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Chicago landmarks reunited for the holidays

Karen Z. —  November 19, 2015 — Leave a comment

The marvelous miniatures of Wonderland Express reunite with their iconic Chicago landmarks for the holidays! Below are six of the most popular of our 80+ replicas alongside their real-world landmarks for comparison.

Created by Applied Imagination for our holiday and model train exhibition and photographed by staff photographer Robin Carlson, each model building is created in detail using only botanical materials. Come see these models and more for yourself: Wonderland Express is open daily November 27, 2015–January 3, 2016.

Click here to buy advance tickets.

PHOTO: Willis Tower & botanical scale model.

Willis Tower (formerly Sears Tower)

1. Willis Tower
Have you had the nerve to try “the Ledge” yet? The glass balcony on the 103rd floor of Willis Tower (formerly Sears Tower) wouldn’t be quite so intimidating from our 9-foot-tall replica…

PHOTO: Marshall Field's building clock & botanical scale model.

Marshall Field’s building clock

2. Marshall Field’s clock
We couldn’t quite squeeze all the numbers onto the face of our 3-inch-high Marshall Field’s clock (now Macy’s). Look closely at the 7½-ton, bronze original, and you’ll see that the Roman numeral “four” is represented as IIII rather than IV.

PHOTO: Newberry Library & botanical scale model.

Newberry Library

3. Newberry Library
In 1998, more than 100 years of city soot was washed from the darkened exterior of the Newberry Library, revealing its original 1893 surface of Connecticut pink granite.

PHOTO: Chicago Theatre & botanical scale model.

Chicago Theatre

4. Chicago Theatre
Called “the Wonder Theatre of the World” in 1921, the Chicago Theatre is a landmark loaded with other landmark references: the arch over the glitzy marquee is modeled after the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, the lobby after the Royal Chapel at Versailles, and the grand staircase after the one in the Paris Opera House.

PHOTO: Chicago Stadium & botanical scale model.

Chicago Stadium (now United Center)

5. Chicago Stadium
Before there was the United Center, there was the Chicago Stadium, home to the Blackhawks, the Bulls, boxing, ice shows, superstar concerts (Elvis, the Rolling Stones), and political conventions galore. Opened in 1929 and demolished in 1995, the Stadium was state-of-the-art for its day, despite being described as having “the acoustics of a shower stall.”

PHOTO: Rockefeller Memorial Chapel & botanical scale model.

Rockefeller Memorial Chapel

6. Rockefeller Memorial Chapel
More than 100 seedpods stand in for the more than 100 statues that decorate the exterior of the University of Chicago’s Rockefeller Memorial Chapel. Built almost entirely of stone, the real thing weighs a staggering 32,000 tons; our model, about 20 pounds.

Wonderland Express is a 10,000-square-foot holiday-themed exhibition that’s become a family-friendly tradition at the Chicago Botanic Garden. Model trains travel over bridges, under trestles, and past waterfalls on their way through a magical landscape with more than 80 mini-replicas of Chicago-area landmarks, all created with natural materials.

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and

Heart Felt

The story behind the Waud miniatures

Karen Z. —  December 31, 2012 — Leave a comment
A close-up of the creature's features from Elmer and the Dragon.

A close-up of the beloved creature’s features from the book Elmer and the Dragon.

The Waud collection of storybook figures are always a welcome treat at Wonderland Express—see them in the Lenhardt Library. While you’re there, tell the kids the story behind them:

Once upon a time (mid-1940s) there was a creative grandmother who wanted to give her grandchildren something special for the holidays. Knowing that they loved stories—nursery rhymes and fairy tales and the great books of childhood—the grandmother, whose name was Mrs. Ernest P. Waud (her first name was Olive), decided to make tree-ornament-sized figures of the characters that her grandchildren knew so well.

Now, Mrs. Waud was accomplished with a needle and thread. So she gathered wool felt (in many colors), jewel-like beads, and shiny sequins and seed pearls, and she began to stitch.

Like many characters, Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle is displayed with the storybook that made her famous.

Like many characters, Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle is displayed with the storybook that made her famous.

Her handiwork brought the characters to three-dimensional life, with incredible detail: the White Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland glances down, mid-scurry, at a tiny pocketwatch…miniature red beads mark the Through the Looking Glass lion’s claws…bits of wire are twisted into eyeglasses for the Three Blind Mice…and the chimney on Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater’s house tilts at just the right crazy angle.

