The Conservatory, Crystal Palaces and the Climate Revolution

Roof of Enid A Haupt Conservatory Photography by Mark Pfeffer
Roof of Enid A Haupt Conservatory Photography by Mark Pfeffer
Enid Haupt Conservatory, New York Botanical Garden

Enid Haupt Conservatory, New York Botanical Garden

When we say Conservatory, most people still think of those attractive glass numbers built by our Victorian and Edwardian counterparts in England or, as in America, at the The New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx. The Enid A. Haupt Conservatory first opened in 1902. It has a spectacular 90-foot dome, which protects a permanent exhibition of plants from all around the world.

Arial view of the Edith A Haupt Conservatory in the NYBG at dusk

Arial view of the Edith A Haupt Conservatory in the NYBG at dusk

The infrastructure required to support such a great greenhouse, includes complex heating and cooling systems, a great amount of water, plant production houses, and a staff of gardeners, horticulturalists and designers, who keep the displays alive and thriving. The structure is the largest Victorian style purposefully built greenhouse in the world.

Kew Gardens Palm House

Kew Gardens Palm House

Its design was inspired by the Great Palm House, built between 1844-1848 in Kew Gardens at London, which in its turn was inspired by The Great Conservatory built at Chatsworth House between 1836-1841 in Derbyshire.

Today the Conservatory at New York is named for the lady who saved it from being demolished following World War II. Its infrastructure after years of service was rapidly deteriorating and the cost to fix it was prohibitive. However that did not deter publisher and philanthropist Enid A Haupt (1906 – 2005) from pursuing her dream to see it functional once more.

Described as being “the greatest patron American horticulture has ever known” by Gregory Long, president of the New York Botanical Garden, Enid was often quoted as saying ‘nature is my religion’.

Fully restored, the Conservatory in The New York Botanical Garden today welcomes thousands of tourists annually.

It also plays host to special events, moviemakers, corporate clients, society weddings and great exhibitions.

Transforming environments, places and livelihoods is one of the main roles of modern conservatories and greenhouses. From their early conception to the present day great crystal palaces, which were in fact great canopies of glass, have helped bring about a climate revolution that will in the future, prove life saving for our planet.

Those built more recently take on the shape of a geodesic dome, such as the Conservatory at the Missouri Botanic Garden.

Covering over a half-acre, the Climatron houses some 1,200 species of plants in a natural, tropical setting.

Others have become aluminium and stainless steel pyramids, like San Antonio’s Lucile Halsell Conservatory. This revolutionary structure was designed by Emilio Ambasz, and built by the San Antonio Botanical Society and opened to the public on February 29, 1988.

Plants from desert regions to equatorial rainforests are housed in individual glass buildings tucked into the earth.

A sunken courtyard and tropical lagoon filled with aquatic plants are features.

Specialty collections include a display of an epiphytic plants, those that grow on another plant but are not parasitic on it. Then there are desert cacti and succulents, equatorial tropicals, tropical fruits, ferns, palms and cycads, plants common on many parts of the Earth during the Jurassic Period that still survive today. The environments range from a 65-foot tall fog-enshrouded forest of palms to a glass display case filled with orchids.

The Enid A Haupt Conservatory at New York while massively impressive, is not the largest greenhouse in the world any more.

That honour now falls to a multiple greenhouse complex called The Eden Project based in the county of Cornwall in the south west of England.

This is a series of artificial ‘bubble shaped domes or ‘biomes’, built over a great abandoned quarry complex. They provide an atmosphere inside imitating the climatic conditions on the earth.

By creating a unique ecosystem and habitat for experimenting and conserving plants, the Eden Project, which was established in the year 2000, is a new style of botanical garden exploring the theme of sustainability while contributing to the growth of social enterprise.

The Eden Project people are also working on projects worldwide that bring about environmental and social regeneration. The domes are entirely self-sufficient. Their sustainable construction conservation ideas and material choices, made by the project’s visionary architects engineers and suppliers, were all revolutionary.

They all worked together to keep the environmental impact of the buildings as low and economically feasible as possible. In a Garden of Dreams at Eden sculptures by Sue and Pete Hill are made from earth and plants.

Protecting plants from the cold to assist their growth was known in Roman times, when they would take plants outside to enjoy the warmth of the sun by day, but bring them inside at night to protect them from sudden frosts and temperature changes. Although the Romans had knowledge of how to produce glass, they were only able to produce it in small quantities before the end of the 1st century.

With the collapse of the Roman Empire in the west during the 4th century the secret of glass manufacture was more or less conserved in isolated areas of forests of Europe until its manufacture at Venice emerged.

The Venetians guarded their recipes for glass and their glassmakers on the island of Murano for over three hundred years, but eventually some escaped and the secret of glass production became known in other centres like England. T

There, under license from Restoration King Charles II (1630 – 1685) a glassmaker named George Ravenscroft, added lead to the fragile ‘cristallo’ mix, revolutionizing the glass structure by giving it strength.

Climatron at Missouri Botanical Garden

Climatron at Missouri Botanical Garden

When adventurers set out to chart the world following Christopher Columbus’s successful expedition to the New World, botanists followed. From the seventeenth to the nineteenth century in Europe, England and America, searching out plants that would provide the world with new sources of food became a priority.

