The Last Word - September 2020
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Lincoln Park Conservatory

By Emily Tipping

In this pandemic time, I've been thinking a lot about how lucky I am to live where I have easy access to the outdoors.

And I am even more grateful, knowing that 100 million people in the United States do not live within a 10-minute walk of a park. In my almost 48 years, I have always had greenspace within an easy walk from my home. And more, for the most part, the neighborhoods I grew up in and most of the neighborhoods I've occupied as an adult, have generally been tree-filled and green.

The exception was Chicago. In the six years I lived in the city, I had to walk to find nature. (Rats in the alley don't count.) And for most of those walks, I pointed my toes toward the lakefront. There were closer parks, but they were smaller and more activity-filled.

The walk to the lake wasn't short, but I could get to Lincoln Park in about 30 minutes on foot. And while I often simply sat by the lake and watched the water before walking back home again, sometimes I was drawn into the Conservatory.

Constructed in the 1890s, the Conservatory was designed by Joseph Lyman Silsbee and M.E. Bell, and aimed to provide a more expansive space for plants, as such places were becoming more and more popular at that time. The structure they designed included palm, fernery, orchid and show houses, and was called a "paradise under glass."

Today, the Lincoln Park Conservatory still is home to the Palm House, Fern Room, Orchid House and Show House, which is home to the facility's annual flower shows. Outside the Victorian-era glass house is one of the oldest public gardens in Chicago, designed and planted in the 1870s.

Though it is currently closed to the public due to COVID-19 restrictions, the conservatory has provided a respite from city life for more than 100 years to citizens of Chicago. And, like the nearby Lincoln Park Zoo, admission is free, which makes it accessible to anyone who can get there, whether on foot, bike or bus.

According to the Trust for Public Land's ParkScore Index, Chicago ranks No. 10 in the country, and it scores high in terms of access to parks, with 98% of Chicago's residents living within a 10-minute walk of a park. (The national average is 55%.)

Living in the city, I came to deeply appreciate the blast of oxygen-saturated, humid air that hits you as you walk into the Conservatory. As all of my houseplants withered away from lack of sunlight, it gave me a place to luxuriate in green and growing things. RM