Over the years, Mrs. Waud’s creations earned local recognition. An ornament-laden tree toured the Children’s Memorial Hospital annually in the 1950s. The Museum of Science and Industry included her figurines at the Miracle of Books fair in 1953, and the Art Institute of Chicago displayed her work around 1963. Finally, in 1998, the collection found a permanent home here at the Chicago Botanic Garden. More than 60 characters are on display every year, and some are sure to make your heart skip: Babar and Celeste…Pigling Bland…Peter Rabbit…

He's Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater.

He’s Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater.

Tell Mrs. Waud’s story, reminisce about your favorite childhood books, and smile as you explore the collection, on display through the first weekend of January.

"Mrs. Waud is such a perfectionist that she is not satisfied until there actually is character in the faces of her storybook images."  --Quote from a 1951 newspaper article.

“Mrs. Waud is such a perfectionist that she is not satisfied until there actually is character in the faces of her storybook images.” –Quote from a 1951 newspaper article.

Heartfelt wishes for a happy new year. ♥

©2012 Chicago Botanic Garden and

While the construction crew and the railroad guys were busy laying out the trains and buildings in Wonderland Express, 28 horticulturists and other staff members were busy building their own creations—making the wreaths that now line the Greenhouse gallery walls.

The big “now” story is that they’re all for sale.*

The big “wow” story is that behind each wreath are the hands and hearts of our horticulturists, our maintenance staff, our plant healthcare guys, our security personnel, our managers, etc. Although each person started with the same thing—a wreath form and the beauty of the Garden—we are rocked by the imagination, talent, and joy that they brought to the project.

Here are a few of their stories:

It took Cindy Nykiel (tram driver) and daughter Stacey (security) 46½ hours to engineer a wreath loaded with fun details: birch bark train cars with pistachio shell trim, black bean “coal,” and tiny battery-operated lights twinkling within the ginkgo leaf/catalpa pod bow.

Cindy wreath

A highly-decorated wreath by a mother/daughter team.

The twisted palm frond rosettes are genius.


A close-up of the palm frond rosettes.

 Senior horticulturist Heather Sherwood redefined starlight in three easy steps:

  1. Bamboo sticks duct taped together for a frame.
  2. Red tube lights zip-tied to the bamboo.
  3. Red twig dogwood, raffia-tied over it all.
Heather wreath

Red tube lights work straight through Valentine’s Day.

Nuts for the holidays? Plant Information Service Manager Kathie Hayden pairs nuts (oak, buckeye), beans (coffee tree), and pods (honey locust, sweetgum) with an appropriately amusing mascot. All but the walnuts (store bought) were collected from Garden grounds.

Kathie wreath

A wreath with a sense of humor.

Custodian Carlos García’s exuberant design is rooted in a vivid memory of a wreath he made in his fifth grade class in Ciudad Hidalgo, Michoacan, Mexico. The construction was a family affair: his kids helped with the cheery and heartfelt decorations.

Carlos wreath

A great solution for a plain front door.

Horticulturist Lisa Hilgenberg has a passion for seeds. Her stunning 11-bean-and-legume snowflake wreath celebrates the great variety found in just one species and hints at the fun we’ll be having at our second annual seed swap on February 24, 2013.

Lisa wreath

By the horticulturist in our Fruit & Vegetable Garden.

After cutting the birch trunks to size for Wonderland’s entrance hall, Exhibitions Manager Dawn Bennett took the leftover trimmings over to the carpenter shop…got out the chop saw…and turned waste into wonderful.

Dawn wreath

A wreath made from slices of birch.

*Priced at $150 each, wreaths are available for pickup after January 6.  Many were made with dried materials gathered at the Garden, which may last for many months indoors.

©2012 Chicago Botanic Garden and

With the holidays now officially approaching, all hands have turned to preparations for our annual holiday exhibition, Wonderland Express.

The ever-creative Nancy Clifton is putting the finishing touches on her fun and fragrant project for Wonderland Express: she’s making more than 400 wreath and garland decorations from a no-bake “faux dough” made of just two all-natural ingredients, cinnamon and applesauce. Nancy is a horticulture program specialist and popular Joseph Regenstein, Jr. School of the Chicago Botanic Garden teacher. This project is “baking” in name only, as the dough is simply mixed, rolled, and cookie-cut—the ornamental “cookies” then air dry on the counter for a couple of days, becoming surprisingly lightweight and a pretty, cinnamony color. The process is easy and kid-friendly, great to try at home for your seasonal decorations.

