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Not Just Eye Candy 

The Chicago Botanic Garden wants to be loved for more than its looks.

Regenstein Center Grand Opening

WHEN Sat 9/23 and Sun 9/24, 10 AM-4 PM

WHERE Chicago Botanic Garden, 1000 Lake Cook Rd., Glencoe

PRICE Free ($12 parking)

INFO 847-989-7313, chicagobotanic.org

The Chicago Botanic Garden's main facility, formerly known as the Education Center, opens to the public for the first time in more than a year tomorrow, sporting its new $25 million makeover. And like the recipient of a really good face-lift, the 30-year-old structure--designed as a cross topped with a cupola by original architect Edward Larrabee Barnes--looks about the same, only better. There's an easy-to-miss main entrance, enhanced gallery and library spaces, and improved sight lines that should demystify the layout. The brand-new walls and ceiling in Nichols Hall, the largest of the exhibit spaces, are covered with strips of hemlock--exactly like the old ones. Bonsai are still on display in the courtyards, but each pair has been given its own frosted glass backdrop, like so many puppet theaters. There are also 9,000 square feet of newly dug basement where garden employees, who might as well be working in the national vault, labor in concrete offices with fluorescent lighting.

Shall I fess up a bias? My family has these instructions: on the night I croak they're to smuggle my corpse through the garden's entrance, over its bowered bridge, and past the statue of Linnaeus to a spot beside a certain linden, where they're to dig a deep, narrow hole, pay whatever bribes necessary if discovered, and dump me in. If I don't reveal my whereabouts by killing the tree, I'll have my place in paradise. This 385-acre living canvas, situated on land owned by the Cook County Forest Preserve on the county's northern border (a long haul for all but North Shore residents), is the only world-class museum added to the Chicago area since the early 20th century. Its 23 gardens, carved over the last 38 years from the swampy clay of the Skokie Lagoon, have matured into a series of stunning dream landscapes.

Now the Chicago Horticultural Society, which manages the garden, is intent on making it "more than just a pretty place." Adult education classes have been offered at the facility for seven years--everything from flower pressing to professional pruning--but this weekend will see the dedication of the Joseph Regenstein Jr. School, which the CHS hopes will become the country's premier research and education facility of its kind. Housed in the Regenstein Center with a state-of-the-art laboratory and access to a 25,000-volume library (including 3,000 rare botanical books), the school will offer 475 classes for about 4,000 students, including certificate programs for professional landscapers. The first students in a collaborative master's program with Northwestern University will get their degrees next spring, and similar programs with UIC and the Illinois Institute of Technology are expected to be running within a year or two.

These academic ambitions are part of a strategic plan that sprouted a decade ago, when the CHS hired Barbara Whitney Carr as its president. The first person to hold the position without a background in botany, Carr had earned a reputation as a master fund-raiser during her 20 years as head of the Lincoln Park Zoo, and in the time she's been at the garden its annual budget has grown from $13 million to $33 million ($9 million from the Forest Preserve) with a $40 million endowment. But the real evidence of Carr's power can be seen in the capital campaign, begun in 2000 and completed last June: the goal was $100 million, the harvest $148 million. (Among the notable gifts: $5 million from Carr's sister, Pleasant Rowland, founder of the American Girl doll empire, in memory of their father, onetime Leo Burnett head Edward M. Thiele.)

Over the last five years money from the capital campaign's been spent on problems like shoreline erosion and the garden's only curse (now that the goose droppings are mostly gone), noise pollution from the Edens expressway. A brick wall and berm, built along 1.25 miles of the west boundary, was completed a year ago at a cost of $13 million, paid by county and state agencies. The garden's literature suggests the wall has reduced highway noise by more than 50 percent, but executive director Kris Jarantoski says the sound levels haven't been measured since construction was completed. The whir of traffic still accompanies visitors from the moment they set foot in the parking lot, and at the bulb garden or on the prairie there's a surrealistic disparity between the visuals and the sound track.

The garden, which charges for parking ($12 for cars, $20 for vans) but not admission, has counted about 750,000 visitors annually for the last five years. But communications director Richard Bartecki says research conducted in 2004 showed that most Chicago residents were woefully vague about what it has to offer. As a result the board committed to an aggressive three-year branding campaign starting last year that doubled ad spending and splashed garden images on full-page and double-page spreads in the local papers and on buses, bus shelters, and a billboard by the Kennedy Expressway. Evanston-based Turner Advertising, run by Burnett alum Steve Turner, created the ads, along with a new Web site and a radio campaign. Bartecki says attendance during the first year, with a hot summer and the Education Center closed, was level; this year it's only up about 4 percent, but Bartecki claims the goal was public awareness, not attendance. Sophia Siskel, hired away from the Field Museum last winter, is conducting a cost-benefit analysis of programming and exploring ways to attract more off-season visitors: one idea she's touting is a holiday event during which the garden's model railroad will run through a miniature replica of Chicago landmarks in the Regenstein Center.

This weekend's opening will feature the garden's collection of 360 botanical prints as well as 131 large-scale photographs from a new book it has copublished, In Search of Paradise: Great Gardens of the World, written by Penelope Hobhouse. But nothing on display indoors will rival what's outside: two million plants and the start of the golden season.

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