Few Victorian public conservatories remain in the world. Fortunately three of them are located on the West Coast, two of them in the Puget Sound region: the Seymour Conservatory in Wright Park in Tacoma and the Volunteer Park Conservatory in Seattle. (The Hall of Flowers at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco is the third).
The Seymour Conservatory and the Volunteer Park Conservatory grow and display the exotic and rare, the tender and delicate, all requiring protection from winter’s chill.
These glass houses are botanical gardens on a monumental scale, whose contents are kept safe from winter temperatures and other climate issues. During the 18th century, the indoor garden began as a necessity when botanists and explorers returned from the new Asian and African trade routes with seeds and plants starts.
They quickly learned that most of these plants could not be cultivated in the English climate. The need to develop a protected environment came about as a result of trying to grow both ornamental as well as edible plants, such as oranges and lemons. Additionally, scientists were curious about the potential medicinal benefits that these new plants might possess and these plants also needed protected climatic conditions in which to grow and be observed.
Initially there were problems regulating the internal temperatures of the buildings, which remained too cold for plant production. Glass technology was in its infancy and double glazing had yet to be invented. During the 1800s, glass manufacturing capabilities made giant strides, allowing for the development of the glass and iron Victorian structures that we are familiar with today. The most famous glass house was constructed in 1851 in London at Kew gardens, and became the standard bearer for conservatory design in the late 19th and early 20th century.
The Seymour Conservatory opened at Wright Park in Tacoma in 1908 with great fanfare, and was a favorite stop for locals out for a carriage ride. It was a gift to the city from William W. Seymour, president of Tacoma Gas Company and later Tacoma’s mayor.
The majority of citizens had never seen tropical plants such as orchids, and must have considered them “other worldly,” considering the unique colors, shapes, patterns and fragrances of these and other tropical and rare plants.
Current permanent displays include ferns, palms, figs, bromeliads, orchids, rare and endangered plants and seasonal displays.
The city of Seattle built its Volunteer Park Conservatory in 1912. Formerly known as City Park, Volunteer Park was renamed in 1901 to honor the volunteers who served in the Spanish-American War.
The new glass, wood and iron house, which was modeled after the Crystal Palace in London, was shipped in from Massachusetts and then assembled by Seattle city employees. The overall park design was done by the Olmstead Brothers, who designed of New York’s Central Park, and included the conservatory.
The building became a destination for admirers of rare plants as well as those seeking a respite from their daily chores. Here they found a kaleidoscope of color, a full range of textures and the sweet heady aromas that are heightened in a warm environment.
Seasonal displays, both inside and out, have given visitors a myriad of reasons to return to this Victorian-style building. By 1978, the wood and iron had deteriorated and was compounded by a violent storm that dealt the final blow, closing the building from 1980 to 1985.
Fortunately, local citizens campaigned vigorously to restore the building and the nonprofit Friends of the Conservatory was formed. They formed a partnership with Seattle Parks and Recreation, raising the funds for an architectural restoration, and the structure reopened in 1985.
This effort was to be repeated in 2014. Closed in May last year, the conservatory — after a hard fight to raise the funds for the restoration — reopened for a gala event on Dec. 6.
More than 150,000 people visit the conservatory each year and many of them take part in the public programs, guided tours, plant sales, special events and classes. Others find the floral backdrop a marvelous setting for personal photos, while artists use canvas to capture that special moment in time when their favorite floral displays are at their peak.
There are many reasons to make the journey to Volunteer Park and to experience the timeless beauty of the architecture and horticultural collections found in the conservatory. Wander the paths of the park and immerse oneself in the exhibits at the Asian Art Museum.
People in the Puget Sound region are the fortunate recipients of forward-thinking city planners and designers, plus the continued work of volunteers and city employees for more than a century. We have in our midst precious and unique structures that are waiting to be discovered by some and rediscovered by others, but need to be protected by all.
Sandra Schumacher writes the Plants of Merit column for The Herald and is a freelance garden writer and Master Gardener. She is a member of the Garden Writers of America.
Volunteer Park Conservatory: 1402 E Galer St., Seattle, 206-322-4112, www.volunteerparkconservatory.org
Seymour Conservatory: 501 S I St., Tacoma, 253-591-5330, www.metroparkstacoma.org/conservatory
Visit the conservatories’ websites to get directions, docent tour information, photo permit requirements, admission fees, hours of operation, classes and events.
“Flowers of Volunteer Park Conservatory” by Sara L. Chapman, Book Publishers Network.
“The Pacific Northwest Garden Tour” by Donald Olson, Timber Press Inc.