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A New Era for Rockford’s Favorite Park

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The modern, eco-friendly centerpiece at Rockford’s first and favorite park is nearly complete. Take a tropical tour at the park, and learn about the LEED construction, artistic design and the new life for this riverside destination.

Nicholas Conservatory & Gardens, lit up at night. (Dustin Waller photo)

Running water is the first thing you notice inside the new conservatory. The water bubbles up from below the stone walkway, dancing through pools and waterfalls toward the lagoon outside.

Lush vegetation surrounds everything. Majestic palm trees climb toward a 52-foot high ceiling; vines begin their ascent on mesh-wire walls. A lone pineapple sprouts from the ground, one of nearly 3,500 plants. In a corner, a collection of orchids takes root in the decaying branch of an old oak tree that was salvaged from Klehm Arboretum. It’s warm and humid – a tropical retreat.

After more than two years of construction, Nicholas Conservatory & Gardens, the new centerpiece at Rockford’s Sinnissippi Park, is nearly complete. Not everything will be finished in time for its Oct. 29 public opening, but officials at Rockford Park District say this is just the start of a new era for this city’s oldest park. They expect the conservatory to be a focus of education, tourism and riverfront enjoyment.

“It’s important for local citizens to feel they have great assets, says Tim Dimke, park district executive director. “It’s important that Sinnissippi Park be a place people are proud of, and it’s important for tourism and keeping Rockford as a quality place to live.”

Each year, more than 120,000 people visit Sinnissippi Park alongside the Rock River. They come to fish, or to exercise, and they come to view the sculptures, formal rose gardens and peaceful lagoon. Starting this fall, they’ll also come for tours, weddings and social events at the new conservatory. Already, nearly 20 events are booked through next fall.

Ruth Miller, conservatory manager, has watched this building grow from dream to reality. She knows every detail. “This is the terrazzo floor,” she says, peeling back brown paper to reveal the shiny lobby floor. “It’s an amazing process to view, as they lay this silver track in an artistic pattern, and then pour the flooring material. While it cures, they incorporate glass shards, mirror shards, rods, beads and shells, creating a unique and intriguing entry into the tropical exhibition area.”

The green floor is a work of art. Speckled with shiny glass pebbles, it resembles long blades of grass kissed by dewdrops. Its four separate streams of blue – representing the Sugar, Pecatonica, Rock and Kishwaukee rivers – converge in the lobby and flow toward the greenhouse. Dubbed the “infinity pond,” it stretches from the entrance, through the greenhouse water feature and seemingly into the lagoon outside.

Artwork is ample. Sculptures line the parking lot and terrace, while four glass totem poles peek out from among the conservatory’s plants. A plain white band of wall space will soon become a mural depicting moments in time along this stretch of the Rock River.

“Toward the end of the mural, you see the old greenhouse, and it just blends into the new conservatory,” Dimke says. “Absolutely cool. I’m a sports guy, and this has me absolutely excited about the arts.”

The artwork joins a mile-long scattering of sculptures along the river. When the conservatory opens this fall, a pamphlet will explain each one to visitors walking the Rock River Recreation Path, from bright-orange “Symbol,” at the north end, to the “Rockmen Guardians,” near the YMCA south of the conservatory.

Sustainable Inside and Out

This building is as green as the foliage inside, because it’s built to satisfy Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification – the nation’s highest standard for green construction. Solar panels on the roof collect energy that powers the building. Another portion is covered in white roofing, to reflect heat; it will soon be joined by a “green” roof-top garden, designed to absorb sunlight and rainwater.

Deep below the conservatory, a single geothermal well uses the earth’s natural temperature (about 55 degrees Fahrenheit) to efficiently heat and cool the building.

“When we started to build here, we were looking to punch 30 wells,” says Ron Butler, deputy director of operations at Rockford Park District. “Because we’re on the river, we were able to get the capacity we needed with just one well. There’s a water table underground, and this is a huge savings.”

