". . . today's modern conservatory has become a locus for
understanding and caretaking of the natural world."

Anne S. Cunningham

Crystal Palaces
Garden Conservatories of the United States


Princeton Architectural Press, 2000
When it arrives in my mailbox I can't wait to rip off the plain brown wrapper that hides the stunning pictures inside each issue of National Geographic. Opening Crystal Palaces feels like that without having to bother with the brown paper. Inside are dazzling pictures of garden conservatories in 25 cities and towns across the America taken by photographers who know the houses best. Some of the glasshouses are on estates once owned by people of enormous wealth; others are the lands of city parks; still others have been built to house the rarities of botanical gardens.

Anne Cunning ham chronicles the rise of garden conservatories from the their beginnings as pleasure gardens under glass in the mid- to late 1800s, through their time of neglect in the mid 1900's, to the revival of interest and attention they are being given now. The book presses hard on the educational function of toadies conservatories in telling the story of decreasing biodiversity, ecology, and natural systems. I see this emphasis on education in the Garden where I walk. The Garden's conservatory manges to the new story through plantings in natural arrangements and interactive displays and exhibits without intruding on the old mission of creating beauty, solice, and magic, and amazement by entering a bubble where a different world lives.

The book title Crystal Palaces comes from the one and only Crystal Palace designed by Joseph Paxton for the Great Exposition of 1851 in London. Never before or since was there a building like it: 19 acres covered with glass-- that's almost five times larger than the massive garden conservatory at Longwood Gardens near Philadelphia and four times the size of St. Peter's in Rome. The glass building in London was irreverently dubbed the Crystal Palace in an article published in the British humor magazine Punch
, and the name stuck.

If you can get beyond looking at the glossy photographs, the Crystal Palaces does include an assortment of fascinating tidbits on American garden conservatories opened between 1878 and 1898: Here are a few:
  • The Conservatory of Flowers in San Francisco is oldest glasshouse made of wood in the country. Instead of using nails, the joints are bound with pine pitch.
  • The conservatory at Longwood Gardens is the largest in the glasshouse country with 100,000 square feet (4 acres) under glass. There's enough space inside to house a homelike grass lawn bordered by flower beds. After Longwood, rounding out the big five are the Lincoln Park Conservatory in Chicago (92,770 square feet), the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory of the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx (55,000 square feet and pictured on the cover of the book); the United States Botanical Garden in Washington, D.C. (52,000 square feet); and Phipps Conservatory in Pittsburgh (43,494 square feet).
  • One of the finest collections of Alpine plants in the country is housed in decidedly non-Alpine San Antonio, Texas, at the Lucille Halsell Conservatory of San Antonio Botanical Garden. (Of the contemporary glasshouses Cunningham lists, this one is my favorite. Designed by Emilia Ambasz, the building looks like a shimmering cross between a nuclear power cooling tower and a rocket launching platform.
  • The Windows to the Tropics Conservatory at the Fairchild Tropical Garden in Coral Gables specializes in Amorphophallus plants, including two of the huge infamous Amorphophallus titanium, the "Titan." The huge blooms are often taller than a person and are produced by tubers that weigh in at nearly seventy pounds. Impressive as size is, it's the flower's stomach- wrenching stench that draws the crowds.
Here are the garden conservatories featured in Crystal Palaces listed in from oldest (1878) to newest (1998):

Conservatory of Flowers (San Francisco)
Conservatories of the Missouri Botanical Garden
(St. Louis)
Lincoln Park and Garfield Park Conservatories (Chicago)
Phipps Conservatory (Pittsburgh)
Biltmore Estate Conservatory (Ashville)
The Dorance H. Hamilton Fernery (Philadephia)
Enid A. Haupt Conservatory (Bronx)
Sonnenberg Conservatory Range (Canandaigua)
Volunteer Park Conservatory (Seattle)
Como Park Conservatory (St. Paul)
Conservatory at Longwood Gardens (Kennett Square, PA)
United States Botanical Garden (Washington, DC)
Irwin M. Krohn Conservatory (Cincinnati)
Duke Gardens (Somerville, NJ)
Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory (Milwaukee)
Boettcher Memorial Conservatory (Denver)
Windows to the Tropics Conservatory (Coral Gables)
John A. Sibley Horticultural Center (Pine Mountain, GA)
Crystal Bridge Tropical Conservatory (Oklahoma City)
Steinhardt Conservatory (Brooklyn)
Lucille Halsell Conservatory (San Antonio)
Dorothy Chapman Fuqua Conservatory (Atlanta)
Bolz Conservatory (Madison)
Rio Grande Botanic Garden Conservatory (Albuquerque)
Quad City Conservatory (Rock Island, IL)

In the too numerous to feature but "worth visiting" category, Cunningham includes a list of 36 additional conservatories that welcome visitors.