By the late seventeenth century the French were manufacturing glass in quantity, although it was fine and at first only suited to tableware. But then they turned their attention to manufacturing mirror glass. Gradually they were able to produce larger pieces that could be joined together to make huge mirrors until eventually very large sheets of mirror plate became possible.

During the reign of Louis XIV (1638 – 1715) the purpose built orangerie at the Chateau Versailles was given glass inset doors.

It was also built into a hillside and surrounded with earth to help keep the vaulted spaces inside warm, along with added artificial heat, protecting Louis XIV’s favourite plant the orange tree.

Hundreds of orange trees provided his court with luscious fruit and although they did not know it, many vitamins.

The daily dose of oranges, plus rubbing his body down with spirits three times a day when he changed his linen as well, probably contributed enormously to Louis XIV’s health and longevity.

Some of the orange trees still at Versailles today were sourced from Portugal, Spain and Italy. They are kept indoors in winter, before being spread during the summer months on its flowerbed.

Plant collectors, such as Sir Joseph Banks, who in 1768 left England aboard the Endeavour under the command of Captain James Cook had a journey that was fraught with danger, and only a few members of his team returned home.

The success of his journey would be measured in the sheer volume of plants and animals that he sketched and described for the first time. His travels aboard the good ship Endeavour make fascinating reading.

He became the leading light at Kew Gardens at London for decades, and left a legacy that still impacts today.

His party included a Swedish Botanist Dr. Solander, whom he had befriended at London. Then there was Sporing, a naturalist, as well as three artists and four servants.

Banks had been passionate about botany since childhood, when at the age of fourteen he had reportedly decided: “I will make myself acquainted with all these different plants for my own pleasure and gratification.”

When he returned to England in July 1771, he became famous and it led King George III to choose him to direct the future of Kew Gardens.

Many plant collectors were working on behalf of newly formed botanical societies and institutions like Banks who had travelled under the auspices of The Royal Society.

Some were seeking rare and exotic samples to either take back home or to ship back to those willing to pay handsomely for them as they were seeking new ways of asserting their status and power.

Even war did not stop this happening. One of Empress Josephine’s advising horticulturalists was allowed to come and go from London on a special passport during the war with Napoleon.

Joseph Paxton

How to protect the plants on the long journey home on ships that were ill equipped at first to handle plants became the botanist’s priority and nightmare. After many losses and failures small portable ‘greenhouses’ of glass were designed to protect precious plants and provide extra moisture they needed on the long voyage home. The great revolution in glasshouses got a great boost when Joseph Paxton (1803-1865) became Head Gardener at Chatsworth House in England in 1826 where he helped with the building of the orangery to contain orange trees, four of which had formerly been grown by the Empress Josephine at the Chateau Malmaison following the French revolution.

As a student working for the Royal Horticultural Society Paxton was seen to chat freely to William Cavendish, 6th Duke of Devonshire (1790 – 1858), who sometimes went through a door in the wall of his Palladian styled Chiswick House to talk to him about newly introduced plants.

The 6th Duke became quite a fan of the young man’s work, recognizing his unique talents and successfully seconded him to work with him at Chatsworth.

A record of his arrival there in itself allows us to understand the breadth of his talent. After he had been engaged by the 6th Duke Paxton set off for Chatsworth by coach arriving at Chatsworth at half past four in the morning.

By his own account he had explored the gardens, scaled the kitchen garden wall, set the staff to work, had eaten breakfast with the housekeeper and met his future wife, Sarah Brown, the housekeeper’s niece all before completing his first morning’s work before nine o’clock.

It is good to note the size of the man standing near one of the conifers, it helps to put the size and scale of the Great Conservatory at Chatsworth into perspective. It seems to resemble the upturned hull of a ship in its innovative design. The glass had to be especially cast a foot wider than was normally available at the time and the whole had a wrought iron frame. It had an enormously complex system of heating considered revolutionary

Sarah as did the Duke, facilitated his rise both to prominence and success. Joseph Paxton’s achievements in the garden at Chatsworth House are far too numerous to record here.

What we will discuss however is The Great Conservatory at Chatsworth an amazing building, which he designed and built, its foundation stone being laid by Lord Burlington in 1836. It was amazingly completed over the winter of 1840 – 1841.

Throughout its design and construction Paxton was ably assisted by a young architect Decimus Burton, who would go on to work on the now famous Palm House at Kew Gardens, whose design also influenced the New York Botanic Gardens Enid A. Haupt Conservatory

They were both influenced, or inspired if you like by Paxton’s great glasshouse first built at Chatsworth. The Great Conservatory had a revolutionary new construction technique called ridge and furrow construction.

Vast in its conception, the building sat on a site levelled at 400 x 213 feet. It had a staircase inside that led to a gallery from which you could inspect the highest branches of the exotic palms and other trees it helped to flourish.

The building was 277 in length, 123 wide and 61 feet high, covering just over ¾ acre. Underground were installed eight huge boilers, fuelled by coal, which fed into a seven-mile maze of 6” water pipes.