In all, the building could produce as much as 75 percent of its own energy, Dimke says, though district officials have only rough estimates. Throughout the building’s first year, the park district will carefully monitor energy use.

“The way I look at it, this building is going to be here for 100 years, and the energy savings will be millions of dollars by the end of its life cycle,” Butler says. “Our old greenhouse was very inefficient, so this is a whole different ball game.”

LEED projects are a new ball game for Rockford, too. So far, only Rock Valley College’s gymnasium is LEED-certified, although a handful of local projects are candidates for certification. Compared to the conservatory, few others have so many outdoor features. Permeable pavers in the parking lot allow rainwater to soak into the ground. Additional storm runoff is collected in a bioswale, a naturally landscaped drainage ditch. The closest parking spots are saved for fuel-efficient vehicles.

Horticulturalists will use environmentally responsible pesticides and alternative pest management techniques.

Miller has big dreams for this new space. Along with being a source of pride and enjoyment for local residents, she sees it as a resource for educating students; a backdrop for both local events and national exhibits; and an attraction for out-of-town visitors.

“We want people to know that plants are the source of our existence – we want to explain that to our target audiences,” Miller says. “We’ll be dealing with lots of groups, like school kids, tour groups and stroller moms. While our emphasis is horticulture, we’re also considering some classes – yoga, zumba – activities, like meditation, that happen in a green environment.”

There’s an area where kids may gather together, play and learn about thousands of plants, including those that produce fruits like mangoes, bananas and pineapples. Traveling exhibits about butterflies, carnivorous plants and other topics could start next year.

“We’ll have different discussions based on the age group of the students,” Miller says. “We’ll show them the cocoa tree, and we’ll engage them in discussions and activities to show them that chocolate doesn’t come from a truck. It actually comes from a tree.”

The lobby and an adjacent classroom can be reserved for get-togethers, with an option for catering provided by five local companies. Already, the conservatory is booked for special events, from wedding receptions to class reunions.

Making it Possible

The new conservatory is a much-improved version of the old Sinnissippi greenhouse that residents cherished for decades. Whereas greenhouses are workhorses – places for growing and cultivating plants – conservatories showcase collections of often rare and exotic species. Built in the 1920s, the old Sinnissippi Greenhouse was past its prime when it was demolished in 2009. Discussions about replacing it began around 2004, as the district looked for a centerpiece to its 100th birthday celebration. Because Sinnissippi was the district’s first park, the fit was natural.

“We were looking at a greenhouse that was 86 years old, and really, 20 years beyond its useful life,” Dimke says. “We said, ‘There’s our project.’ We also chose Sinnissippi because it’s the first park in the district, and it’s been one of the parks where everyone feels welcomed.”

Plans for a new conservatory were announced in 2007, but construction didn’t start until 2009, after the district recanted its first contract and hired another greenhouse builder. That snag delayed construction and contributed to a rise in the price tag – up from an early estimate of $9.1 million to a final cost around $10.3 million. Additional projects, including landscaping and lagoon improvements, done in separate phases, add another $4.7 million.

“We decided we had the funding for a two-phase project, and then we made it three phases,” Dimke says. “The entire project, when you take the conservatory, the landscaping and the lagoon, is approaching $15 million. That’s one large project for this community.”

In an effort to avoid burdening taxpayers, Dimke and the park district turned to private donors for most of the financing. Only $1.5 million – about a tenth of the final cost – comes from public, taxpayer-funded sources. That includes about $800,000 from Winnebago County and $300,000 from the State of Illinois.

About 1,300 private donors contributed. The lead $2.15 million gift came from Rockford native Dan Nicholas and his brothers, Bill and Ab.

Dan and Ruth Nicholas love gardening, and their Rockford home is surrounded by greenery. And the couple contributed a lead donation for the park district’s City of Gardens program, an effort to hang flower baskets around town and encourage urban beautification.

