Foundation fund

West Side neighborhood groups plan to restore Sears Sunken Garden to its former glory

NORTH LAWNDALE —A century-old west side garden that has deteriorated over the years is being restored to its historic grandeur through a community-led initiative.

In the early 1900s, the Sears, Roebuck and Co. campus was the crown jewel of North Lawndale. Hidden within the stern, neoclassical-style buildings sprawled across the 40-acre headquarters was a pocket of lush greenery: the Sears Sunken Garden.

The Foundation for Homan Square, which has taken over many Sears buildings, has preserved the 2-acre park but lacks the funds to continue the extravagant annual flower shows and water features it had in its heyday. said executive director Kevin Sutton.

Now the foundation and several other groups are using a $150,000 grant to launch what could be a multi-million dollar revamp to revive the space.

“I certainly hope this will be an opportunity to shed new light on the cultural, historical and, in this case, horticultural significance of this region,” Sutton said.

A postcard depicting the old Sears complex shows the Sunken Garden in the lower right corner.

The 2-acre park was an urban oasis that stood out against the red brick buildings and steel train tracks that surrounded it. The Sears Sunken Garden had fountains, reflecting pools, a greenhouse, and flowerbeds unmatched by other parks of the time.

“It was a place for Sears employees, many of whom lived in the community, to have respite, a place of peace, relaxation and fun,” Sutton said.

When Sears began moving its headquarters downtown in the 1970s, the local economy declined as residents were laid off from warehouses and distribution facilities were closed. Many buildings were demolished, although some were preserved and turned over to the Foundation for Homan Square to be restored into schools, housing, and office buildings for local nonprofit organizations.

The foundation preserved the Sunken Garden, which has been a National Historic Landmark for a century, Sutton said.

“This garden had seasonal plantings three or more times a year. But over time the garden started to go downhill after Sears left,” Sutton said. “To have this beautiful garden return to a sense of grandeur and be an added asset to the community will be great.

Restoring the Sears Sunken Garden to a gathering place and major cultural attraction was one of the priorities of North Lawndale’s 2018 Quality of Life Plan, a community plan aimed at improving conditions in the neighborhood such as public safety, l education, greenery and public health.

Plans to redesign the garden are spearheaded by Friends of Sears Sunken Garden, a non-profit organization founded by a collaboration of neighborhood groups who had been organizing projects to improve the garden for several years. Partners include the Foundation for Homan Square, the Trust for Public Land and the GROWSS committee of the North Lawndale Community Coordinating Council, a group focused on greening and open spaces.

The Trust for Public Land awarded the project a $150,000 Fair Trade Communities Fund grant to “start the process of raising funds and securing designers and ultimately being able to restore the garden,” the director said. of the State of Illinois Trust for Public Land, Caroline O’Boyle.

The Equitable Communities Fund is designed to “support community-led organizations and help position them to be ready to receive larger funds when they become available,” O’Boyle said.

Organizers anticipate that the restoration of the Sears Sunken Garden will cost approximately $5 million to “do the repair work, install the garden and create a fund that will allow for the ongoing upkeep of the garden,” O’Boyle said.

The Trust for Public Land and other partners are assisting Friends of Sears Sunken Garden with technical assistance and grant-writing support to raise additional funds typically out of reach for small neighborhood groups, such as the Save America’s Treasures grant from the National Park Service, which organizers are looking for. to be used to restore a pergola in the park.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
The sunken gardens of Sears, Roebuck and Co. in the North Lawndale neighborhood on March 10, 2021.

The restored garden will be designed by Piet Oudolf, a world-renowned landscape designer who designed the Lurie Garden in Millennium Park and the High Line in New York.

Other members of the design team include Roy Diblik of Northwind Perennial Farm, Lawndale resident Annamaria Leon of Homan Grown, landscape architect Camille Applewhite of BlackSpace Chicago, architect Odile Compagnon and historic preservation specialist Lynette Stuhlmacher of Red Leaf Studio.

The Friends of Sears Sunken Garden held community design meetings where residents shared their ideas for how the park should be restored. The meetings were also educational sessions where residents could learn about the history of the Sears Sunken Garden as well as current trends in landscape architecture.

Community meetings guided designers toward a color palette that matched community tastes and helped them decide to use native perennials that would thrive in Chicago’s climate and be easy to maintain, organizers said.

“People are interested in awakening all the senses in the garden: what you see, what you smell. What is the texture? What memory does it evoke? What feelings? said O’Boyle.

By incorporating ideas from people who live in the area, the restoration of the Sears Sunken Garden can be a reminder of the neighborhood’s history and the fond memories many people have, Sutton said.

“It’s really amazing to have a community-led effort. A lot of people will tell you they have reunion photos and wedding photos, all kinds of memories in the garden,” Sutton said.

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