Rediscovering secret Chicago parks. Oases designed for us by some of the greatest landscape architects of all time.
Living in Chicago, it’s hard to forget that the city is famous for its’ architecture. Those who imagined and reimagined the landscape were visionaries, superstar architects and designers, such as William Le Baron Jenney, Louis Sullivan, Bruce Graham, William Holabird, and of course, Frank Lloyd Wright. These luminaries made their mark throughout the city. Their vision around us at every turn.
But, we are also a city of parks. I mean, our motto is literally, “City in a Garden,” translated from the Latin, “Urbo Hurti.” And we seem to be guided by it. With a park system made up of an astounding 8,000 acres of open space, wherever you are, an oasis of spectacular beauty and history is never far away.
Chicago has long been on the forefront of landscape architecture. From Jen Jensen’s Prairie-era masterpieces, Frederick Law Olmsted’s iconic lakefront parks, and Daniel Burnham’s masterful city planning, to prolific designers such as Alfred Caldwell and modernist Dan Kiley, our pedigree is long. So, while we are known for being the birthplace of the skyscraper, it’s our city’s park system that is quietly heralded as one of America’s greatest.
It wasn’t always this way. At first we had the motto, but no parks to speak of.
Necessity is the mother of invention. A quick history –
Not wanting to be overshadowed by the creation of New York’s Central Park, it was in the mid 1800s’ when a group of visionary citizens rallied for the creation of Chicago’s first parks, starting with Lincoln. It was then, in late 1800’s, that the idea of neighborhood parks started to take hold. It was a time of great industrial growth and wealth in the city, along with extreme poverty, families living in overrun and dilapidated tenement houses. These smaller parks were born in large part to serve social purposes, like providing fresh milk, public playgrounds for children to play, or as a place to get a hot meal. They were meant to transform marginalized areas into beacons of civility. Jen Jensen, along with Jane Addams, founder of the Hull House, and other influencers of the time, championed for these public spaces, and went on to identify a series of forest preserves’ across western Chicago that were dedicated to the creation of our first neighborhood parks. They encircled the city in a green band and would come to be known as the Emerald Necklace.
As the 20th century unfolded, Jen Jensen designed four massive neighborhood parks; Garfield Park, Humboldt Park, Douglas Park and Columbus Park, while Alfred Caldwell designed The Lily Pond and Dan Kiley followed in the 1960’s with more formal gardens, such as The South Garden. One thing they all valued, was preservation and conservation of the land, and most important, that all citizens had a place to play, rest, meet and organize in an open green space. They felt it was the rights of all citizens to enjoy the city’s parks- and enjoy we do –
Bennett Park, One Bennett Park. Related Realty
And now in 2018, with a resurgence in landscape architecture around the city, comes a new generation of world-class designers, like Michael Van Valkenburgh, Carol Ross Barney and Jeanne Gang, helping to shape a Chicago of the future. They are innovative and driven by similar values as Olmsted, Jensen, Caldwell and Kiley before them, designing urban parks and streetscapes, urban trails and playground with an eye towards making our city’s ecosystems healthier and more biodiverse.
– Michael Van Valkenburgh , Designer, One Bennett Park
Take a pause between your busy day, amid the trees and gardens of these unique public spaces, gifted to us by our predecessors. It will surely transform your day.
THE LILY POOL
Landscape Design by Alfred Caldwell
The sounds of birds singing and waterfalls breaking is just the kind of respite you need from a busy day. Nestled away in Lincoln Park, The Lily Pool is an almost otherworldly space in the middle of the concrete jungle. It was designed in the late 1930’s by Alfred Caldwell. He envisioned a refuge from the city, intending it to resemble “a river meandering through a great Midwestern prairie.” And it does. It remains one of the best examples of prairie-style landscape architecture which was what Caldwell intended. He was inspired by Jen Jensen’s use of the environment. His understanding of sky, the wind, the movement of water and seasons. Chicagoans flocked to the gardens for decades, which eventually took a toll on the space. Caldwell visited near the end of his life. The park, for which, at one time had cashed in his own $5,000 life insurance policy for a measly $250 in order to pay for the gardens much needed perennials, had fallen into deep despair and flowers grew no more. He declared, “It is a dead world.” But with the support of citizens, environmentalists and birdwatchers, artists and the like, The Lily Pool was refurbished in 2000. It is now deemed a National Historic Landmark and Chicago Historical Landmark status.