A bubbling stream runs through the conservatory, toward the lagoon. (Rebecca O'Malley photo)

The couple has fond memories from Sinnissippi Park and the old greenhouse. Dan remembers sledding the hills with his brothers and fishing the river with his grandfather. They’re eager to see the new conservatory become a focal point for tourism and community pride.

“We want it to be a visitors center, to encourage people to come to our community,” Dan says. “We think that the City of Rockford is interested in that also, and we think the [Rockford] Chamber of Commerce is interested in that – we’d like for this to be a great attraction for this city. Good attractions for businesses and manufacturers encourage people to come here and live.”

Diamond in the Rough

The Nicholases’ vision for Sinnissippi won’t be complete by the time it opens. Because Sinnissippi updates were planned in three phases, the final touches are just beginning.

Phase One, the conservatory building, is complete. Construction is now underway on Phase Two, comprising hardscape and landscape between the building and the lagoon. This fall, crews will install walkways, fountains and boardwalks, and extend the infinity pond from the conservatory to the lagoon. By next spring and summer, crews will put in plantings.

Phase Three is just taking shape. This September, park district officials secured most of the estimated $1.5 million needed to improve the lagoon. Thanks to a sizeable gift from Eclipse Inc., a Rockford-based company specializing in industrial heating and drying, construction begins this fall on improvements around the long-neglected lagoon.

Over the next year, crews will dredge the lagoon, install new retaining walls and build a waterfall on one corner. At the same time, new walkways, overlooks and landscaping cap off three years of construction. Fundraising for a new teahouse along the lagoon banks will continue.

“It’s been such a joy to see these projects come together,” says Laura Williamson, deputy director of capital planning and management. “They’re going to bring a whole new life to this park and complete our riverside improvements.”

With the heaviest work wrapping up at Sinnissippi Park, Dimke and Miller are turning their attention toward future possibilities. They see the park becoming a downtown visitors center for locals and tourists alike, with a riverside dock for the park district’s riverboat, The Forest City Queen, and short-term docks for boaters. Miller is eyeing vacant land south of the conservatory, where a future parking lot could accommodate 200 more visitors.

Ample parking spaces will be needed, if early estimates pan out. While the old greenhouse drew about 120,000 mostly local visitors every year, Dimke expects nearly 200,000 – including 40,000 out-of-town visitors – to the new conservatory. Targeting out-of-towners is a tricky business, so Miller and Dimke are focusing on garden tourists – people who will fill up a coach bus and visit a conservatory, along with places like Klehm Arboretum and Anderson Japanese Gardens.

“There’s a network of groups that tour these kinds of gardens around the country, so we’re linked into that network, and we’re already signing them up,” Dimke says. “They’re a higher per-capita income group, and they spend a lot more when they come.”

Every visitor helps the park district, and every visitor’s dollar helps Rockford.

“The conservatory, by itself, is less than a two-day stay,” Dimke says. “But if you combine it with the other assets in the county, you get a minimum two-, maybe three-day stay, depending on how many places the bus tour visits. Now you have an economic impact. It’s estimated to bring in about $8 million in revenue, based on our estimated 40,000 [out-of-town] visitors and based on the things they’ll be able to see, and the places they’ll shop and eat and stay when they’re here.”

It’s still early, but the fish are biting. Miller says she’s already hosted a group from suburban Chicago and one from the East Coast. Both came because of connections to the park district.

“Our goal is to be a regional draw,” Miller says. “We’ve had people from the Chicago area come in and ask us about having their wedding reception here, as opposed to having it in Chicago.”

Promises, Promises

After more than three years of waiting, locals are excited about seeing the final results, and they’re curious to know what’s hidden inside the big glass building. Miller, too, is excited. She’s spent years preparing for this moment. Her dream is to make a difference for the next generation.

“If we connect with one of those young individuals who comes in and looks through a microscope and gets excited, and then starts studying and learning – who knows?” Miller says. “That may be the person who discovers a cure for a disease. There are so many things, educational, emotional, that this can do for the community.”

