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A Hidden Japanese Garden

Updated on May 5, 2015
LisaRoppolo profile image

Lisa is a writer and gardener with extensive knowledge of plants and plant care. Her articles focus on easy-care tips for home gardeners.

History Jackson Park and the Wooded Island

The garden sits on a site that is an island within Jackson Park, surrounded by lagoons just off Chicago's Lake Michigan lakefront and steps away from the 57th street beach. Jackson Park is also conveniently located just south of the Museum of Science and Industry.

The park and island was once a sandbar peninsula inhabited by native prairie grasses and trees. It was reshaped and developed by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted (under the direction of Daniel Burnham) for the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition.

Garden of The Phoenix aka Osaka Garden

Garden of the Phoenix:
5800 South Lake Shore Drive, Chicago, IL 60637, USA

get directions

Graceful bridge inside the gardens
Graceful bridge inside the gardens | Source

1893 World's Columbian Exposition

The site was used for the Government of Japan's pavilion during the expo. The site consisted of the pavilion house, Ho-o-den and three other structures. The purpose of this exhibit was to introduce Japanese culture to the Americans and showcase their art, religion and architecture.

Japan was very enthusiastic to be participating in this event because they wanted to prove to the Americans that they were progressive and modern.

Entrance to the garden
Entrance to the garden | Source
Japanese lamp post
Japanese lamp post | Source

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Garden ornamentation.  Note: you can see the Museum of Science and Industry in the background.
Garden ornamentation. Note: you can see the Museum of Science and Industry in the background. | Source

Aftermath of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition

After the exposition the pavilion structure remained but the other buildings were torn down or burned down as was the custom to dispose of the exposition structures.

After the fair, Frederick Olmsted and his son re-designed the island, lagoons and park to reflect what was once there and added more trees to the site. The purpose was to created a wooded sanctuary for both people and wildlife. it remained this way until the 1933 Century of Progress World's fair.

History of the site 1933 through WWII

In 1933, the Ho-o-den was refurbished and a tea house and gate were added onto the site in preparation for the Century of Progress World's Fair as a way to show gratitude to Japan for the past 40 years since their participation in the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893.

The Tori Gate Nippon Tea House and lanterns were moved closer to the Ho-o-den in 1935 and a traditional Japanese garden was then installed by designer George Shimoda.

During WWII, the site and it's buildings were boarded up with the intention of reopening it after the war was over.

During the beginning of the war, there were two incidences of arson at the site. The first incident was declared an unknown case because they couldn't identify the cause of the fire. The second incident was caused by two boys who were playing with matches near the site.

The two carved wooden panels of the Ho-o-den somehow miraculously survived both incidences. They are still in existence on display at the Art Institute of Chicago.

View of the garden and bridge
View of the garden and bridge | Source
One of the many decorative lanterns in the park
One of the many decorative lanterns in the park | Source

Beyond WWII

After the war, the site was never opened or rebuilt for some time. The park and surrounding neighborhood became unsafe for people visiting the park because of neglect and the criminal element responsible for muggings and rapes happening in the area. Lack of funding to rebuild the site also helped spur neglect.

There were talks and plans to rebuild the site as early as the late 1970s, but it wasn't until 1993 that the garden and structures began being rebuilt, thanks largely in part to the park district and neighborhood associations.

The Osaka Garden as it was first called, was dedicated in 1995. In 2002 and 2008, it got a facelift and additional flora, fauna and trees were added into the design of the site.

In 2012, the garden was renamed Garden of the Phoenix.

Many locals like to fish in the lagoon
Many locals like to fish in the lagoon | Source
waterfall inside the garden site
waterfall inside the garden site | Source

Elements of Design

Japanese Gardens in general like to include items that create movement, like waterfalls and bodies of water. Vining plants also create a sense of movement within the space. Traditionally there is a place to meditate like a pavilion. All décor is created to flow within the landscape. Careful thought is placed on plants and trees as well. Some trees weep gracefully over a structure or body of water. Some create a space to rest in the shade. Other plants are chosen for their scent as well as structure.

Full view of the water feature. Up above a pavilion with hammocks for resting.
Full view of the water feature. Up above a pavilion with hammocks for resting. | Source
Small elements like this Star of Bethlehem soften the area around rocks and hardscapes.
Small elements like this Star of Bethlehem soften the area around rocks and hardscapes. | Source
Dwarf weeping tree
Dwarf weeping tree | Source
Honeysuckle vine
Honeysuckle vine | Source
Lilac bush in bloom
Lilac bush in bloom | Source

How to Get to the Garden

There is no parking inside the garden or on Wooded Island. The closest parking is located south of the Museum of Science and Industry off of 5800 S. Lake Shore Drive. There is a pay lot there. The last check of the rate was $1.00 per hour.

After you park, proceed over the footbridge to the walking path. The wooded trail will take you right there. It is about a 10 minute walk.

Other Illinois Japanese Gardens

The overall themes used in Japanese gardens are meant to promote tranquility and peace between humans and nature.

Here are two other Japanese gardens worth exploring:

Anderson Gardens, Rockford, IL

Chicago Botanic Garden, Glencoe, IL

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© 2014 Lisa Roppolo


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