nearly 75-year-old facility has a new addition, is brimming with school children and tourists and has become a beloved destination for many in Oak Park and surrounding communities.

With both the plant life within its walls and the facility itself thriving, it's hard to imagine glass panes plummeting daily from its roof, or a time when the village determined a better use for it would be a parking lot for Rehm pool.

But in the early 1970s, these were the grim circumstances that faced the conservatory. And the subsequent fight to save it became one of the boldest community efforts in Oak Park's history.

That grass-roots movement, says Frank Lipo, director of the Historical Society of Oak Park and River Forest, is the main reason the conservatory could be eligible to land a spot on the National Register of Historic Places. The Park District Board of Commissioners, in fact, has had preliminary discussions about applying for landmark status. Most of the necessary work has already been done by Lipo, who's master's project was a prototype application for the conservatory.

Though many of the 13 Oak Park sites already on the list are tied to famous architects, Lipo says the conservatory's place in the social tapestry of Oak Park may be just as historically significant as a design by Frank Lloyd Wright.

As John Seaton, manager of conservatory operations, says, one of the most unique aspects of the conservatory is that, "it's here at all."

"Growing houses"

The idea of building a conservatory came in 1928, a year after the park district purchased a three-story ball-bearing factory on Garfield Street for its administration offices.

According to newspaper articles at the time, the building—one of Oak Park's few remaining industrial frustrations—was given an "artistic appearance" to make for "commodious headquarters."

Later that year, Colonel A.D. Rehm, park board president, approved the construction of "a large conservatory of growing houses" to be built adjacent to the refurbished administration building.

Though it has often been rumored that the conservatory was designed by Lord & Burnham, a famous 19th century greenhouse design firm, Lipo says there's no way to know for sure.

According to Historical Society records, the park board approved plans submitted by Foley Green House, a company formerly located in Forest Park, to construct a design "as specified." The project cost $26,000.

At the time, Rehm said the conservatory would provide needed space for the park district to grow plants for its parks. Seaton says 20,000 plants are still grown at the conservatory for 85 sites in the parks.

But for the community, the conservatory was more than a place to raise park plantings.

Though it is also extremely rare for a community of Oak Park's size to have a conservatory, Lipo says one of the most unique aspects about the facility's history is the community-wide enthusiasm for flowers and rare plants that existed before the conservatory opened its doors. As early as 1914, Oak Park residents were gathering rare plants that needed special care.

"There was a horticultural interest before it opened. It was more the well-to-do, but people brought back rare flowers and were interested in finding a place to show them," he explains.

In the same week that it was announced building the conservatory was under consideration, a newspaper report noted that 50 "flower lovers" met on a Sunday night to watch the opening and closing of three buds on a night blossom. The paper also featured a story on Levi Fuller, then the village attorney, who collected 300 wild plants from all over the country.

When the conservatory finally opened, nearly 1,500 visitors attended, and people had already donated several rare plants. Featuring ferns, palms, flowers from South and Central Africa, Central and South America, the new conservatory was described by a newspaper as a "place of fragrance and beauty."

A perfect parking lot

Thirty years passed, and the conservatory was in disrepair.

In January of 1961, the park board released "new policies" for the facility and announced a new intensive study that would examine the "maximum benefit of each tax dollar."

In August of 1969, an engineer reported to the park district that due to wide-ranging disrepair, the conservatory would require $84,800 to be restored to good condition.

In April of 1970, the conservatory was closed for safety, in no small part due to falling glass panes. That July, the park board put forward a referendum to raise $114,000 annually in funding (a five-cent increase), approximately $85,000 of which was slated to go toward refurbishing the conservatory.

But after Rehm pool was completed, the village began to think the site would make a convenient parking lot and many in the community thought the facility was underutilized and would just as soon have seen it go as pay more taxes to save it.

"Our taxes are high enough. Why should we vote yes for it, just because a very few people want it. ... Let's play fair and vote no," one resident wrote in a letter to the editor four days before the referendum. "It will make a perfect parking lot and allow a few nickels to come in instead of dollars going out."

The referendum failed, with a final vote count of 994 to 675.

With the rejection of the referendum, the Citizens Committee for the Conservatory, formed by Elsie Jacobsen, rallied to save the facility. The park district gave them six months to find the necessary funding.

More pressing than getting dollars for major repairs, however, was the immediate need to get the facility through the nearing winter.

