Beauty inside

“We attract you with beauty”

Humanity’s first home was a garden. And while the biblical Eden is no longer available to wander around, alas, the Chicago Botanic Garden is well with us.

I’ve visited hundreds of times – the place has kept my wife and I sane during COVID. While encouraging people to visit is not in our selfish interest – the crowds – going there at least once is certainly in yours.

Particularly now. This summer, the garden celebrates its 50th anniversary, showcasing 10 major commissioned outdoor works of art, and the second half of August could be the perfect time to explore a place I often describe as ‘paradise’. (“Edenic” just doesn’t come off the tongue.)

Half the size of New York’s Central Park – 385 acres – the Chicago Botanic Garden isn’t actually in Chicago, but in Glencoe, immediately east of the Edens Expressway between Lake Cook and Dundee Roads.

Visitors are led through the wide range of natural habitats, from the formal English walled garden to the meadow adorned with wildflowers, from a carefully cultivated Japanese island garden, with tea room, to a walk in the woods under oak trees imposing where only the marked path lets you know you are not in the virgin forest.

“The Rookery,” by North Carolina artist Patrick Dougherty, is one of 10 works of art commissioned by the Chicago Botanic Garden to celebrate the 50th anniversary of its opening.

There are vegetable gardens and groves of birch trees, water lilies and desert cacti. Saw deer, otters and on one memorable occasion a hooded merganser duck. One of the joys is changing scale and perspective, looking up from a close examination of a magnificent lilly to gaze across the lagoon at a bridge in the distance, flanked by weeping willows.

The place is so big that we recently spent an hour walking there and never went inside, we just walked around the perimeter.

One of the most amazing things about the Botanical Garden is that no matter how often we visit, and we often go three times a week, it’s always fresh, new, interesting, because of the changing light at different times of the day, seasons of the year, growth and dieback of plants, annual shows – orchids, pumpkins, a light show at Christmas. My wife and I visit in February when it is 20 degrees as the garden is beautiful in the snow.

Although summer is the best. As impressive as the plants are – thousands of varieties of flowers, shrubs, trees, ferns – another big part of the garden experience is the diversity of people by your side: all ages, races, languages , ethnicities, walking together in harmony, enhancing the Eden effect.

Hasidic couples on first dates, gravely conversing on benches. Multigenerational Muslim Families; elderly asian men with hands clasped behind their backs. Snippets of conversation in Spanish, Polish and Urdu. Visitors often mark milestones, so they’re dressed for weddings, quinceañeras, balls, church, or, my favorite, just for a friend to take a photo, capturing that classic immigrant moment: the photo i will be fine here mom send them home to Bulgaria, Pakistan or Chad.


Chicago Botanic Garden President and CEO Jean Franczyk explores Patrick Doughterty’s ‘The Rookery’, one of 10 large-scale works of art commissioned to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Glencoe’s hoard. They remain on display until the end of September.

I stopped last week to hang out with the CEO, Jean Franczyk. The place was unusually crowded for a Tuesday. What is it, free day? I wondered, my old joke, and indeed it was.

Admission isn’t cheap — around $60 for a family of four — but buying a pass is a bargain; go three times, and you’re in the dark. There are at least two free days per month (the next one is mid-September). Active duty military and teachers are admitted free.

Franczyk began by pointing out the first anniversary artwork to welcome visitors, literally above their heads: “Hebrarium”, a “painting in the air” by British artist Rebecca Louise Law, created from of 10,000 flowers collected from the garden for a year and carefully dried, then hung on the copper wire from the ceiling at the entrance to the visitor center.

“These are the first room installations she has ever done where all the materials are collected from the site,” Franczyk said. “It changes with the light, it moves with the people. It is a very beautiful piece. »

I won’t criticize the 10 works of art – it’s natural to like some more than others – except to note that you have to sink far enough into the garden to lay eyes on Patrick Dougherty’s “The Rookery”, which I nicknamed the wicker castle. Very whimsical.

You would think that an institution based on gardening and botanical beauty might not fare well in the turmoil of the 21st century. But 50 years later, the Botanical Garden is stronger than ever, with a staff of 667, including two dozen scientists, 59,000 members and more than a million visitors a year.

The Shida Evaluation Garden, opened last Thanksgiving, is an enchanting expanse of whitewashed wooden peristyles and tunnels covered in crabapple trees. They are currently renovating the entrance and adding a picnic clearing to replace the tables hitherto exiled to the parking lot.

Progress has been slowed by the problems facing everyone else. “The supply chain has been a problem – problems with paint. Problems with steel… problems with cement,” laughed Franczyk. The electric trams ordered are in a container somewhere across the world.

None of this affects the glorious abundance on display everywhere.

“Nature is in demand,” Franczyk said. “People crave outdoor space. They get respite and relief. I like to say that you come to a place like the garden, we attract you with beauty, we develop a love for what you see. It becomes a concern and a concern on your part, and you are then motivated to protect the plants and protect the planet while making you feel better because you have spent time outdoors. So good for people, good for the planet.

I don’t have room for a lot of history, but the reason for creating the garden was simple: Chicago didn’t have one.

“From every major city in the country,” said Chicago Horticulture Society president WAP Pullman, the driving force behind the garden’s creation. “Chicago doesn’t have a major horticultural institution dedicated to promoting gardening as a way of life.”

So Pullman – great-nephew of George Pullman, king of wagons, great-grandson of detective agency founder Allan Pinkerton, and obviously a man who knew how to get things done – set out to build one, convincing the Cook County Forest Preserve to sign a 40-year lease on 300 acres of ‘Glencoe Swamp’, part of the Skokie Lagoons, polluted by sewage from the Clavey Road sewage treatment plant .

He first had to raise $1 million to show he was serious, so he contacted companies and sold jars of homemade parsley jam.

“We have to think 50 years ahead,” Pullman said.


Most visitors never see it, but nestled at the south end of the Chicago Botanical Garden is the Construction Building, one of two garden structures designed by Harry Weese. A nearby administration building, designed by Arthur Nolan, is certainly a tribute to Weese’s triangular work.

Landscaping began in 1966 – beloved Chicago architect Harry Weese played a role in the initial design, and an otherwise nondescript maintenance facility in the far south bears his triangular trademark . Planting began in the spring of 1967. By the end of 1972 there were 20,000 plants and trees, a model vegetable garden, 60 acres of lagoons, and a nature trail for the blind.

The Botanic Garden is still particularly welcoming to people with disabilities, of whom there were numbers on Tuesday, with an enabling garden offering wheelchair-height planters and special ranges of plants to be smelled or touched.

“We think it will be magnificent,” Pullman said foresightedly to Cook County Council on January 27, 1965, when they turned over the land. “We fully intend to make sure that happens.”

Mission accomplished.


You can’t have a Chicago Botanical Garden story without flowers. In addition to promoting beauty, the garden sponsors scientific and educational work and helps preserve endangered plants.