In the Garden:
Northern California Coastal & Inland Valleys
August, 2003
Regional Report

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The Conservatory will reopen its doors to the public on September 20, 2003.

Grand Opening of the Conservatory

It has been eight years since a Pacific storm with winds of over 100 mph severely damaged San Francisco's Conservatory of Flowers. Rehabilitation of this Victorian jewel is nearing completion, and on Saturday, September 20, 2003, the Conservatory will officially reopen to the public with a grand celebration. Located in the heart of Golden Gate Park, the Conservatory is the oldest existing greenhouse building in the United States. It has been an icon of San Francisco -- second only to the Golden Gate Bridge -- since its official opening in 1879.

Rehabilitating the Building
After the storm in 1995, spontaneous donations from private citizens kick-started what would become a $25 million rehabilitation effort. The Campaign to Save the Conservatory received a major boost in 1998, when First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton visited the building as part of the White House' "Save America' Treasures" project, of which the Conservatory is a flagship effort.

The rehabilitation process has been challenging and long. There was lead paint to contend with, as well as no original drawings or plans to consult. No one really had any idea of the provenance for the building (legends trace it variously to Europe or the eastern US). Any information that may have existed likely burned in the fire following the 1906 earthquake.

The Conservatory is now in the capable hands of Scot Medbury, Director of Strybing Arboretum and Botanical Gardens, who took me on a recent tour to see the progress. Although the Conservatory still looks like a Victorian structure, it is actually as modern as a spaceship! Under the ornately scrolled aluminum grating lies all of the electrical and plumbing conduits. There is an extensive stainless steel tubing system that provides distilled water to the misters high overhead. The basement is where the heart and lungs of the building reside. The heating system is run by two small boilers, no larger than washing machines, with heating ducts hidden behind filigree grating in each greenhouse room. There is a reverse osmosis water filtration system in the basement to provide mineral-free water to the entire collection of plants.

The day I was there, workers were filling the planting beds with new potting soil via a conveyor belt. There were new plants that had just arrived from Florida under quarantine in the domed greenhouse. When I asked Scot how he got plants past the California Agricultural Inspectors, he said "Lot’s of paperwork."

Horticultural Displays
When the Conservatory reopens in September, the public will not only find a beautifully restored building, but a reinvented institution as well. An extraordinary $4 million interior program of horticultural and botanical displays has been created to inspire visitors to appreciate and conserve the earth's extraordinary biodiversity and tropical flora. The Conservatory reopens as a spectacular living museum of rare and beautiful tropical plants.

From Borneo to Bolivia, the 1,500 species of plants represent the unique and unusual from more than 50 countries around the world. Perhaps the most intriguing group of plants is the famous collection of Dracula orchids, regarded as the world's best public collection. These miniature beauties will be a primary feature of the Highland Tropics exhibit, where the Conservatory's world-famous collection of high-elevation orchids will be displayed for the first time, along with mosses, ferns, vines, and stunted trees of tropical mountaintops.

The Lowland Tropic exhibit houses the famous century-old giant philodendron that the building's reconstruction was planned around, as well as food-producing tropical plants, such as cacao, allspice, cashew, and coffee. In the Aquatic Plant gallery, visitors will walk over a glass bridge that spans the pond to view water lily pads large enough to support a small child. I can't wait to feast my eyes on the collection of carnivorous plants, which I understand is quite extensive.
The Conservatory's brand new Special Exhibits gallery will always feature something new for repeat visitors. I asked Scot how long he thought this retrofit would last. He said he hoped the Conservatory would still be going strong well into the next century! Thanks to Scot Medbury and hundreds of other dedicated craftsmen and volunteers, future generations of people will come to know this magnificent structure.

For more information about the Conservatory of Flowers, please visit: http://www.conservatoryofflowers.org 


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