The heating system in the building was deteriorating, wind whipped through broken panes, or through the wood clapped on to replace the glass. Vines wound around electrical wiring and "an untrimmed palm tree poked fronds through the roof," according to one newspaper article.

The group leapt into action. They had less than a month to garner the dollars needed to patch the conservatory for the winter. In what was called the "beat the frost" campaign they sold "Help our Conservatory" buttons for the minimum price of a dollar.

Following a plant sale and auction, and a "generous" donation from St. Paul Federal Bank, the committee raised the money to pay a contractor $3,500 to wrap the conservatory in plastic, patch some glass and make minor repairs. The contractor offered the group a one-year guarantee on the work, giving the committee hope that the facility would be safe to re-open.

As work commenced, volunteers, ranging in age from school children to senior citizens, carried out debris, trimmed back overgrown vines and cleaned gutters.

The conservatory held its grand re-opening, dubbed "rhapsody in green," the first week of December. A crowd of 1,500 people attended the event—the same number as appeared at the doors in 1929.

But just when it seemed the committee had staved off the frost, the temperature plummeted again that January. During a "subzero" weekend—the same weekend, strangely, that fire broke out at Unity Temple—newspapers reported that somebody "deliberately, or accidentally" turned off the heat in the conservatory, killing 30 potted palms and other rare plants.

Seaton says there were "pseudo-rumors" that it was done deliberately, but nothing was ever proved.

Again, the group rallied and brought in an Evanston horticulture consultant to testify. They ultimately convinced the village to pay for repairs to the heating system.

From show rooms to biomes

Beyond its fundraising efforts, the fledgling group also drafted a new concept for the conservatory. They envisioned a transformation from "spectator" facility to a center of education, both for school children and gardeners.

"Part of saving the conservatory was making it more relevant to school groups. Having it be biomes, rather than show rooms," Seaton says.

The committee's final report issued to the park district in November 1970 was called "Project: Man's Co-Existence with his Environment," and included letters of support from Oak Park's public and private schools.

In 1979, a portable classroom, later dubbed the "earth shelter," was purchased from District 97 for the modest price of $1 and attached to the building as a teaching facility. Fittingly, the first conservatory manager, Norma Senn, held a position jointly sponsored by the park district and schools.

The legacy of education, volunteer efforts and dedication to making upgrades and repairs has persisted over the years.

The Friends of the Oak Park Conservatory (FOPCON), the volunteer organization that exists today, was formed in the mid-1980s, and has since worked to provide needed manpower and dollars necessary to support the facility.

In March of 1987, a volunteer began rebuilding the conservatory's waterfall, which had not functioned for 25 years. Covered with soil, it had been used as a mount for plantings.

When the facility first opened, the Oak Leaves said the fountain featured a complex lighting system. "By an ingenious system of lights, water will be illuminated, and only an expert could tell how results were accomplished. In one stage it is red; if caught in a glass, it will be red, while the pool has natural water."

Though it is unknown whether the waterfall ever actually accomplished this feat, lighting system mechanisms were uncovered during the refurbishing process, but crumbled when revealed.

The repairs were made with the help of $600 from the Friends, and the pond was stocked with goldfish.

From the theft, and safe return, of a few of the conservatory's animals, to a hail storm, the conservatory has also seen its share of more minor disasters since it was originally saved. Seaton recalls being caught in the 1993 hail storm, stopping by the conservatory and noting there was some damage.

"I saw a few holes in the roof, but I thought it would be OK," he remembers. But when he returned the next day, "it looked like Armageddon. Glass was still falling. One of Dante's inner circles is pulling glass shards out of cactuses," he adds, noting that glass was still being pulled out of plants years later.

After a fundraiser called "Pane Relief," Seaton says the conservatory pulled in the money to repair the more costly curved glass.

Since that time, FOPCON has helped fund a number of significant projects—the most monumental of which was the addition of the Conservatory Center. The group ultimately provided $200,000 for construction of the $950,000 facility, which now features a meeting room, offices and a potting area.

It also recently helped pay for a lead-abatement project in the conservatory's fern room, and continues to host a number of successful fundraisers, including the herb sale, which pulls in over $40,000 a year.

Since the 1970s, the conservatory has enjoyed a ground swell of community support. And throughout its long history of perseverance, it has often been, as Seaton says, a "phoenix rising from the ashes."

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