Making A Greenhouse "Greener"

By Kassandra Collins and Grant Paplauskas

When the Elmhurst Park District in Illinois began a $2.8-million renovation of Wilder Park Conservatory, the major challenge for the planners was blending a need for modern amenities with the desire for historical preservation.

For more than 90 years, the conservatory has served as a visual and verifiable link to the city’s history in the hearts and minds of residents. It’s where preschoolers begin a lifelong love of nature, where those same children take graduation photos on their last day of high school, and where future brides dream of having a wedding either inside the conservatory or in the surrounding gardens. Preserving places like these as touchstones for the community is often a struggle, especially when renovations and upgrades become necessary.

The conservatory and greenhouse rest on a large, sprawling parcel of parkland known as Wilder Park in central Elmhurst. The park is a gathering place for the community—the site of concerts and movies, annual Easter egg hunts, and lazy summer afternoons. The conservatory is a regional destination for horticultural study and is popular with school groups and garden clubs. Its beautiful flowers are a part of annual flower shows, and the tranquil flower garden south of the conservatory is tended by the staff throughout the year, making it a sought-after site for weddings and photographers.

In The Beginning
Wilder Park and the conservatory are tied to the history of the city itself. Indeed, the community became known as Elmhurst in 1869, and the land that now makes up the park was originally purchased and developed one year earlier.

The original owner was Seth Wadhams, founder of the Knickerbocker Ice Company. Wadhams built a home on the estate, which still stands as the Wilder Mansion—now owned and operated by the park district and rented by the community for gatherings and special events. In 1868, Wadhams also built a greenhouse for his wife Elizabeth to help her overcome her grief over the death of their son.

In 1920, the park district was founded and shortly thereafter acquired Wadhams’ property, including the greenhouse.  In 1923, plans were developed, and the district’s first capital project was approved—a 1,675-square-foot conservatory to the north of the existing greenhouse. The conservatory was constructed later that year for $6,950.The structure was state-of-the-art for the time period, featuring a lightweight steel-truss design and an elegant vestibule with a double door. Growing space increased to 4,290 square feet in 1928, when a second greenhouse was constructed that connected to the conservatory.

Since that time, the conservatory and greenhouses have served as icons for the community. The greenhouses not only provided the plants in the conservatory, but since 1993 the park district had raised native plants for transplanting to natural areas, parks, and flowerbeds throughout the district. The number of plants raised in the greenhouses has grown to nearly 12,000 each year. The conservatory has approximately 13,000 visitors a year and serves as a treasured spot for prom, wedding, holiday, and graduation photos. The structure is integral to the community, reminding residents of their local history while showcasing exotic and seasonal plant displays and contributing to horticultural education.

Failing Conditions
However, years of sun, weather, and an inability to find replacement parts took their toll. In 2010, Montgomery Smith provided a Needs Assessment Update for the conservatory and greenhouses, rating the conservatory as “good” for the structural steel and “bad to poor” for all other materials. The south greenhouse conditions were listed as “fair to poor,” and the north greenhouse had “failed” conditions. Both greenhouses had been repeatedly modified over the years, maintaining very few of the original components. With this knowledge, as well as the needs assessment, the district initiated a plan to restore the conservatory and build a new greenhouse to replace the two original structures.

Residents, however, described the conservatory as a “regional gem” that needed improvements in interior design and equipment conditions, so the district hoped to preserve the existing structure and appearance of the conservatory, but improve the experience for visitors and growers.

Chicago-based firms John Eifler & Associates and James McHugh Construction were selected to provide architectural services and construction management, respectively. Both had considerable experience working with historical-restoration projects throughout the Chicagoland area, including John Eifler & Associates’ work on Garfield Park Conservatory, and James McHugh Construction’s work on the Lyric Opera House of Chicago and Elmhurst’s very own Wilder Mansion.

Construction began in June 2013 with the intention of paying tribute to the conservatory’s 1923 appearance and design while upgrading the structure to modern standards. To return the building to its past splendor, attention to detail was the key. The conservatory’s structural steel was cleaned, repaired, and repainted to its original beauty. The historic koi pond, waterfall, and original rock sculpture that had delighted visitors for decades were carefully restored. Concrete pathways were hand-tooled to re-create the original decorative floor pattern, antique bronze light fixtures were selected, and windows and doors were custom-made to maintain historical character.

Sustainable Improvements
By focusing on sustainable improvements for a long-lasting positive impact, the district hoped to improve growing conditions and the visitor experience. Renovations, such as movable thermal-heat curtains, insulated glass, and a polycarbonate roof on the greenhouse, emphasized energy efficiency. A “weather vestibule” at the original entry and automatic temperature controls were installed to improve temperature consistency and reduce energy loss. To access the entire facility, an ADA-accessible vestibule was constructed to connect the conservatory and the greenhouse.

The project began in summer 2013 and was successfully completed in the winter of 2014. Through strategic planning, a $1.84-million grant provided by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, and reserves from tax funds, the district was able to restore the conservatory complex without additional tax support from residents. Residents were enthusiastic about the project, and charitable donations provided unique additions to the conservatory, including a garden kaleidoscope and energy-efficient LED lighting.

Hundreds of residents attended a public ceremony and dedication in April 2014. The conservatory holds a long history with Elmhurst, from its early days as a private greenhouse, its employ as the district’s first capital project, and its current use as an educational resource, a growing space, and a beautiful location to spend the day. A cherished facility has been brought back to life and has secured a spot in history for decades to come. 

Kassandra Collins is the Communications & Content Editor for the Elmhurst Park District in Elmhurst, Ill.

Grant Paplauskas is the Communications Manager for the Elmhurst Park District in Elmhurst, Ill. Reach him at