Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Tranquility in the City


 Never doubt your ability to find a kindred spirit anywhere. 

 This was never more true than when I wandered through the Alfred Caldwell Lily Pool gardens on a warm, sunny Saturday afternoon in Chicago.  While heading to the beach, my mom and I discovered the entrance to this lovely greenspace, just east of the Lincoln Park Zoo.  Waiting for us with a dashing pink ballcap perched on her head was a very friendly docent named Jean.  She must have been in her 70s, sharp as a tack and just keen to talk about her favorite garden to an appreciative audience.  She told us she has been a volunteer at the Lily Pool gardens for more than 20 years, and set out to show us everything about her favorite place in her hometown.

As we were more than appreciative, we got a whole walking tour of the gardens.  Originally, the lily pond was built in the late 1890s and was used to cultivate rare and exotic lilies from the far corners of the globe that enhanced the displays in the Conservatory.   Redesigned in the late 1920s to create a zen-like public outdoor space, the Lily Pool is a monument to the Prairie Style architectural movement.  The lines between the industrial components (hard stone, wood and steel pavillions) are artfully blurred by the softening elements of nature (draping willows, still water and native grasses).  While it had deteriorated past the point of recognition (according to Ms. Jean) during the years it was used as a summer rookery by the Lincoln Park Zoo, through the efforts of several wealthy donors and dedicated volunteers it has been restored to its former glory.

From either end of the pond, you cannot see the other.  Little spaces of hidden beauty greet you, and give you the sense of being alone at the side of a flowing stream.  There were birds everywhere, singing their little hearts out into the heat of the afternoon.  Their voices helped to mask the sound of traffic whizzing by on adjacent Lakeshore Drive and the calls of visitors to the zoo behind the rising hill.  The lilies hadn't yet opened, but the yellow buds thrust themselves above the water with the promise of soon-to-open blooms.  Rising high above the pond is the council ring, designed to mimic the meeting spaces favored by Native Americans indiginous to Illinois and surrounding environs.  Redbuds and hawthorne trees are spaced throughout, layering the understory garden with their entertwined branches.  Classic red-orange columbines nod their bell shaped heads in the gentle breeze that drifts over the still pond and ruffles the tranquil dark waters.  

As a testimony to the perseverence of the human spirit to embrace nature in the heart of the city, this small garden is a hidden jewel in the park district central to Chicago.  Built on the labor of the men and women employed by the Work Program Administration (WPA) during the Great Depression, I hope that they and their descendants have been able to revisit this space and enjoy it in all its beauty.  Well worth the walk, this free public space is a place to visit when taking in the sites of the Windy City.

If Jean is there, tell her I sent you.

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