Chicago offers its visitors innumerable cultural jewels. It boasts some of the best modern architecture in the United States, the world’s tallest building, a fine Impressionist collection, and a bounty of ethnic restaurants. And, of course, there’s great shopping: on State Street and the “magnificent mile” that is Michigan Avenue, you can buy fine furs, fine art, more fine food.
But for no money at all, you can visit a fine garden. A stroll up Michigan Avenue to its northern tip, where it intersects Oak Street, brings you to a small, triangular park that is home to the Paul and Gabriella Rosenbaum Garden, one of the city’s newest gems. Brimming with about 150 species of perennials, including many herbs, and thousands of individual plants, the garden attracts even the attention of motorists whizzing by on adjacent Lake Shore Drive.
If you step into the gazebo that is the garden’s focal point, you’ll find a plaque stating that the garden is a gift to the City of Chicago “on behalf of all the survivors to whom she has given shelter, from one family of survivors on the fiftieth anniversary of their safe arrival.” The date reads, “October 2, 1939–1989.”
The garden’s history begins in the mid-1930s when the Rosenbaum family lived in Nitra, a city in eastern Czechoslovakia (what is now western Slovakia). Paul Rosenbaum was in the roofing business; his wife, Gabriella, operated a school of eurhythmics (an artistic discipline involving movement and music). However, her plan to practice eurhythmics in Munich had been denied because she was Jewish. That experience, together with their commonsense response to ominous events reported in the newspapers, convinced the Rosenbaums that they must emigrate. Paul left for the United States in 1938 and, with the help of relatives already here, began arranging for visas for Gabriella and their two daughters, aged ten and four.
By the time the visas were available in Prague, Hitler had closed the border between Bohemia and Slovakia, and Gabriella, disguised as a peasant, was unable to get across. Transferring the papers to the next nearest American embassy, in Vienna, took months. Without knowing whether the transfer had been completed, Gabriella packed herself and her daughters onto a Vienna-bound train. Her elder daughter, Madge Goldman, remembers the SS officer who boarded the train, saw the word “Jewish” on their passports, yet grudgingly gave them clearance for a twenty-four-hour, one-time-only visit to Austria. What she now calls “the Rosenbaum luck” was with them: when they got to the crowded American embassy, they discovered that, despite the chaos, their papers had arrived.
Able at last to leave Czechoslovakia, the threesome boarded a train for Paris, but German troops were on the move, and their train was often delayed. A trip that should have taken hours took three days, and they quickly ran out of money because Gabriella had been permitted to take only 10 marks, roughly $50, out of Czechoslovakia. For one night’s meal and lodging, she borrowed money from another Jewish woman whom she had met on the train. On August 29, 1939, Gabriella and her daughters crossed the German-French border. The next day, the Germans closed the border to Jews.
In the port city of Le Havre, German torpedoing of the harbor meant that the Cunard liner on which the Rosenbaums had booked passage to New York never arrived. Stowed instead in the hold of a banana boat, Gabriella and the girls finally arrived safely in New York on October 2, 1939. The Rosenbaums settled on Chicago’s South Side in 1941, became successful in business, and established two foundations devoted to cultural, educational, and scientific projects throughout the world.
Fifty years later, when family members were casting about for an appropriate way to commemorate the anniversary of their safe arrival, someone (Madge believes that it was her sister, Edith Leonian) suggested that they give a garden to the City of Chicago. The idea delighted the rest of the family, and the sisters went to work inquiring how exactly one gives a garden to a city. They approached the Chicago Park District, which was very receptive and helped them locate possible sites. The Rosenbaums chose the Oak Street Triangle and agreed to fund and maintain a 50,000-square-foot perennial garden there. Jim Slater, a Park District landscape architect, was commissioned to design the garden.
The Paul and Gabriella Rosenbaum Garden is open all year; its peak season for color is June through August.
Slater characterizes the garden as semiformal. Dominating it are a central oval flower bed and a classically formal tubular steel gazebo surrounded by graceful brick walkways and a series of semicircular planting beds. A tightly clipped, 3-foot-high alpine currant hedge along the garden’s Michigan Avenue side contributes to an overall sense of order and enclosure, but as one moves east toward an existing stand of honey locust and hawthorn trees, the design becomes more free-form. This progression is echoed in the garden’s color arrangements: largely cool colors at the front give way to warmer tones toward the back.
The Rosenbaums gave Slater free rein with plant selection, and he has chosen a wide variety of flowering plants, including many frequently found in herb gardens: artemisias, yarrows, tiny pinks, catmints, cranesbill geraniums, baptisias, ornamental salvias, and perovskias. One of his commission’s stipulations was that no trees be removed from the site. While integrating the garden into an existing matrix of mature trees has imbued the space with what Slater terms “an air of stateliness and a sense of time”, it has also resulted in what some of us might more prosaically call “a shade problem”, especially along the garden’s south edge, next to high-rise buildings.
Each year has seen minor setbacks and readjustments, but much more evident are the garden’s stunning successes. Rudbeckia ‘Goldsturm’, daylilies, white- and purple-flowered echinaceas, peach-leaved bellflowers, and Japanese anemones have tolerated the less-than-optimal light conditions with good grace, leaving the spots in full sun along the north perimeter free for the perovskias and yarrows. As for the occasional pockets of deepest shade, Slater has transformed what might have been an impediment into an opportunity to showcase barrenworts, lungworts, monkshoods, and toad lilies (Tricyrtis sp.), beauties that are rarely seen in public plantings.
Public response to the garden has been overwhelmingly positive: people ride bicycles, jog, walk, and sit there often, and it’s a popular site for weddings. The professional community has also been supportive. In 1993, for example, the Illinois chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects presented the Chicago Park District with its Illinois Chapter Honor Award for Landscape Architectural Design for this garden.
Happiest of all are the Rosenbaums themselves. “I am still impressed by how the Park District reacted,” says Madge. “All of their support was absolutely terrific.” Madge also values her introduction to the world of fine garden design. “I had no idea what landscape architects could do—the care they take with placement of plants, arranging for changing color throughout the season, the overlays of continuous blooms. I feel blessed to have learned something new and wonderful.”
But their highest praise goes to the garden itself. “I think it was masterful,” says Edith, readily admitting that she had never expected it to be as gorgeous as it is. For her, a perennial garden also offers “the continuing growth, which means the garden develops spiritually as well as physically.” Not that she discounts the value of a beautiful sight. “I walked out last summer and almost cried,” she says. “I just didn’t know it was possible to have such an oasis in the midst of a city.”