Photo by Dee Nash
The Crystal Bridge Tropical Conservatory was designed by I.M. Pei in 1964, but it wasn't open to the public until 1988. The Crystal Bridge was fully refurbished in 2013. It is 224 feet long, 70 feet in diameter, and is covered by 3,028 sections of translucent, double-layered acrylic panels instead of glass.
I’ve had a thing for glass houses and conservatories since I was a child. Maybe it’s because I lived only minutes from the Ed Lycan Conservatory located in Will Rogers Park in Oklahoma City. Although this Victorian beauty designed by Lord and Burnham Co. was nearly lost to age and decay, it was restored and reopened to great fanfare in 2013. Lord and Burnham Co. designed and constructed many of the historic greenhouses in the United States.
Conservatories are sometimes affectionately called glass or crystal cathedrals. Step inside, and you’ll see why. Glass houses evoke a sense of calm and quietude much like a library or church. The air is warm and still. Sunlight glints off the structure and plants. Glass houses are quiet even when crowded with people for a garden party. To be within the shelter of a glass house on a winter day is heaven indeed.
Glass houses protect tropical and sub-tropical plants—tender ones that can’t be grown outdoors all year. They often highlight collections from exotic orchids to cactus, succulents and everything in between. Although the Romans were the first ones to create sheltered areas to overwinter their citrus fruit, each generation has changed conservatory structure and design while cultivating those plants popular at their time. Plant hunters of the 18th and 19th Centuries needed a place to keep and grow their treasured cuttings to full size. Part of the allure in conservatories was access to rare flora and fauna.
Unlike today, people weren’t able to search the Internet for photos of plant curiosities from far away, so they flocked to gardens like the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in London. Kew has many conservatories, but the Temperate House is the largest Victorian glass house in the world. It was built in 1859 and is a World UNESCO site.
Many U.S. conservatories were patterned after famous greenhouses and glass houses. The Buffalo and Erie County Conservatory, built from 1897 to 1899 was fashioned after Kew’s famous Palm House (built from 1844 to 1848.) The Buffalo conservatory was also designed and built by Lord and Burnham Co. The gardens around the Buffalo conservatory were designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, who also designed the Chicago World’s Fair (officially the World’s Columbian Exposition) and New York City’s Central Park.
On the other side of the continent is the Conservatory of Flowers at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. It is the oldest wood and glass conservatory in North America. It was rehabilitated from 1999 to 2003.
In the center of the country, Chicago boasts two historic conservatories, the Garfield Park Conservatory which celebrated its 100th Birthday in 2008 and the Lincoln Park Conservatory, now part of the Lincoln Park Zoo.
At the Missouri Botanical Garden is a unique and modern conservatory, the Climatron. Its design was patterned after the building principles of R. Buckminster Fuller, who pioneered the geodesic dome as a system. The Climatron was one of the first conservatories in the U.S. to use aluminum in its structure. Many conservatories originally built with iron, wood or steel now use aluminum because it is lightweight and strong. The Climatron opened to the public in 1960.
The Dorothy Chapman Fuqua Conservatory, located in the Atlanta Botanical Garden, is a modern structure. It opened in 1989 to teach visitors about conservation. As such, it houses rare and endangered plants in five display areas.
The Crystal Bridge Tropical Conservatory, at the center of the Myriad Botanical Gardens, is another modern glass house and is the heart of both the garden and Oklahoma City’s downtown landscape. Designed by renowned architect I.M. Pei, it houses one of the rarest tropical plant collections in the U.S.
Conservatories are often the crowning jewels of botanical gardens, but they’re not just for looks. Every botanical garden has a mission. Some study the genetic information of plants. Others keep rare plants safe for the future.
“Like zoos committed to saving animals, botanical gardens are committed to research, inventorying, understanding and educating people about plants,” said Casey Sharber, Director of Horticulture for the Myriad Botanical Gardens.
While there isn’t room here to list all of the conservatories across the nation, I hope, the next time you travel, you're on the lookout for botanical gardens and their historic glass houses. If you find one, step inside. Conservatories are quiet places of refuge for plants and people in a noisy world.