The Conservatory of Flowers is the emblem and pride of Golden Gate Park. With its elegant symmetry, white-washed glass panes and delicate wooden fretwork it commands an imposing prospect overlooking formal flowerbeds and gracious green lawns. More than anything else, the Conservatory establishes the park’s nineteenth century pedigree, its pretensions of grandeur and continental style. It’s easy to imagine ladies in long dresses with parasols and gentlemen in top hats strolling there. So romantic! I notice that couples seem particularly drawn to it, many pushing strollers or chasing toddlers.
Although a magnificent sight on a sunny day, brilliantly white against a saturated blue sky, I think the best time to visit the Conservatory is on a typical damp, gray, foggy San Francisco day. On such a day stepping through those doors into steamy, thick air that smells like peat and moss, visually accosted by greens, looking up into that magnificent dome . . . I always feel like a time traveler or as if I had stepped through the wardrobe, instantly transported from a dreary present to the tropics and adventure.
Thank you James Lick (!) and the group of wealthy tycoons who got together after his death to purchase his still-crated greenhouse and donate it to the park. With the help of funds appropriated by the state legislature it was erected at its present site and opened to the public in 1878.
The 1848 Palm House of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in England is often cited as inspiration, probably because of a certain likeness in form. The Kew Greenhouse, designed by Richard Turner and Decimus Burton, is famously an early example of the iron and glass construction that made glass conservatories of this type so much more efficient to manufacture and maintain in the second half of the nineteenth century. But, curiously, the Conservatory in Golden Gate Park, although built thirty years later, is made of wood and glass.
In fact, mystery pervades the history of this revered landmark. Nobody actually seems to know where it originated. Although legend holds that it was shipped in crates around the Horn, no record of this shipment has been found. Furthermore, tests conducted on it in 1997 found that two-thirds of the wood used in it was redwood. This large amount of redwood cannot be accounted for solely by various restoration efforts over the years, so it seems likely that it was manufactured on the west coast, not the east coast or England.
In any case, the wood framing has made it more susceptible to fire and hastened its aging. In 1883, only five years after it opened, fire purportedly caused by a faulty heater severely damaged the original dome. It reopened with a slightly taller dome in 1884 and survived the 1906 earthquake, but age, poor maintenance and winter storms led to severe damage and necessitated its closing in 1995. In 2003 (eight long years later!) it reopened with about 45% of the original wood replaced and the rest treated with rot-retardant chemicals. Let’s hope sufficient funds are currently allocated to its upkeep.