On September 22, 1912, The Seattle Times reports that there is "little remaining to be done" to complete the Volunteer Park Conservatory. Volunteer Park, located in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle, was significantly improved around the turn of the twentieth century. The conservatory is a large Victorian-style glass house that will display a wide variety of plants from around the world. The newspaper asserts that "when completed it will be the most beautiful and costliest combined show feature and recreation piece of its kind west of Chicago, [and it] will be ready in less than a month to receive the magnificent collection of plants and flowers that has been collected for it by the parks and recreation department" ("Park Conservatory Nearing Completion..."). Although the conservatory actually opens later than expected, the City of Seattle will celebrate its centennial in August 2012.
Flush with prosperity and civic pride following the Klondike gold rush, the citizens of Seattle contracted with the Olmsted Brothers firm of Brookline, Massachusetts, to design a chain of parks for their rapidly growing city. The design plans included Volunteer Park and a conservatory to replace the park's existing nursery and greenhouse. Although the Olmsted firm recommended waiting to install the conservatory, the Parks Board proceeded with the plan. Designed in the Victorian style made popular by glass buildings like the Crystal Palace in London, the conservatory was built from a pre-fabricated kit purchased from the Hitchings Company of New York, and erected by Parks staff for a total cost of less than $20,000 (Ninth Annual Report, 57).
The exact opening date for the Volunteer Park Conservatory remains hidden in the mists of time. On September 22, 1912, The Seattle Times wrote that it expected the conservatory to open within the coming month. On November 12, 1912, the Board of Park Commissioners reported it had purchased plants for the conservatory and further authorized a purchase of $1,500 worth of palms, with funding not to exceed $300 for travel to California for the purchase. Now that the conservatory was "practically completed," the board decided it would be necessary to employ a "competent florist," to be paid $125 per month (Minutes, November 12, 1912). On November 29, 1912, a member of the board moved to prepare a list of stock for the conservatory at an estimate not to exceed $1,200. The motion was carried with one no vote. On January 19, 1913, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported that the conservatory was now complete but had not yet been stocked. However, by the end of 1913, the Board of Park Commissioners reported that the Volunteer Park Conservatory had opened, but was not as popular as it should have been "as all season through we have had a beautiful display of flowers" (Tenth Annual Report, 19).
Five Glass Rooms
The conservatory was sited at the north end of Volunteer Park. It became the focal point of a grand promenade of horse chestnut trees planted in 1910 and 1911. A statue of William H. Seward (1801-1872), transferred to Volunteer Park at the close of the Alaska-Yukon Pacific Exposition in 1909, greeted visitors approaching the conservatory entrance. Above the entry door was a lunette window (which remains intact in 2013). Later extolled as a "fine historic example" of Victorian era glass houses (Landmark Nomination, 18), the conservatory was made up of five rooms housing a wide variety of plants ranging from tropical to desert species.
The center Palm House featured a domed ceiling. In 2013 it houses several species of plants, including date, oil, and sago palms, along with banana plants, a giant Bird of Paradise, heliconia, and ginger plants. The highlight of this room is an impressive orchid collection donated by Anna Herr Clise (1866-1936) in 1919, according to Parks Board minutes. (This donation date differs from the 1921 date shown on a plaque in the conservatory; it is possible that while the donation was made in 1919, the transfer of the collection was not completed until 1921.)
Two rooms formed the west wing: the Fern House adjacent to the Palm House and the Bromeliad House farther west. The former in 2013 has an extensive collection of tropical ferns and other exotic plants such as prehistoric cycads, brugmansias, begonias, hibiscus, carnivorous plants, and epiphyllum hybrids (Orchid Cactus), which put on a spectacular show in May. There is a small pond with a miniature fall surrounded by Mexican breadfruit and ferns. The westernmost room is home to bromeliads, which are members of the pineapple family. Seattle's collection is one of the largest on the West Coast. Other highlights include several species of staghorn ferns and tillandsias.
To the east of the Palm House was the Cyclamen House, which later became the Seasonal Display House where floral displays changed with the seasons. This room provides a welcome respite in winter, with gardenias, azaleas, forced daffodils and tulips, cinerarias, and primroses. Hydrangeas, fuchsias, scented geraniums, and lilies bloom in spring. The hydrangeas and fuchsias continue into summer, joined by perennials, grasses and coleus. In the autumn, there is a large display of chrysanthemums, and in December, there are poinsettias, cyclamen, and decorated trees. In 2012 the Seasonal Display House presented the Volunteer Park Express Holiday Train display, intended to become an annual tradition. Farther east was the Cactus House, with a broad collection of cacti and succulents, especially pretty when the desert flowers are in bloom. Of particular note is the Crassula ovata (jade tree) nearly as old as the conservatory itself, started from a cutting in 1916.
The conservatory has been cared for by the staff of Seattle's Horticulture Program. Like the conservatory, the horticulture program dates back to the beginning of the twentieth century. In 1922, the conservatory added growing greenhouses to grow and propagate plants. In the summer of 1927, the Seattle Board of Park Commissioners authorized funds to build two greenhouses to grow bedding plants for all of Seattle's parks, at that time some 60,000 plants a year, at a total cost of $16,000.