Nancy let us photograph her at work, while supplying some tips along the way.


1 pound (16 oz.) cinnamon
3 pounds (large 48 oz. jar) applesauce


The first question: Where do you buy a whole pound of cinnamon? Nancy orders bulk cinnamon online from San Francisco Herb Company. Any house-brand, non-chunky applesauce can be used. Since these ornaments are decorative only, non-branded, inexpensive ingredients work just fine.

Are you thinking this might be edible anyway? Well, it’s non-toxic, but no, don’t eat this dough! “I tried it,” Nancy says, “And it tastes terrible. It’s for crafting only!”



Slowly and carefully pour 1 pound of cinnamon into a large stainless steel, glass, or ceramic bowl. (Note: because cinnamon can create a fine dust cloud when poured, make sure that your work area is well ventilated and adult supervised.) Empty the contents of a 3-pound jar of applesauce onto the cinnamon and stir slowly.


The ingredients will pull together into a shiny, moist-looking mix with few cracks. If the dough seems too wet to roll out, add more cinnamon. (Nancy suggests starting with a 1:3 ratio of cinnamon to sauce, then gradually working toward a 1:2 ratio, adding cinnamon until achieving the feel and sheen of pie dough). If too many hairline cracks form in dough, add a bit more applesauce and mix until glossy and smooth.


Prep your rolling surface (a granite countertop or marble dough board is handy for this) by spreading a thick layer of extra cinnamon all over it. Heavily dust your rolling pin with cinnamon as well. Remove the dough from the bowl, set it onto the surface and coat the top generously with cinnamon.


Roll dough to about ¼” thickness (thinner dough can result in brittle ornaments), constantly re-dusting surfaces so dough does not stick.


Now comes the fun part—dust cookie cutters with cinnamon and cut as many decorations as desired. Like pie dough, extra scraps can be scooped up, rolled into a ball, and re-flattened. A dusted spatula helps to move the cut-outs to a wax-paper-covered surface to dry.


Dough can also be:

  • Pressed into candy/chocolate molds (dust heavily with cinnamon)
  • Pierced with a wire to string as a hanging ornament when dry
  • Rolled into 3-D shapes: deer, snowmen, branches
  • Rolled into small cinnamon-scented balls to add to potpourri
  • Fragranced with ground cloves or allspice in addition to cinnamon



They’re fake, they’re inexpensive, and they smell like the real thing! For cinnamon sticks, roll out dough as above, working it into an elliptical shape. Use a sharp knife to cut a straight edge across the short width, about 4″ from a rough edge. Starting at the straight side, roll dough tightly into a cinnamon stick shape. Dust with cinnamon. Continue with remainder of dough.


cookies 1

Let ornaments air dry for at least 48 hours (thicker dough will take longer to dry completely) before experimenting with paint, faux frosting, or glitter as decorations. Nancy has displayed these ornaments on the large wreath and garland in the Joutras Gallery in the Wonderland Express exhibition (opening on Friday, November 23). Stop by to see the final result in person!

©2012 Chicago Botanic Garden and

“I wonder…”  It’s a phrase we hear a lot at the holidays, especially about the outdoor light show that accompanies Wonderland Express, and it inspired us to gather the answers to your FAQs.

supper with santa_rjc0086

I wonder how many lights there are.  750,000, give or take a string.

supper with santa_rjc9703

I wonder what kind of lights they use.  LEDs, for the same reasons you have them at home: they last longer and use just 10 percent of the energy of incandescents.

I wonder how long it takes to put up all the lights.  Crews start stringing outdoor lights in October, using ladders or hydraulic truck lifts to reach the tops of the trees.


I wonder how many lights are on that big tree.  About 300 strings of LEDs light up the approximately 40-foot tree on the Esplanade.

I wonder if they re-use the lights every year.  Most lights are installed and removed by hand every year, tested, wrapped, and stored to re-use the next year. Some lights (entrance road, outer wall) are left on trees for two to three years. As you can imagine, damage from wind and weather and the occasional we-just-couldn’t-reach-it issue cause us to lose some lights every year. For an in-depth look at light installation and removal—and to see a tree delivered by helicopter—check out this video.

lights hanukkah_rjc4528

I wonder if the lights are up for Thanksgiving.  Yes! The lights get turned on next Tuesday, November 20, in plenty of time for you to bring family and friends for a pre- or post-Thanksgiving dinner stroll around the grounds.

Bring your sense of wonder.

©2012 Chicago Botanic Garden and