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.