Construction of San Francisco’s Conservatory of Flowers was completed in 1879. It is the oldest building in Golden Gate Park. The conservatory is worth a visit not just for the collection of rare and exotic plants but also for the building itself. As an added bonus in 2017, when we visited, there was a special exhibition, “Butterflies and Blooms,” featuring an assortment of North American butterflies and moths.
How did the Conservatory of Flowers come about?
The story starts with Californian entrepreneur James Lick who purchased the conservatory as a kit. Lick intended to install the greenhouse at his mansion in San Jose California but died before it could be assembled. At the time of his death in 1876 the 80-year old Lick was the richest person in California. Now part of Lick’s estate, the kit was put up for sale.
Eventually Lick’s conservatory kit was purchased by a group of rich and prominent San Franciscans, including Leland Stanford and Charles Crocker. In turn it was offered as a gift to the City of San Francisco for use in Golden Gate Park. The donation was accepted and a greenhouse manufacturing company from New York supervised the erection of the structure at its current location in the park.
A water lily blooms inside the Conservatory of Flowers.
It is believed that the Palm House in London’s Kew Gardens inspired the design of the Conservatory of Flowers. That may be true, but there is a significant difference between the two conservatories. Kew’s Palm House, finished in 1848, was constructed using wrought iron and glass. In contrast, San Francisco’s Conservatory of Flowers was built using wood and glass, an older technology. The availability of wood on the west coast of the United States made it the preferred building material, despite its susceptibility to rot. Though it was built of a potentially more fragile material, with extensive maintenance the Conservatory of Flowers has held up. Indeed, the building sits roughly four miles from the San Andreas Fault line and yet survived the 1906 quake relatively unscathed.
Inside the Conservatory of Flowers is a well-tended collection of exotic plants and flowers. Stepping inside visitors see a horticultural array that would struggle to survive unprotected even in California’s moderate climate. Often the beauty of the plants is easier to see up close; pictures taken during a visit reveal more than what could easily be seen in person. This makes a visit to the Conservatory of Flowers particularly rewarding for photographers.
(We visited the Conservatory of Flowers in March of 2017.)