Plant Conservatories Sprouting Up Across the...


What do the world’s rapidly receding rain forests and other endangered ecological climes have to do with New York City? Or Atlanta, for that matter? Or San Antonio? Or Rock Island, Ill.

All of those cities and many others either have or are planning a plant conservatory, a kind of sophisticated greenhouse where they can nurture specimens of the world’s endangered plant life, much as zoos protect some endangered animal species.

Evie White came all the way to New York, where by luck she got a lead on 18 acres of land back home in Rock Island on which to build the plant conservatory she has been dreaming of for years.

White and her husband, Charles, a retired schoolteacher, recently attended a two-day workshop, Conservatories of the 21st Century, at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. Experts attended from all over the country. For the Whites, it was a wellspring of knowledge.


Most conservatories are the crown jewel of a botanical garden. Sometimes they are called “the Rembrandt in the museum.”

In the garden, landscape architects and horticulturists do the best they can with the existing climate. In the conservatory, where heating and cooling systems may be computer controlled, horticulturists can preserve rare plants, plants that grow tens of thousands of miles away, plants from the other side of the Equator, plants that people in a town would never see if it weren’t for the controlled climates the conservatories provide.

The concept dates back at least to Roman times.

But in 1989, Rock Island, a town of 40,000, yet part of the Quad City area on the Mississippi River with a populace of 250,000, has decided that it wants a conservatory.

So, it seems, have a lot of others.

It may be the growth industry of culture as conservatories, and dreams of glass houses for plants, sprout across the country. More than $150 million is being spent already.

Experts, such as Joe Kerwin of the New York Botanical Gardens in the Bronx, a 240-acre complex with a beautiful turn-of-the-century Victorian conservatory, say the boom partially reflects an ecology-conscious nation.

“You turn on any news show and you will see a segment on how the rain forests are disappearing,” Kerwin says. “Everyone is now aware of a problem that few knew little about just a few years ago.”


Experts tell us that rain forests are disappearing at the rate of an acre a second and that the Earth is losing three plant species an hour, perhaps taking with them great medicinal or economic secrets.

But Kerwin doesn’t think concern for the ecology is the sole reason for the interest in conservatories.

“If that were the case, you could buy up quite a bit of Brazilian real estate with $100 million and preserve the original,” he says.

There seems to be an attendant sense of civic pride about having a conservatory. You’ve got the art museum, the symphony, a zoo, and now, by gosh, it’s about time for that conservatory.


Most of the new construction has been in the South and Southwest, where culture is moving in along with the satellite dish.

The Brooklyn Botanical Garden played host to the first-ever conference to study everything from fund-raising to new methods of pest control, as well as to show off its own $25-million restoration and new construction, the Steinhardt Conservatory.

Representatives of the four newest conservatories--the ones in Brooklyn, San Antonio, Atlanta and Oklahoma City--dominated the sessions dealing with architecture, ventilation, shading, cooling and heating, publicity, the pros and cons of receiving municipal, county or state support, how to present a good educational program, how to introduce predator insects.

It revealed a basic conflict between architects and horticulturists.


Architects want to make a statement with the structure. Horticulturists want to obscure the structure as much as possible so that visitors feel they are lost in time as they meander through the misty fronds.

The Whites of Rock Island are thinking more modestly than their Brooklyn host, perhaps $3 million to $4 million. They personally have a bonsai collection of more than 100 trees, someone else has a rose collection, a third has a cactus collection and they all want to will them to a conservatory.

They don’t have the potential resources Brooklyn has. When costs ran high, Brooklyn found a last-minute benefactor, Wall Streeter Michael Steinhardt, who donated $3 million.

Since his was the largest single donation, the lovely glass houses, connected underground, are called the Steinhardt Conservatory.


“You could say that you do get a lot of bang for your buck when you contribute to a conservatory,” observed Mike Bush, the director of one of the new conservatories, the Myriad Gardens’ Crystal Bridge in Oklahoma City.

The Crystal Bridge is a $6.3-million modernistic structure that evokes the sense of being in a space capsule at the same time as being in a primeval world of nature.

Some have described the 14,000-square-foot cylindrical bridge as a “trash can littering the landscape.” It is, however, an example of the creative architecture evolving in the greenhouse world.

In Atlanta, industrialist J. B. Fuqua picked up the entire tab, $5.5 million, for the Dorothy Chapman Fuqua Conservatory, a conservatory with rare plants, man-made mist, free-flying birds, a collection of more than 300 carnivorous plants. It promises to be a major conservatory of the future, with a commitment to preserving rare plants.


The new Atlanta showpiece has 16,000 square feet of display space and is named in honor of Fuqua’s wife of 43 years.

In San Antonio, there is the new Lucile Halsell Conservatory, carved into the ground with a series of soaring glass roofs and containing an innovative Alpine environment, as well as the traditional palm trees, showy orchids and cacti. This 90,000-square-foot complex, opened in 1988, carried a $7-million price tag, $5 million of which came from the Halsell Foundation, endowed by the late Ewing and Lucille Halsell. It was then turned over to the city to maintain with the hopes that it would be a major tourist attraction, ranking just below the Alamo and the River Walk.

Eric Tschanz, now at Powell Gardens in Kansas City, which has a conservatory in its future, was the director at San Antonio when it was built. He says one study showed it ranked among the top five Texas tourist attractions when it first opened.

“Part of that was because it was new,” he says. “A lot of conservatories have tremendous tourist appeal when they first open.”


Tschanz says that when St. Louis’ Climatron opened in 1960, it was packed with tourists, but it did not maintain that appeal.

The Climatron was perhaps the most spectacular conservatory use of Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome, a popular design in the 1960s. It now is undergoing a $12.8-million renovation, mostly replacing the acrylic glass that had yellowed with age.

The West Michigan Horticultural Society in Grand Rapids, Mich., is one, like Rock Island, that is starting from scratch and eventually hopes to put together an $8-million botanical gardens and conservatory. The county has donated 50 acres and they are about to launch the first fund drive.

“It looks do-able and we’re constantly on the march,” says the president, Betsy Borre. “My family teases me about being president because my house plants are dying.”


In Murrells Inlet, S.C., a $5-million phase one is planned for Brookgreen Garden, but Hurricane Hugo has taken the committee right back to the drawing boards. The director, Gurdon Tarbox, thinks a traditional greenhouse would have gone with the winds.

Brookgreen is unique for combining sculpture with plants.

The U.S. Botanical Garden in Washington, D.C., lists $15.2 million for what may be a renovation of the existing conservatory, but may end up being a complete reconstruction.

Robert Halpern, horticulturist for the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens, proposed putting birds into the conservatories. Some, such as the Fuqua Conservatory, already have them, but it generally is not an idea whose time has come.


“We have to get the public in and the sounds of birds, the whirring of birds in flight, a sighting of a bird, is a great draw,” Halpern says.

Halpern tells of one Canadian conservatory with free-flying birds that had to start screening the visitors. One woman released her pet parakeet so it could live in splendor. Another was stopped before she could release a box of finches.

Alden Aust is a retired city planner and chairman of the committee to get a botanical gardens and conservatory in Omaha, Neb.

He and his wife attended the conference to pick up pointers. Aust lists the usual reasons why he feels Omaha should have a conservatory. He holds what may be the strongest explanation until last.


“Well, Des Moines has one, and it’s half our size.”