Chicago’s historic Sears Sunken Garden is part of a strategy to revitalize a struggling West Side neighborhood.
By Zach Mortice
That the Sears Sunken Garden, completed in 1907 as part of the 40-acre Sears, Roebuck and Company campus that dominated Chicago’s North Lawndale neighborhood for decades, was originally shared by managers, executives, and warehouse stockers is something Reshorna Fitzpatrick, a pastor at North Lawndale’s Proceeding Word Church, hammers home when telling people about the garden.
“What the Sears owners did is show that there shouldn’t be green space [that’s] beneficial for one group; it should be beneficial for all,” she says. Sears closed its West Side operations in the 1980s, and the garden fell into disrepair. Today, no one remembers who the original landscape designer was. People likely won’t forget its next one. North Lawndale residents and nonprofits are currently working with the Trust for Public Land and the garden designer Piet Oudolf, along with the Urban Landscape Collaborative, to update and restore the two-acre neoclassical garden, adding new plantings, circulation patterns, and water features. The project will be Oudolf’s second in Chicago, following the Lurie Garden in Millennium Park, which was designed in collaboration with GGN.
When Sears left North Lawndale, it donated the Sunken Garden—so named because it steps down from street level—to the Foundation for Homan Square. In 2015, the campus, including a warehouse tower, a power plant that’s been converted into a school, and a catalog-printing building that now provides housing, became a City of Chicago Landmark. The garden became a focal point of the North Lawndale Community Coordinating Council as it prepared a 2018 Quality-of-Life Plan. In 2021, neighbors organized as the Friends of Sears Sunken Garden, which now spearheads the project.
Annamaria Leon, a North Lawndale resident and member of Friends of Sears Sunken Garden, calls the garden a “hidden jewel” poised for a bigger public reveal. “It would bring a lot of economic activity to North Lawndale,” she says. Because of Oudolf’s involvement, “it would become a destination we could connect to the Lurie Garden.” It was Leon and her husband, Roy Diblik, who got the Dutch designer involved. The two became acquainted with Oudolf by supplying plants for the Lurie Garden from their Northwind Perennial Farm in Wisconsin, and they formed a relationship. “It’s hard to say no to a friend,” Oudolf says.
“Having a major garden like this on the West Side designed by a world-renowned garden designer will attract people and let people know what’s out here,” says Caroline O’Boyle, the Illinois state director at the Trust for Public Land. A synergy with Jens Jensen’s nearby Garfield Park Conservatory, for example, could be an “outwardly visible sign of the progress that’s underway in North Lawndale.”
Zach Mortice is a contributing writer to Landscape Architecture Magazine.