Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Spring Fling Saturday - Alfred Caldwell Lily Pool

The last event Saturday at Spring Fling was our visit to Lincoln Park - Chicago's most famous and visited park. Lincoln Park attractions for gardeners include the Conservatory, Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum with its butterfly room, Grandma's Garden, and the Alfred Caldwell Lily Pool, formerly known as the Rookery. Even the zoo can be interesting to gardeners, and some of the zoo's architecture is beautiful and historic as well.

What I most wanted to see at Lincoln Park was the Lily Pool. I remember it from being a kid growing up on the north side of Chicago and taking family field trips on the weekends or taking the bus with friends off to the park, the zoo, or the beach. I remember the Lily Pool. It wasn't very nice back in the 1960's.

Mr.Brown Thumb, Kylee, her mom, and I enjoyed a lovely, leisurely stroll at the Lily Pool during the final leg of our very busy and sometimes stressful Saturday.

To refresh my memory of this garden's history, I reviewed one of my favorite public television programs hosted by Geoffrey Baer, on the history of Chicago's Lakefront. Most of the information below was gleaned from that program and the Chicago Park District's website.

The Lily Pool was initially constructed in the late 1880's to be used for cultivating tropical water lilies. In 1936 the Lily Pool and surrounding area was redesigned by landscape architect Alfred Caldwell in the Prairie style to mimic a river of glacial melt cutting through the limestone surrounding it.
The limestone ledges made me think of Layanee, who was so kind to me at Spring Fling.

It's considered by many to be one of the most important historic landscapes in Chicago, and has been designated a National Historic Landmark.

Caldwell, who designed many of Chicago's lakefront landscapes, was frequently at odds with the Chicago Park District. Before the Lily Pool was completed, his budget was cut by the Park District in yet another dispute between the parties. Caldwell was so passionate about this project, he cashed in his life insurance policy so he could complete it.

Eight years after Caldwell's Lily Pool was completed, the Park District allowed it to be included in the Lincoln Park Zoo's exhibits. It became home to some of the zoo's exotic birds. The birds destroyed many of the native plants Caldwell had purchased with the proceeds of his life insurance. The destruction of the plants led to erosion of the pool. Over time it fell deeper and deeper into disrepair and became a catch basin for trash. Invasive plants took over, leaving no trace of Caldwell's native plant design, and breaking his heart. I remember seeing it as a child, when it was more of a dump than a garden.

In 2001 the Park District partnered with Friends of Lincoln Park (now the Lincoln Park Conservancy) to restore the landscape according to Caldwell's original plan, as a sanctuary for people and wildlife. And sanctuary it now is. There is a quiet reverence and special spirit to this place. It's hard to describe, but easily felt. Following the restoration this beautiful retreat from the big city was renamed in his honor. The work included replacing invasive trees and shrubs with native plants, and restoration of the structures and hardscape. Paths were also added during the restoration. Sadly, Caldwell died in 1998, three years before his beloved pool and garden were restored to their original grandeur.

The wildlife that finds refuge in the pool and surrounding garden includes over 200 species of birds, as well as dragonflies, butterflies, frogs, and turtles.and spiders(!)

I too found a peaceful refuge in the garden with a small group of new friends. It was grand to see what this once-unsightly childhood memory has since become, spending part of the last leg of Saturday's tours in the cool, breezy, peaceful shade, listening to bird songs, discovering tiny wildflowers, and watching dappled sunlight reflect and play upon the shimmering surface of this lovely pool.


  1. If I ever make it to Chicago, I am definitely visiting the Caldwell Lily Pool. What an amazing story, and obviously a beautiful place.

  2. Hi Linda, so sorry I missed this chance to see the resurrection of the pond and a chance for some quiet conversation, but the butterfly house called my name out loud. Next time, for sure.

  3. What a nice post, Linda! It's wonderful the pond has been restored for all to enjoy...a place I would visit often. It's fun to see all the other attendees' posts for different perspective. Your hard work was appreciated by all so relax now and enjoy your own garden :)

  4. Linda, I really wish I had been able to fit the Lily Pond garden into the day sounds and looks lovely. The spider shot is wonderful. I will be back in Chicago and have a long list of things to do! gail

  5. How Sad that Caldwell never got to see the spot come back to life! I am sure he is looking down from above with a big smile on his face. A beautiful spot for nature to unfold...

  6. Interesting narrative, beautiful photographs. Another perfect Chicago garden destination. Thanks, Linda.

  7. Linda,

    I'm sure I mentioned it when we were there but this was my first ever visit to the Lily Pool and I've lived here most of my life. I was in awe and am sure I'll be back again since I'm at the LPC all the time. Thank you for thinking of adding this place to the tours as I probably would have gone the rest of my life never having gone in.

    I'm still in stitches after our visit to the pool with the gardening 'Doublemint Twins.' They were fun to hang out with there for a few moments.

    MrBrownThumb @ Chicago Garden

  8. Linda, thanks for the thoughtful description of the history of this place. It's a sad story with a happy ending. So fascinating! I'm so sorry I got separated from you and Ramon as I would have liked to see this (I swear we should have had those ropes like they do in kindergarten to hang onto!), but your photos and text make me feel like I was there, after all. Hugs!

  9. Awwww get back what you give and you worked so hard with Gina, MBT and CG to make sure we all enjoyed Mid-Western hospitality and your beautiful city. Thank you for that special note. I am happy to see this pool through your eyes as I missed it while I was relaxing on a park bench somewhere. What a great city!

  10. Linda, I really enjoyed spending this quiet time walking through the Lily Pool gardens with you and MrBrownThumb. It was just so peaceful and I felt like we were all old friends just passing the afternoon in awe and respect of what we saw there.

    I'm so very glad to have met you and that I was able to spend some one-on-one time with you this weekend. Thank you SO MUCH for all you did to make it all possible.


    LOL @ MBT calling Mom and me the Doublemint Twins!!


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