New glass and a new outlook in Garfield Park

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It sounds like something out of a Gothic novel. Golfball-sized hail falls in the night and blasts football-sized holes in the delicate glass roof covering a storied, turn-of-the-last-century indoor garden.

Or maybe it's just a new twist on an old saw: People who run glass houses shouldn't encounter hailstones.

But the June 2011 storm that blew in from the east and devastated Garfield Park Conservatory has brought surprising blessings that are becoming easier to see as the $15 million, three-plus-year restoration project enters its final phase.

In fact, jokes Mary Eysenbach, some frozen rain chunks wouldn't be such a bad thing for the Chicago Park District's other antique, glass-roofed garden that she oversees, the Lincoln Park Conservatory.

"We're doing the hail dance," she says, and you wonder if it might be true.

What the storm has accomplished at Garfield, Jens Jensen's horticultural temple on the city's West Side, has been profound. So much so that the woman running the place through all the construction and inconvenience and fundraising — the one who has had to put up signs telling visitors that this room or that one is now closed, who has seen actual vacuums being used to remove glass from plant beds — uses a word you wouldn't expect.

"It's been great," says Eysenbach, the Park District's director of conservatories. "It's actually been great. It's been difficult for us to deal with, but in the long run it's done great things for the place."

She holds to this view even as, on a morning earlier this year, she bends over and plucks something shiny from the soil. "Oh, lookit," she says. "Here is some glass that's from the original roof. There's still always glass that we find."

But less and less of it. The old, single-paned glass, dating back to a replacement in 1940, more than 30 years after the building opened in 1908, was damaged by a wildly anomalous storm that just happened to hit hardest in the Garfield Park area. It has been — or is being — replaced with much stronger modern glass, double-paned, with laminate in the center to hold shards in place should there be breakage.

Currently closed to receive the new, see-through skins are the last of the rooms on the list, the Desert Room and the building's gem, the central Fern Room. The temporary, plastic ceiling in the Fern Room was scheduled to come off this week, now that the weather is warming and the delicate plants can stand the exposure.

"We did not have a way or a budget to replace these roofs," Eysenbach says, "and they needed to be done... We're going to now have new roofs. The whole conservatory will be the new glass and we'll never have to worry about a hailstorm again."

She knows this because at the time of the storm, some of the conservatory's roofs already had the laminated glass in place: "The hailstrom that hit us with those huge hailstones did not break the existing laminated glass.This new glass we're putting in has actually been hailstorm tested."

More blessings: Friends of the gardens from across the country have been motivated to reach out with letters of support or, often, checks.

"It helped us understand the love that people have for the conservatory," Eysenbach says. "Just within minutes of the news stories coming out that morning, people were on Facebook and e-mailing us, saying, 'What can I do to help?' 'Ohmigod, I love that place!' From all over the country. That's been really heartwarming for the people that work here."

Her takeway? It's good to have greenery on your side. "The public has been really understanding and accommodating. I think it's a testament to the power of flowers and plants to help people relax and enjoy themselves. It s hard to get really angry when you're next to an azalea. It's not impossible, I'll tell you, but it's hard."

"The public support was unbelievable," says Eunita Rushing, president of the Garfield Park Conservatory Alliance, the not-for-profit formed in 1998 to support the conservatory. "We're sort of removed from the location of the other large museums downtown, and sometimes you sort of feel like, 'Does anyone really know were here? Does anyone know what we do here?"

The storm was "devastating," Rushing says. "I just couldn't believe it. It looked like every piece of glass that was in the roof was on the floor. It was a nightmare, but it's really given us a new focus, re-energized us in a way we hadn't been before and given us a new hope and new vision."

Since the storm has forced a series of room closures inside the building, people are paying more attention to the neatly made-over zones out behind the conservatory, the outdoor gardens, with their ponds and walkways.

And the grand old building, designed to resemble a (gigantic) Midwestern haystack, is getting a while-you're-at-it makeover. Excuses to defer maintenance drift away when the roof is literally off and the individual rooms have become construction zones.

So during a Tribune visit in late February, shortly after the Fern Room was closed, a worker was taking advantage of ceiling-height scaffolding to redo the lights in the adjacent Show Room, which houses temporary exhibits and should be re-opening in the next week or two.

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