In the Garden:
Northern California Coastal & Inland Valleys
December, 2000
Regional Report

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The exotic collection of plants remain inside the conservatory during reconstruction.

The Conservatory

On December 17, 1995, one of the most destructive storms in history hit Northern California. The winds blew at hurricane force, causing power outages, downed trees, and general mayhem all over the northern part of the state. Many communities were without power for more than a week. That stormy day was the straw that broke the camel's back for one of San Francisco's grand old dames, the Conservatory in Golden Gate Park.

Damaged beyond repair, the building is nevertheless still in use housing a huge collection of plants. Unfortunately, it isn't open to the public. The gardeners are busy keeping the specimen plants alive, a difficult task using only 19th-century technology. However, now the Conservatory is undergoing renovations and will be open again to the public.

A Long History

The Conservatory had its ground-breaking ceremonies in 1878 and was opened to the public in 1879. It housed a collection of tropical plants and flowers from both the new and old worlds, including collections of rare plants from faraway places such as Borneo and Thailand. Botanists and horticulturists from all over the world came to view not only the collection, but also the structure itself.

In addition to caring for and maintaining the permanent collection of tropical plants, the Conservatory is a designated rescue center for the U.S. Department of the Interior. Recently, the gardeners took in 2,600 orchids that were being smuggled into the United States from India.

The Conservatory Style

The architectural style of the Conservatory is Victorian, and the building resembles a gigantic wedding cake. The gingerbread details are what give it the appearance of a confectionery fantasy. It is the oldest building in Golden Gate Park and has been designated as a California Historical Landmark (#841). Although steel was available and commonly used in the late 1800s, the Conservatory is built of wood.

The history of the building is cloudy because the records were lost in the earthquake and fire of 1906. One theory has it that the building was prefabricated in the East (either Ireland or New York - stories differ) and shipped around Cape Horn. During the recent reconstruction project, however, it was found to be built of old-growth redwood, which was available only here in the West. It seems unlikely that the wood was cut, sent around Cape Horn, and then sent back again in the prefabricated building. The original boiler that heated the old greenhouse actually did come around Cape Horn twice. The first one sank with the ship that was carrying it and another had to be built.

Restoring the Conservatory

The restoration of the Conservatory is in the capable hands of Scot Medbury, director of Strybing Arboretum and Botanical Gardens, in San Francisco, whose enthusiasm for the project is infectious. I was thrilled to be invited inside the old building for a personal tour and recalled visiting the Conservatory when I was a little girl. Then, as now, my imagination ran wild, and I fancied myself in the deepest jungle. A friend who once attended a private birthday party there described it as the "ultimate fern bar."

A panel of restoration architects from San Francisco have finished a preliminary report on how to take apart and rebuild the structure, upgrading the antiquated technology without compromising its historical integrity. Currently, workers are carefully removing all the old lead paint and asbestos on the west wing of the building prior to its disassembly. Planners hope to use more than 50% of the original wooden structure in the reconstruction.

Medbury says the restoration is taking place in three stages. Stage one was to remove a small portion of the west wing for testing, phase 2 is the rest of the west wing restoration. Once that is complete, they will move on to the east wing and finally the great dome. Currently, $3.7 million is needed to complete the first part of the project. The process of raising the necessary funds appears to be well under way, thanks to the Friends of Recreation and Parks Campaign to Restore the Conservatory of Flowers. Now that reconstruction is assured, Medbury reports that the Conservatory has been removed from the list of the 100 most endangered monuments in the world.

The Reopening

As early as February of 2001, a new information center may be open in the foyer of the great dome, allowing visitors a peek at the amazing collection of plants still living inside. A mission and vision workshop with conservatory directors from the U.S. Botanic Garden, the Atlanta Botanical Garden, and the Huntington Botanical Gardens and the chairman of the University of Washington's Landscape Architecture Department will take place in January to determine how the Conservatory will be used once it is again open to the public.

Helping Restore the Conservatory

The Conservatory is a unique part of San Francisco's history. I sincerely hope that future generations of people - and plants - can come to know this magnificent structure. If you would like to help support this wonderful example of horticultural history, you can send a check, made payable to Friends of Recreation and Parks, to 501 Stanyan Street, San Francisco, CA 94117. Please designate on your check that your contribution should go directly to the Conservatory.


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