Fern Room, Garfield Park Conservatory, 1908


Natural Parks & Gardens
By Jens Jensen as told to Ragna Eskil




Speaking of Garfield Park brings to mind the Garfield Park Conservatory. There had been small conservatories in this park and in Douglas and Humblodt parks, and it required a lot of money to maintain and keep them in repair; also there was necessarily a great deal of duplication in the plant life they contained. I conceived the notion of putting all three conservatories under one roof, and since this was Chicago and Chicago is accustomed to doing things on a big scale, I thought while we were about it, we might as well build the largest publicly owned conservatory under one roof in the world. The park board appropriated $275,000-I had wanted a larger sum for a larger building, but didn't get it-and in 1907 the conservatory was completed. Many persons called it Jensen's folly; they predicted that the glass wouldn't hold up in a building of such size, that a windstorm would smash it, that it couldn't be heated. But the conservatory is still there, it is still the largest in the world under one roof; last year more than a half million people visited it-there were more than 27,000 visitors on one day-and the value of the plants in it was estimated in the annual report at nearly $1,000,000. And it is still one of the sights of Chicago.

Perhaps it might be interesting to tell an incident in connection with the designing of the palm and fern rooms, which face the main entrance. My idea in the first room was to show an idealized tropical landscape, and in the second room an idealized swamp scene. The first room was not so hard to arrange, but in the fern room we encountered difficulties. Since Chicago is in the prairie country, I wanted this to have the feeling of the prairie, and we employed stratified rock for the ferns to grow in. For the end of the room I designed a prairie rapids and a prairie waterfall. When the workman who was to build the waterfall had finished it, he expected me to praise him, but I shook my head. I said he was thinking of an abrupt mountain cascade, but here on the prairie we must have a fall that tinkled gently as it made its descent. he tried and tried again, but every day I said, "No, you haven't it yet."

Finally he said, "I can't do it any better." I made no comment, but asked him if he could play Mendelssohn's Spring Song. He looked at me in a startled way and answered, "No." I asked, "Can your wife play it?" "No." "Do you know anyone who can play it for you?" He thought a moment and then said they had a friend who was a good pianist. "Well, " I said, "you go over to her house tonight and ask her to play the Spring Song over and over for you."

This is what I heard later. He has gone home that evening, and the first thing he said to his wife was, "Jensen's gone cracked. He has so much work to do that it has at last affected his head." She asked what made him talk so, and he repeated the conversation. She considered a while, and then she said, "Maybe he meant something by it. Anyway, we'll go over to Minna tonight, and ask her to play." So they did, and the friend played the spring song for them four times. then he jumped up, exclaiming, "Now I know what Jensen meant." And the next time I came, he stood to one side, smiling proudly. "Ah," I said, "you have heard the Spring Song. And the water tinkled gently from ledge to ledge, as it should in prairie country.

Those who have been in the conservatory may remember the plain green slope of moss that lies between the brook and the waterfall. The contour of that slope was the most difficult small thing that I have ever done. I wanted to give the feeling of greater depth to the room. I t took me six months before I got it so that it satisfied me, but there isn't a line of it that has been changes since.

Used with permission of The Saturday Evening Post; March 8, 1930 (Renewed).