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Regenstein Greenhouse

Chicago Botanic Garden, Glencoe

getaway-chicago logoWhat do Barnes, Ickes, Regenstein and Simonds (sounds like a law firm) have in common? The answer is sandwiched between the Edens Expressway and Green Bay Road and just off Lake Cook Road in Glencoe, Illinois. There within an area of over 350 acres lies one of Chicago’s best kept secrets (if 46,000 members and almost one million visitors per year constitutes a secret), The Chicago Botanic Garden and its remarkable Regenstein Education Center.

Located at the northern tip of the Skokie Lagoons, The Chicago Botanic Garden (like much of Chicago) began as a swamp (or bog, to be more dignified!). Not until the Great Depression of the 1930’s when the Civilian Conservation Corps literally dug the Lagoons by hand did this mosquito infested geographical depression start to be something other than a nuisance.cgb1 When completed in 1942 the Lagoon project stretched from Willow Road on the south to Lake Cook Road on the north and consisted of 190 acres of water in seven lagoons devoted to recreational fishing and boating (no motors). Frequently cited as the largest C.C.C. project in the nation, Winnetka resident, Harold L. Ickes (1874-1952),  Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Secretary of the Interior (1933-1946) and member of the C.C.C. Advisory Council, is credited with the acquisition of the Skokie Lagoons project. The Getaway Guys think this could be a good suburban legend.

Fast forward to 1965 when the Chicago Horticultural Society finally gets a home and John O. Simonds (1913-2005), the innovative landscape architect begins to carve up the landscape between Lake Cook and Dundee Roads.  Sculpting 300,000 cubic yards of top soil and a million yards of clay into a giant earthwork of nine islands and 60 acres of water, the first phase of an evolutionary Chicago Botanic Garden was completed by 1968. Eight years later, in 1976, another milestone in its evolution was added to the CBG’s growing infrastructure when the $5,000,000 Education Center was dedicated. Designed by Edward Larrabee Barnes (1915-2004), the very versatile Education Center presented a striking architectural profile against a then nascent backdrop of trees and other vegetation. Thirty years later, in 2007, the Center is almost obliterated by growth and darn near impossible to photograph. Some folks must be doing their jobs!

cgb2While on respective family outings during the 1980s and early 90s, Neil and Alan remember the Education Center as an amalgam of services. Sort of an oriental bazaar without the smells (only after the restaurant moved to the Gateway Center in 1993). Add Regenstein and numerous others into the equation. With imaginative thinking, generous funding and hard work, the Education Center becomes the Regenstein Center. Renamed for Joseph Regenstein, Jr. (1924-1999), the 1976 structure designed by Barnes morphs into an intellectual delight catering to all the senses. With their mind boggling array of exotic plants, the Arid, Temperate and Tropical  greenhouses continue to be a vital visual and olfactory sensation on an intimate scale, but The Lenhardt Library emerges from its corner confines to become a major player in a much larger and more centrally located facility. With a substantial collection of books and periodicals (approximately 25,000 titles) devoted to (guess what?) plants and gardens, and a state of the art facility for the study and storage of a rare books collection (3,000) acquired in 2002 from the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, the enlarged Lenhardt serves the needs of about 11,000 visitors a year and is open to the public. With enhanced sight lines of the gardens beyond, the library offers a cozy retreat in winter and a refreshing breath of cool air in the summer, not to mention some atomic reading matter.

cgb3The Regenstein Center also serves as a venue for some pretty zoomy plant shows and intriguing art exhibitions during the year: the Northern Illinois Gesneriad Society Show & Sale, the Illinois Orchid Society Spring Show & Sale, the Midwest Daffodil Society Show, the Central States Dahlia Society Sale and the North Shore Iris & Daylily Society Show & Sale, to name just some. Over the years the Botanic Garden has organized and/or exhibited some interesting art exhibitions, which for obvious reasons are usually related to plant life or gardens. In 2007 two shows of interest were displayed: “ Flowering Amazon,” watercolors by Margaret Mee, and “Slowlife,” a documentary of plants growing in slow motion. Both were beautifully presented in the Joutras Gallery just beyond Nichols Hall. Those familiar with the likes and dislikes of the Getaway Guys will be able to guess who liked what best. Alan (of course) liked the slow-mo stuff (like watching grass grow in Neil’s opinion) and Neil dug the Amazonian watercolors (too wishy-washy for Alan). Regrettably for 2008 there won’t be a major art show presented in the Regenstein Center. However, there will be four intimate exhibits from the Rare Books Collection in Lenhardt Library: “The Language of Flowers,” “Temple of Flora,” “Mushrooms,” and “Children’s Books.” In lieu of a  new art exhibition the Regenstein will recycle portions of a 2003 exhibition called “In Search of Paradise; Great Gardens of the World,” a wonderful series of large photographs depicting magnificent gardens around the world and commissioned by the Botanic Garden some years ago.

cgb4The Chicago Botanic Garden is a place for all seasons and all peoples, big and small. It’s a family friendly joint with lots of stuff to see and do. To boot, it offers a comprehensive education program fit for all -- from enjoyable short courses to joint graduate degree programs.  For thorough descriptions of all that the garden has to offer, go to

Nobody goes away angry, especially since admission is free.  However, if you come by car, parking can cost an arm and a leg unless you’re a member, or unless you’re an Alan-type who often bikes in for free. (Still, even Alan agrees that a Family Membership doesn’t cost half of what it should -- $75.) On summer weekends the parking lot can be packed and the place overrun with wedding parties being photographed, but away from the Gateway and Regenstein Centers the gardens are surprisingly uninhabited and open to leisurely introspection.  Janurary 2008

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