One thing’s for sure: Sinnissippi Park is a celebrated and beloved part of this community.

“The more that I’m here at this building, the more I see the strong connection between the history of our community and this location near the old greenhouse and the recreation path,” Miller says. “It’s a place where memories have been made for generations, and now we’re creating new memories. Parents who used to play down here as kids can bring their children and grandchildren and make new memories.”

Who Are the Nicolases?

The new conservatory is dedicated to the late William and Ruby Nicholas, but it was their three sons – Dan, Bill and Ab – who offered a $2.15 million donation in their honor. William Nicholas was an accountant, working as a bookkeeper for Burson Knitting Company, during the years of the Great Depression. To make ends meet, he crunched numbers at night for a host of local business owners.

“We grew up in the Depression days, and we learned hard work was important,” Dan says. “My dad worked eight hours a day, then he’d come home and work almost every night, even most weekends, in the unfinished basement of our two-bedroom home. He made enormous sacrifices to make our family grow.”

Ruby died of leukemia at age 57; her boys grew up to do big things.

Bill attended the University of Illinois, in Urbana-Champaign, and worked most of his life at Rockford’s Barber-Colman.

Albert, or Ab, as he’s known, was a basketball star at the University of Wisconsin-Madison before he launched his own financial investment firm, Nicholas Company. Ab has since retired, leaving the Milwaukee-based business to his son, David.

Dan graduated from the University of Illinois and worked in the banking industry, serving as CEO of the First Federal Savings & Loan, before it was sold to Associated Bank. He’s a former Rockford Chamber of Commerce president, and served one term as a park district commissioner. His wife, Ruth, is a descendant of two key Rockford families: the Whiteheads, known for real estate; and the Burpees, who founded the Burpee Art Museum, which later morphed into the Burpee Museum of Natural History.

A Pathway of Art

Since he was a boy, artist Bill Hueg has been fascinated by large paintings.

“I was at the grocery store with my mother, and I saw some men painting a billboard above the store,” he says. “I told my mother I wanted to watch the guys paint, because I thought it was much more interesting than walking through the aisles with her.”

Classically trained in billboards and wall art, Hueg has a knack for large-scale art. His latest work, a mural surrounding the lobby at Nicholas Conservatory, is much like a billboard. Though it’s only 32 inches high, the mural is painted on 12-foot- and 40-foot-long canvas strips. Hueg’s mural will be attached like wallpaper in one continuous scene.

The mural wends its way through the history of the Rock River, from a prehistoric tropical scene and Native American settlements, to years of pioneer settlements, through industrial developments and riverside attractions, to the modern conservatory and into the future. It depicts scenes from Harlem Park, Rockford Peaches baseball and local athletes, like Olympian Janet Lynn.

Hueg was selected from a pool of 27 artists and paid $75,000 to create the mural. Though his studio is based in Westminster, Co., northwest of Denver, he’s no stranger to our region. In 1997, he joined a group of mural-painting sign artists as they covered 10 walls around downtown Belvidere. Hueg designed two other Belvidere murals, and has helped to create postcard-like murals along the Lincoln Highway, displayed in Byron, Oregon and Rochelle.

Standing just 32 inches high, but stretching 146 feet long, the mural presents challenges for an artist accustomed to taller surfaces. As he works his way through this painting, Hueg unrolls fresh canvas and rolls up completed canvas, spreading it across his studio.

Hueg’s new mural joins a long list of artwork around the new conservatory and Sinnissippi Park. Inside, visitors can find four glass totems donated by business owners Joe and Sharyn Castrogiovanni. Out near the parking lot and bioswale, visitors can see a spinning metal sculpture donated by business leaders Tom and Darlene Furst. On the conservatory terrace twirl a pair of bronze dancers, donated by CherryVale Mall.

Soon, visitors will follow more than a mile of sculptures scattered along the Sinnissippi Bike Path, from Auburn Street to the YMCA. A future trail could encompass sculptures around downtown Rockford.

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