Chicago for Gardeners

Urban Oases and Millennium Park

Dateline October 2015. Susan and I had both read Erik Larson’s absolutely spellbinding book, The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair that changed America. Our curiosity was piqued. A visit to Chicago was in order.

Administration Building in the White City

Administration Building in the White City

The book chronicles late 19th century Chicago and the turbulent race to create a World’s Fair in 1893 that would put Chicago over the top in the eyes of the world.

The White City, of course, is the Fair; the Devil is an archetype serial killer who fed on the hustle-bustle of the Fair.

Now, why in the world do I bring up this book in a gardening post?

Court of honor with statue of liberty

Court of Honor with Statue of  the Republic

Because Frederick Law Olmsted of Central Park fame designed the Exposition’s landscape? Well, no. Unfortunately, most of what he did has been obliterated (though Jackson Park, the Wooded Island, and Osaka Gardens, features of the fair, are now going through major rehab, with a completion date of 2017, and the American Institute of Architects considers Wooded Island one of 150 great places in Illinois.)

Pen-and-ink view from the obelisk by Louis Griffith

Pen-and-ink view from the obelisk by Louis Griffith

Because we stayed at the old Congress Plaza Hotel, said to be haunted, where the Devil snared victims? Curiously, we never thought about the connection. We booked the hotel because it was inexpensive and convenient: where Michigan meets Congress.

Because the vision that Chicago could eventually live up to its founding motto, “urbs in horto,” or “City in a Garden” was inspired by this World’s Fair? Yes! The Exposition of 1893 was a watershed in city planning that took fire across the country.

Art Institute of Chicago, 1914, one of two buildings remaining from the fair. Note the barren landscape

Art Institute of Chicago, 1914, one of two buildings remaining from the fair. Note the barren landscape

Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood. Daniel H. Burnham, Director of Works, World’s Columbian Exposition, 1893. Burnham married himself to his credo. He committed years to bringing about an Exposition that dazzled the world. The magic of the White City stretched imaginations and inspired visions of what cities could look like.

Skyscrapers rise above the gardens in Millennium Park

Skyscrapers rise above gardens in Millennium Park

Instead of soot and noise, planners and people began to dream of light and beauty in cityscapes. A City Beautiful movement sprang up, and Daniel Burnham designed a plan for Chicago that would replace railroad sidings and stockyards with a ribbon of lake shore parks for people — concert goers, baseball fans, art lovers, ice skaters, strollers and picnickers, and gardeners, too. Today, there are 570 parks in Chicago covering 8,000 acres.

Panicle hydrangeas, sweet potato vines, grasses and flowering trees punctuate the islands along Michigan Ave

Panicle hydrangeas and flowering trees, anchor grasses, perennials, annuals in island beds along Michigan Ave

We wondered what we’d see in October. We stepped out of our hotel on to Michigan Avenue, just minutes from the Chicago Art Institute.

Despite risk of attack by brigades of revved motors, we had to stop and photograph exuberant islands of plants dividing the grand boulevard, inspired, we learned later, by the City Beautiful movement.

Plant palettes range from grasses to exotics, hedges to hydrangeas.

Curb appeal for skyscrapers: paniculata hydrangeas and cotoneaster

Curb appeal for skyscrapers: paniculata hydrangeas and cotoneaster

We would see these combinations repeated in oases across the city, lovely garden islands punctuating concrete.

Blooms on paniculata hydrangeas, a staple in these gardens, were muted now, but tropicals were bold and flambuoyant.
We guessed we would see a lot.

(After an all-day marathon in the Art Institute.)

Evergreen hedges acts as foils for bright herbaceous plants

Evergreen hedges acts as foils for bright herbaceous plants in Millennium Park

We drifted into Millennium Park, a slice of Grant Park, and what a slice! We were drawn not so much by tourist imperative, but by its inviting design and lovely plantings.

It’s the newest and most visited addition to the lake shore greenbelt, and it’s hard to believe it tops a 2,000-car parking garage, which, in turn, is stacked above Illinois Central railroad lines and a Meta station. So, Chicagoans didn’t eliminate railroads along the lake shore. They just hid them, along with the memories of industrial wastelands that sullied once pristine wetlands.

An island in the park

An island in the park

This is a classy park. It should be. Fully half of the roughly 500 mill it cost came from Chicago biggies: the McCormick Foundation, Boeing, Chase, Wrigley, the Hyatt Hotels family and the Crown Family.

There were 91 million-dollar-plus donors, including McDonald’s, AT&T and BP. Here is an outstanding example of public-private partnership that worked despite fits of acrimony and charges of cronyism.

The Bean

The Bean

Anchoring the north end of the park is the mammoth, ultra modern, ultra popular Pritzker amphitheatre, a complex structure of steel plates arcing over a manicured playground for concert goers.

Walk south a few minutes and you come to The Bean. It’s so beloved by Chicagoans that its formal name, Cloud Gate, is rarely heard. What fun!

It’s a gathering place for tourists and anyone else who wants to see the city – and themselves – reflected in — a gigantic bean (or cloud) of highly polished steel plates.

Classicism mingles with modern and whimsical in this park

Classicism mingles with modern and whimsical in this park

Then there is Crown Fountain, more fun: two fifty-foot towers of streaming water separated by a long narrow pool that invites toe-dabbling in nice weather.

Giant videos on the towers paint glowing portraits of Chicago residents while water cascades.

Some crafty humor here. If you are patient, you will see lips pucker and spit before one image dissolves and another appears.

CGmpstatYes, lots of steel and stone and pavement here. But it’s the landscaping that carries the park. More than a strategic grace note to surrounding structure, the planting pulls us along.

Without intruding, it flows and unites, imperceptibly leads us, and finally, invites us to set a spell, guiltless, in a busy city.

For more about our visit to Chicago, see our previous post, Under the Garden Spade, and our pages in Great Gardens: Chicago: Botanic Garden and Chicago: Lurie Garden.

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