Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers

  The Conservatory of Flowers is located in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, CA.  It is the oldest building in the park, with construction completed in 1878, and is listed, rather exhaustively, on the National Register of Historic Places, the California Register of Historic Places, as California Registered Historical Site No. 841, and as a designated San Francisco Historical Landmark.

Entrance to the Conservatory.
The building is historically and architecturally interesting for a number of reasons.  The building was originally purchased by James Lick, a very successful, and very eccentric, local businessman, who had intended to place the greenhouse on the grounds of his San Jose mansion.  When he died in 1876, the building was sold in its entirety to a group of wealthy San Franciscans who then gave it as a gift to the city of San Francisco.  Architecturally, the building was essentially designed as a giant erector set, with tons of prefabricated and ready to assemble parts that could be shipped anywhere.  Since construction had never begun at Lick's mansion, the pieces were packed and shipped to the building's current site in Golden Gate Park.  Interestingly, no one has been able to find out exactly who designed the greenhouse or where it was purchased.  It shares many design and aesthetic similarities with a number of greenhouse designer's work, both within the United States and overseas, but there is no hard evidence that any one architect can be credited with the work.

The building is largely modeled after the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, located in southwest London.  The construction of the Conservatory of Flowers at the end of the 19th century, as well as its connection to Kew Gardens, illustrates an important point of historical context regarding rapid urbanization in the first fifty years of San Francisco history.  One of the civic responses to rapid urbanization and industrialization was the construction of parks and green space within city limits in order to break up an otherwise monotonous facade of brick and concrete.  On a tangential note, the rise of landscape architecture as a profession can be traced to the end of the 19th century, where garden designers who had previously only been employed by wealthy individuals to design private landscapes were increasingly hired by city governments to participate in urban planning and park design. Large scale park design quickly became the apex of the profession, with San Francisco's Golden Gate Park and New York's Central Park as the best and largest examples of city funded park design.
California State historical marker.
19th century American greenhouses and conservatories are largely the result of city planners and wealthy citizens attempts to import what was largely a European trend into rapidly developing U.S. cities.  In addition to providing a valuable contribution to the development of park and green space within a city, a well maintained and funded conservatory, chock full of exotic flowers, was a sign that a city was cosmopolitan, successful, and cultured.

The Conservatory of Flowers has had some serious ups and downs in its time.  The structure was damaged by fire in both  1883 and 1918 and has undergone significant reconstruction several times.  The largely wooden construction, combined with the humid internal environment and the San Francisco weather, makes rot and decay an inevitability and the frequent preventative maintenance that is required to keep the building in tip top shape hasn't always been forthcoming.  This all came to a head during the winter of 1996 when 100mph winds blew out a majority of the glass panes in the green house, with the resulting damage and loss of climate control in the conservatory resulting in the destruction of roughly 15% of the buildings collection of plants.  A massive reconstruction effort took place which resulted in the Conservatory of Flowers being more or less completely restored to its former glory.

The Conservatory of Flowers.
Getting There By Bike...

I have a very limited sense of direction when riding my bike around San Francisco and tend to pick the most straight forward path, which usually leads to my climbing large and steep hills while trying to get across town.  The way that I usually get to Golden Gate Park does involve climbing one hill, but after that it's very straight forward.  I prefer to take Fell St. all the way out the park, which has a nice big bike lane and then parallels the Panhandle which has bike paths running through it.  Once you reach the park, the Conservatory of Flowers is in the northwest corner.  Just follow the signs, it's a hard building to miss.  

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