Housed in the Lenhardt Library, the Archives of the Chicago Horticultural Society holds approximately 250 linear feet of documents pertaining to the history of the Society and the Chicago Botanic Garden. Viewing of unrestricted archival material is by appointment only. Please call (847) 835-8201 or email firstname.lastname@example.org for an appointment for archive-related questions.
The records of the Archives of the Chicago Horticultural Society include meeting minutes, agendas, reports, publications (newsletters, brochures, pamphlets, articles), maps, plans, news clippings, photographs, audio and video recordings, correspondence, and administrative files. Records span the years 1890-1904, 1943-present. The vast majority of the collection consists of materials relating to the Chicago Botanic Garden (1972-present). Materials pertaining to the Chicago Horticultural Society are limited (1890-1904).
The Chicago Horticultural Society was incorporated on October 1, 1890 as the Horticultural Society of Chicago. Though its name changed a few times, the Society’s mission remained the same: “encouragement and promotion of the practice of Horticulture in all its branches and the fostering of an increased love of it among the people.” The Society hosted flower shows, garden tours, and classes. Society members supported the Plan of Chicago and were involved in the creation and early management of the Forest Preserve District of Cook County.
With the First World War looming on the horizon and despite the abundance of activity or perhaps in part because of it, the Society saw a decline in momentum in 1912 and it appears that the Chicago Horticultural Society was on hiatus until 1945. It was the Victory Gardens of the Second World War that brought the Society back to life with a need for education. Reestablishing itself as the Chicago Horticultural Society and Garden Center, its objectives expanded to specifically include conservation, children’s education, and gardening as community building. The Society began publishing hands-on information and growing tips in their first bulletin and predecessor to Keep Growing, Garden Talks, beginning in 1945, and then continuing from 1953 and released every other month. In 1951, the Woman's Board of the Chicago Horticultural Society established a lending library. Located at the Society's Garden Center downtown location, by 1959 the library contained 584 volumes.
However, the Society as a whole still did not have a “proper”, more permanent home, an idea that just never seemed to come to fruition but also never let go even in the earliest days of the Society. It took nearly 80 years to get all the pieces in place. The Skokie Marsh was not the first location considered by the Society—Union Park, Palos, and Grant Park were considered. However, the Society had a hand in the preservation of the Skokie Lagoons from the beginning.
The Skokie Marsh, present day Skokie Lagoons, was one of the sites named in a 1904 Special Park Commission report to preserve natural areas for future generations. The Marsh was acquired by the Forest Preserve District of Cook County (FPDCC) in the 1920s and work by the Civilian Conservation Corps began in 1933 to improve issues with flooding by creating a lagoon system. The area became a popular outdoor recreation space where people flocked to hike, bird-watch, sail boats, ride horses, and fish the stocked lakes.
It was not until 1962 that Skokie Marsh was identified as a “prime potential site”. The proposal, “Chicago Needs a Botanic Garden” listed the following qualities in support of the Skokie Marsh location: the size of the area, ease of access from Chicago and surrounding areas, protection granted by the expressway to the west and lagoons to the south, filling the cultural void of museums or attractions to the north, future membership growth, and its natural beauty. In June 1963, House Bill No. 1487 passed to allow FPDCC to “prepare and maintain grounds for a botanic garden.” The bill was approved by Governor Otto Kerner in August. The land was to be maintained by the Society and owned by the Forest Preserve. In order to demonstrate support for the project, the Forest Preserve District stipulated that “By January 1, 1966 the Society shall have raised $1,000,000 by private subscriptions.” This was achieved by November 1964 and the contract signed on January 27, 1965.
The Pittsburgh-based landscape architecture firm of Simonds and Simonds was commissioned to create the master plan for the site. Over the years, the ever evolving master plan of the garden has consistently featured the interplay of water and land. After months of soil preparation, ground was broken at the garden on September 25, 1965. By 1967 the garden accessioned its first tree — a white fir. The rough grading and water control structures were in place by the end of 1968. And in 1969, clean water filled the lakes, perimeter fencing was installed, and the entrance road and parking were approved by state and county. The Society held an open house on the site in October 1969 and the Midwest Bonsai Society hosted their first exhibition at the garden in 1971. The Chicago Botanic Garden, then known as the Botanic Garden of the Chicago Horticultural Society, officially opened in 1972. By 1976, the Society's then 6,000 volume library had a new home in the Chicago Botanic Garden's Education Center (now called the Regenstein Center). Today, the collections of the Lenhardt Library hold approximately 125,000 volumes including books, periodicals, rare books, special collections, videos, DVDs, slides, nursery catalogs, and the archives of the Chicago Horticultural Society.
Since opening in 1972, the Garden's collections and programming have continued to grow. Today the Chicago Botanic Garden has one of the largest memberships of any U.S. botanic garden. People of all ages, interests, and abilities participate in programs, take classes, and stroll the grounds year-round. From nature preschool, to yoga, to graduate research, the garden has something for everyone.