Oak Park Conservatory staff and the Park District of Oak Park had two reasons to celebrate on Saturday, June 22.

That morning, the staff marked the conservatory’s 90th anniversary. And they used the occasion to highlight recently installed environmentally friendly improvements made possible by a grant from the Sun Club, the nonprofit arm of Green Mountain Energy, an Austin, Texas based renewable energy company. 

Patti Staley, the conservatory’s director of horticulture, said the conservatory was built in 1929 as part of the broader movement to bring greenhouses to cities. At the time, she said, there were concerns about industrial pollution. And, in general, owning plants was a sign of affluence, which fueled interest in them. 

Staley said that while the conservatory was hailed as a jewel of Oak Park, it fell on hard times. In 1970, it was slated for demolition. Residents formed the Save the Conservatory Committee to protect it, and thanks to its efforts and, later, to the efforts of the Friends of the Conservatory, the conservatory not only escaped the wrecking ball, but thrived.

Most recently, the park district teamed up with the Sun Club to add solar panels, a system that collects and reuses rainwater, composting equipment and beehives to pollinate the conservatory’s many plants. 

In order to get the funding, Oak Park residents and businesses had to make at least 1,000 pledges to do something environmentally friendly and/or sustainable. In the end, the village wound up exceeding the goal.

Illinois state Sen. Don Harmon (D-39th) admitted that, even though he grew up near the conservatory in the 1970s, he had no idea it was even there. 

“It wasn’t really part of fabric for anyone at that point,” he said. “It couldn’t compete with the Rehm Park and its triple diving board.”

But since then, Harmon said, it has become a gem of Oak Park. It also outlasted that diving platform, which was demolished this spring.

Park District of Oak Park Board of Commissioners President Sandy Lentz echoed Harmon’s comments.

“We have been blessed with people who saw the possibility in this place,” she said. “And Sun Club folks, I can’t thank them enough. “

Lentz also said that she was impressed with how many Oak Parkers signed on to the pledge drive, 

“From Aug. 2 to Nov. 27, we received 1025 pledges,” she said. “Many people didn’t pledge because they were already doing [environmentally friendly things], so getting 1,000 pledges was a really impressive thing.”

And one thing is certain, she said.

“We are no longer a hidden gem,” Lentz said. “This place gets more visitors than, I think, any other feature in our district.”

Stacy Mehlhoff, Sun Club’s executive director, said she was pleased to see the response to the pledge drive, saying that it “warms [her] heart” to see a community that takes sustainability so seriously. 

And she was pleased with the improvements, noting that reusing rainwater is better for plants than the processed water that had to be treated to be fit for human usage.

Conservatory ‘Friends’ hire new executive director

The Friends of the Oak Park Conservatory, the nonprofit group whose mission is “to promote community interest in the Oak Park Conservatory, to offer educational and recreational opportunities, and to support projects that benefit the conservatory,” has named Judy Klem as its new executive director. 

She succeeds Beth Cheng, who served as the nonprofit’s executive director for the last eight years.

The Friends said in a press release that Klem arrives as the nonprofit develops a new strategic plan for “volunteer program enhancement, funding development, fiscal resilience, educational programming strategy, and relationship building.”

Klem runs her own marketing consulting business called Strategy Scene and has led community engagement efforts for the Interfaith Green Network, Oak Park-River Forest Food Pantry, Sugar Beet Food Co-op, and others.

Klem said in a telephone interview that the conservatory is a major asset in Oak Park, “but not enough people know about it.”

“So that creates a lot of opportunity for someone like me to come in and elevate the mission of the organization,” she said.

The Friends organization, she said, has an “amazing and active board” working to raise funds for the conservatory and provide more engagement opportunities.

Klem noted that the conservatory is celebrating its 90th birthday, but it almost closed about three decades ago, when the Friends organization was established to save it.

The conservatory holds workshops and classes, she said, that aim to connect residents and those in the area with nature.

“I want people to be champions of the earth and carry on their experience from what they’ve learned from the conservatory,” Klem said.

Timothy Inklebarger

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Igor Studenkov

Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Growing Community Media newspapers in 2012, then from 2015...

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