The Lily Pool, Lincoln Park
The Lily Pool, Lincoln Park
125 W Fullerton Pkwy
A garden hideaway in the heart of Chicago. As the designer of the celebrated Maggie Daley Park and The 606 Trail in Chicago and Brooklyn Bridge Park in New York City, world-renowned landscape architect, Michael Van Valkenburgh, appreciates how a park can truly be an escape within a city. He appreciates how a park can truly be “an escape within the city.” At Bennett Park, the idyllic gardens sit alongside two dog runs, meandering pathways, and steps leading to a shady grove. A sense of privacy is ensured with a frame of trees surrounding the park’s outer edge, yet the center of the park, which welcomes the sun, is bright and open. At the core of the park is what Van Valkenburgh calls a “lawn bowl”— an open bowl ringed with small flowering trees that get progressively larger and taller. It’s the perfect gathering place in the center of the 1.7 acre park. This magical area is the perfect place for children. “They can sit under the trees or run freely in this small world,” he says. Van Valkenburgh designed the park so that it will evolve through the seasons, with some trees maximizing their color each fall and others retaining their greenery throughout the year. As a result, the park will maintain a sense of life all year long as the beating heart at the center of One Bennett Park and the broader Streeterville neighborhood.
THE GARDEN OF THE PHOENIX
Landscape Design by Frederick Law Olmsted
There is peace to be found in the lush, Garden of the Phoenix, nestled away on Jackson Parks’ Wooded Island, a true escape in the belly of the city. There is a feeling of otherworldliness in this hidden park, as you walk the gravel paths that wind through several acres of greenery. Although, this feeling is not just due though to the garden’s unique beauty, its’ landscape full of azalea trees, waterfalls, or its intelligent landscape design, which deliberately and perfectly obscures all sight of industry and commerce lurking nearby. But it is also the enormous history of the garden, that has twisted and turned, right along with our own for over a century. The parks website provides a fantastic timeline and history of the park, but it was in the 1930’s that the Japanese Emperor gifted the Phoenix pavilion to the city, reflecting his high hopes for greater understanding and a wish to showcase their nations heritage. Today, Yoko Ono’s Sky Landing sculpture conceived as a call for peace and respect among nations, stands on the spot of the original pavilion.
The Garden of the Phoenix
The Garden of the Phoenix, Jackson Park
South Cornell Drive
THE MONTROSE BIRD SANCTUARY
Original Landscape Designed by Alfred Caldwell
Think of it like a stop-over point while travelling the world, a logical landing place for exhausted songbirds. Resting quietly on the shores of Lake Michigan, the Montrose Bird Sanctuary is home to over 300 species of birds and is considered the best bird watching spot in all of Illinois. The Great Lakes are an important area for migratory birds, the open water provides a resting point for them as they travel from one continent to the next. While there are other points in Chicago that are active during spring and fall migrations, it is Montrose Bird Sanctuary, nicknamed “Magic Hedge,” that stands above the rest. In the mid-1930s, Alfred Caldwell created a plan for the area that conveyed what he called a “naturalistic effect” with sweeping meadow spaces and layered native plant materials emphasizing the long view. In the late 1990s, the Chicago Park District undertook an expansion of the habitat for birds while retaining the historic integrity of what was intended, hundreds of trees and shrubs were planted. Thirty years later, this sanctuary is truly well worth discovering for yourself – bird lover or not.
Seagull, Montrose Beach at sunset.
THE SOUTH GARDEN
Landscape Design by Dan Kiley
There is a timeless, simple quality to the South Garden, situated on top of a parking garage, along the Art Institute of Chicago on Michigan Avenue. The honey locust trees hang low, providing the perfect shade for your lunch break, or just to take a quick break from it all. The South Garden was designed and constructed by Dan Kiley between 1962 and 1967. Kiley is considered one of the most influential Modernist landscape architects of the 20th century, and the South Garden one of best commissioned pieces. Kiley believed that man was a “part of nature not separate from it.” Rather than forcing order into the landscape, he ignored obvious man-made boundaries. Nowhere is it any more clear than in The South Garden, which features The Fountain of the Great Lakes, a sculptural fountain from Lorado Taft, created in 1913. It is the centerpiece of the space and an “allegorical sculpture in which the five women are arranged so that the water flows through them in the same way the water passes through the five Great Lakes.”
The Fountain of the Great Lakes, by Lorado Taft – The South Garden, Art Institute of Chicago