Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Lincoln Park Conservatory

It can be easily argued that Chicago's Lincoln Park Conservatory is Joseph Silsbee’s best-known and possibly most appreciated building.  Open to the public and located in a prominent site in popular Lincoln Park, the conservatory is made up of several buildings built over time.  Authorship of all of the buildings that make up the conservatory is difficult to determine but since Silsbee began designing structures for the Lincoln Park Commissioners as early as 1886, it is likely he was the architect for all of the nineteenth century structures.  It should also be noted that former Federal Government architect, Mifflin E. Bell is also sometimes associated with the design yet a vast majority of archival references for permits, bidding, or payment fail to mention his name.
The primary structure was announced in 1890 and included the large Palm House, display room to the north and Orchid House to the west of that.  These structures were completed in time for the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 and construction on the Fern Room, between the Orchid House and the Palm House began soon after.  Propagation houses extend to the north and east of the structure.  The structural frame of the building was fabricated and erected by the King Iron Bridge & Manufacturing Company of Cleveland, Ohio.  Finishing touches on painting the structure were completed in 1895.  

It is an exotic building, drawing visual references from Moorish and English Gothic architecture.  The appearance is appropriate as it was constructed to hold a collection of exotic plants brought from all parts of the world.  Precedents for similar contemporary buildings could be found in England and in other major American cities. The S-curved roof, seen in many of Silsbee’s buildings, is used on a grand scale and creates a unique cathedral-like interior.

The mammoth steel frame, covered in glass, sits on a concrete foundation clad in boulders.  The use of large boulders corresponds to Silsbee’s other work of the period and specifically to structures he designed elsewhere in the park.  The conservatory sat on a large raised plaza in the park, accessed by a series of broad steps to the west and south.  To the south, the stairs cascaded down to large flower gardens, still planted today.

Though the conservatory is a wonder, it is but a shadow of its former self.  Iron columns show years of wear and deterioration.  The exterior of the structure, particularly the main entry, suffers in appearance from unsympathetic additions that were tacked on over the years.  Plans for renovation exist but they currently do not entail returning the structure to any semblance of the architect’s original vision.  
Silsbee's original rendering from the "Inland Architect".

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