The structure was so sound it was described at the time as a ‘mountain of glass’, which even the 6th Duke found difficult to describe.

The descriptions of the plants it housed still exist, and they are staggering in their conception. Visiting botanists and scientists were overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the building.

George Raymond c1830, Chaarles Darwin (1809-1882)

George Raymond c1830, Chaarles Darwin (1809-1882)

Charles Darwin noted in 1845 ‘I was, like a child, transported with delight. Have you ever seen it? Really, the great Hot House and especially the water part, is more wonderfully like tropical nature, than I could have conceived possible – art beats nature altogether there.’

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert came to stay in 1843, inviting themselves after hearing about it. Although the visit caused massive disruption, the 6th Duke prevailed, making Paxton Master of Ceremonies for the occasion and inviting all the royal relatives to be there, as well as intimate friends. 14,000 lamps were hung to illuminate the occasion.

The Queen recorded in her journal ‘the whole is entirely of glass…This conservatory was planned by the Duke’s gardener, Mr Paxton, a very clever man… Mr Paxton is quite a genius, for he plans out all the buildings, as well as laying out his gardens and the Horticultural garden’.

Some 30,000 people saw the illuminations and fireworks set off for the occasion from the park, with 5000 people being given tickets to attend. The King of the Belgians came and recorded ‘that the Duke does everything so well’.

The Duke of Wellington, who was also a guest, went for a walk the morning after only to find no trace of the previous night’s festivities, Paxton and his team having worked all night to clear the debris. Wellington was recorded as saying to the Duke ‘I would have liked that man of yours for one of my generals’.

After the Great War of 1914-1918 it was decided by the then Duke to bring The Great Conservatory down, which proved impossible. So they had to use explosives and blow it up.


Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, arriving at the Crystal Palace

Of all the great glasshouses in the world it was The Crystal Palace, designed and built by Joseph Paxton at London that would achieve legendary status. Built in Hyde Park to house the Great Exhibition of 1851, its structure was made possible by the many advances in the manufacture of both glass and wrought iron technology since Paxton had first built the Great Conservatory at Chatsworth.

Ending a tax on glass, which had caused the whole English manufacturing industry to debunk to Waterford in Ireland, also helped make it more cost effective.

Paxton had made such a great impression on the Queen and Prince Albert during their visit to Chatsworth and so he was entrusted with providing the building for the Prince to bring his idea of showcasing English manufacturers to the world to fruition. It was removed in 1854 to Sydenham and set on top of a hill commanding a panoramic view of the countryside.

A commercial enterprise ‘erected for the intellectual improvement and physical recreation of all classes’ The Crystal Palace was set among formal gardens with stone terraces leading down the hill.

It could be considered one of the first theme parks. Plaster models of animals were displayed on islands in the lake of a vast landscaped park with an aquarium and model of a coalmine built to educate visitors.

Despite objections by influential people who deplored ‘the flood of pedestrians who left it filthy with cigar ashes’ it became enormously popular with middle class families. The success of the Great Exhibition in its revolutionary Crystal Palace was also repeated in many other capitals around the world.

The Crystal Palace built at New York opened on July 24, 1853. As was the one at London, it was also destroyed by fire on October 5th, 1858, shortly, after its use for the Atlantic Cable celebration.

Others were built in the English colonies at Sydney in New South Wales and Melbourne in Victoria. Today only the one at Melbourne remains, the others all sharing the same fate with those at London and New York, that of a fiery finish.

A great motivator of men Joseph Paxton and the 6th Duke of Derbyshire had a successful garden and plant partnership that lasted until the 6th Duke’s death, when Paxton was invited to arrange his friend’s funeral. When it was over Paxton donned his hat and coat and walked out the door leaving his wife, Chatsworth and Derbyshire forever.

Today the only glasshouses left at Chatsworth built by Joseph Paxton is a series of greenhouses that step down a slope and are placed against a wall.

Great Camellia Reticulata at Chatsworth

Great Camellia Reticulata at Chatsworth

The Conservative Wall as it is known, was built in 1842 with an ingenious system of flues and hot water pipes to protect climbers, like the famous pair of Camellia reticulata that were planted at that time and are still there some 150 years + later.

They are trimmed back to 24 foot high every year and the current Dowager Duchess of Devonshire when writing about them, mused ‘on how high they might have grown if not restrained by the height of the roof.’

In the 21st century technical innovations in glasshouse construction has meant that a whole series of ‘greenhouses’ can be easily connected to the next one by a gutter.

This new technique has revolutionized huge areas of land in the Netherlands and other European areas under cultivation, for greenhouse agriculture. Built on light steel frames they can be put up quickly and efficiently and allow far greater control over the growing process, while using less energy.

Today with the natural world under threat and in many places rapidly disappearing, the role of the conservatory and greenhouse has become more important than ever before. It is not so much any more about conserving individual plants, which have been transplanted from their native habitat, but rather the conservation of nature itself.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle 2012-2013

Structure of the Roof of Enid A Haupt Conservatory in The New York Botanical Garden – Photography by Mark Pfeffer


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