From the Ground Up

A History of the Chicago Botanic Garden

Today, the Chicago Botanic Garden is a flourishing environment of diverse gardens and expansive programming serving the needs of people. Visitors may find it difficult to imagine that this vibrant place was an undeveloped, primarily flooded piece of land 40 years ago. Beneath the plants, animals and facilities that now thrive here is a history of people with passion, vision and dedication that has helped Chicago become a leader in horticultural sciences and botanical gardens. 

Garden in a City

The city of Chicago was incorporated in 1837 as “Urbs in Horto,” a city in a garden.  Dedicated horticulturists ensured this moniker became a mission by promoting an understanding of and appreciation for plants.  In 1890, they founded the Chicago Horticultural Society, an organization that hosted nationally and internationally recognized flower and horticultural shows; reached out to schoolchildren in Chicago classrooms; supported Chicago’s burgeoning park system; and helped found the Forest Preserve District of Cook County (FPDCC). 

In 1963, civic leaders, including trustees of the Chicago Horticultural Society, identified a parcel of land just over 300 acres belonging to the FPDCC.  They contracted John O. Simonds, one of the nation’s premier landscape architects to re-imagine the site. Simonds diligently studied its strengths: a native woodland on the east side, a branch of the Chicago River, and lakes to the south. 

The Green Blueprint

Inspired by the Garden of Perfect Brightness, an 18th century water garden often used as a retreat for Chinese emperors, Simonds grew a vision for what would become the Chicago Botanic Garden.  Together with Geoffrey Rausch, he created a blueprint for a winding chain of lakes, nine islands with individual gardens, and an overarching “sense of place” characterizing Chicago’s natural environments. Simonds and Rausch directed that the site be used for research, collections, and education.  

The plan outlined three essential elements for inclusion at the Garden:
  • Seasonal displays paying homage to early 20th century private gardens;
  • Opportunities for innovation in horticultural collection and experimentation 
  • A living museum of landscape technique, horticultural science, and conservation 
Aside from these guidelines, the plan was left deliberately vague so generations of new designers could create individual gardens over time with respect to the natural environment.
Chicago Horticultural Society Board President William A. P. Pullman, along with his administration, staff, and the philanthropic community, provided deep and abiding support of the plan that would take decades to implement. Beyond that support, much of its success is credited to the ample space provided for improvisation and innovation. 
Building a Legacy
Ground was broken in 1965, and the first trees began arriving in 1967.  Among them, were an original purple beech currently visible across the Skokie River near the north end of the berm wall and a bald cypress that stands along the west shore of the Skokie River. Other original plants still thriving include a large sycamore, a sugar maple, white oak, swamp white oak, and several red oaks.  
The Chicago Botanic Garden opened to the public in 1972.  Drawing the best and brightest designers quickly became a Garden hallmark and eventually a legacy.  
In 1976, Edward Larabee Barnes designed the Garden’s first public building, the Education Center, today named the Regenstein Center.  
Inspired by the private garden of gardener and nationally recognized herbalist Edith Farwell, the Home Demonstration Gardens (today’s Edith and Albert Farwell Landscape Garden) opened in 1981. 
Created by Koichi Kawana, the Japanese Garden (today, the Elizabeth Hubert Malott Japanese Garden) was dedicated in 1982, and one year later, with support from Gertrude Nielsen and designed by Geoffrey Rausch, the Heritage Garden became the Garden’s portal and an educational introduction to horticulture. 
Innovation and Education
Over the past 40 years, the Garden has become a world-renowned scientific institution and teaching garden. The Lenhardt Library includes more than 110,000 volumes, including historic documents and scholarly journals.  
Guided by the recognition that the fate of our planet depends upon the survival of our plants, the Garden leads global efforts in restoration, seed banking, and rare plant monitoring.  At the Garden’s Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Science Center, the world’s leading scientists explore plant ecology, economic botany, plant genetics, plant systematics, population biology, reproductive biology, soils, seed banking, microscopy, and more in an effort to understand the world’s plants and preserve them for the future.  
A worldwide movement to preserve the planet requires the dedicated work of more than scientists. The Garden’s education and outreach initiatives extend horticultural learning deep into Chicago neighborhoods, fortifying a new generation of environmental stewards with information and inspiration.
As the first program of its kind in the Chicago area, the Garden launched a series of accredited degree programs to prepare a new generation of plant scientists to address urgent conservation issues. The Joseph Regenstein, Jr. School of the Chicago Botanic Garden, which had offered a series of classes for adult learners, blossomed to become a premier academic institution offering 500 courses, including 40 college classes in botanic sciences.  In collaboration with Northwestern University, the Garden offers masters, and Ph.D. programs taught by eminent scientists and teachers in the fields of plant biology, ecology, and environmental science.
In the 40 years since the Chicago Botanic Gardens opened to the public, a dramatic transformation has taken place:  lagoons have become lakes; clay has risen as islands; and a handful of plants has grown to 2.45 million. The Garden has emerged as one of the world’s great living museums; among the country’s most visited public gardens; a world-class scientific institution; and an esteemed learning establishment guiding students of all ages.
Thanks to the bold vision and unwavering dedication of our predecessors, the Garden has achieved more than was planned.  Yet, at the core of each endeavor, are these three fundamental beliefs:
  1. Beautiful gardens and natural environments are important to the physical well-being of all people.
  2. People live better, healthier, and more satisfying lives when they can create, care for, and enjoy gardens.
  3. The future of life on Earth depends on how we understand, value, and protect plants and the habitats on which they depend.
Growing Ahead
Over the next 40 years the Garden will:
  • deepen its commitment to education, science, and exquisite landscapes; 
  • broaden its recognition locally, regionally, nationally, and internationally; and
  • improve the health of the natural world for present and future generations.
Join us, and help this Garden grow from great to legendary.