Al Smith (1911-1988) was the horticulturist for the conservatory from 1941 until 1971. He was a renowned orchid show judge, and in 1957 Dos Pueblos Orchid Company of Goleta, California, donated $10,000 worth of orchid plants to the conservatory in recognition of his efforts. Over the years, due to careful selections by Horticulture Program staff, combined with generous donations from the public, the conservatory amassed a premier collection of tropical plants and now houses one of the largest publicly held orchid collections on the West Coast.
In 1956, Toshio Kiyonaga (1918-1985), a senior gardener at the conservatory, began caring for the orchids. Stephanie Johnson-Toliver (b. 1950), who began working at the conservatory in 1978, stated that Kiyonaga knew by feeling what the plants needed in terms of humidity and light. He chose orchids from the greenhouses to be moved to the conservatory, and then arranged them so that the orchids would lean toward visitors greeting them as they entered. Kiyonaga taught Johnson-Toliver how to raise and care for orchids. After Kiyonaga retired in 1983, Johnson-Toliver not only took over the primary care of the orchid collection, she also served as Senior Gardener until 2008. She oversaw two major renovations of the conservatory and created educational programs to draw in the public.
In 2013 the Volunteer Park Conservatory and its greenhouses are part of the larger Natural Resources Unit (NRU) of the Seattle Parks and Recreation Department. With additional greenhouses and staff based at Jefferson Park, the NRU supports the horticulture needs of the entire Seattle park system, and the horticulture staff is responsible for the propagation and maintenance of some 250,000 annual and woody plants in the parks and city landscapes. The program provides the floral displays for city events and, up until the early 1980s, the conservatory staff grew and provided cut floral displays for city offices and officials.
One little-known fact is that the conservatory is a registered repository for illegally imported plants, including orchids, cacti, and cycads, seized by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. When such plants are received from USFW agents, they are quarantined for 30 days. After that they remain in the conservatory collection and cannot be sold, although they may be traded to other botanical institutions or used in propagation.
Most plants in the conservatory are grown on site; a few seasonal crops are now purchased due to reduced staff and growing space. Senior Gardener David Helgeson first started working in the conservatory in May 1989. When Helgeson began, the conservatory and support greenhouses were entirely manually operated and required a full-time staff working in shifts, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, operating the vents and the heating system to adjust the heat and humidity as needed. In 2013, the system is controlled by computers, and the conservatory is tended by two people in addition to Helgeson: Gardener Giselle Blythe (b. 1952) and Senior Gardener Jeanne Schollmeyer.
From the beginning, the conservatory's mission was to educate, collect and conserve threatened plants, and transport visitors beyond the open green spaces of the park to another world that examines connected environments and plant species from around the globe. In spite of extensive budget cuts reducing staffing levels over the years, the Volunteer Park Conservatory gardeners remain dedicated to maintaining and caring for this horticultural treasure.
Friends of the Conservatory
As time passed the conservatory became badly deteriorated. In 1978, the structure was so weak it had to be closed during high winds. In 1980, the Friends of the Conservatory, a non-profit organization, was formed to support the conservatory, assisting in conservation, providing docents, and supplementing financial resources.
Over the years, through public awareness campaigns and citizens' desires to maintain the historical treasure, the Friends of the Conservatory and the City raised funds for renovations and energy-saving measures. Between 1981 and 1984 a wood rebuild was done in the display houses. In 1991, a lower production greenhouse was built to replace one of the old 1920s-era support greenhouses. In 1994 and 1995, an aluminum-frame rebuild began with the Palm House. Between May and November 1999, the Palm House dome was restored, the glass and wood were replaced with aluminum and safety glass, support columns were added, and the lunette window was restored.
In June 2002, construction began on renovations in the Bromeliad House and the Upper West Support Greenhouse, replacing the wood with aluminum framing, and new boilers and a heat pipe system were installed throughout the conservatory. In the summer of 2006, the Fern House was renovated with new glass and aluminum structures, and lighting fixtures were added throughout the conservatory.
In February 2003, the Friends of the Conservatory opened a Gift Shop/ Resource Center to provide additional support funding. To accomplish this, the group conducted a fund raising campaign and received matching funds from the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods. In 2008, the Gift Shop switched to focus more on education and public outreach and less on merchandise sales.
Art and the Conservatory
The Volunteer Park Conservatory is a natural setting for art. In 1981 Homage in Green, a hand-blown etched stained-glass canopy designed by artist Richard Spaulding, was installed above the vestibule. The canopy covers 300 years of English and American architectural ornamentation in 35 glass panels. Lilies, convolvulus, and passion flowers represent the Victorian era. The piece was commissioned by the Friends of the Conservatory and funded by a grant from Safeco Insurance Company.
Between March 20 and April 8, 2001, the conservatory displayed Son et Lumier, an art installation of multichannel video and kinetic instruments created by artists Ken Slusher and Dan Senn. The installation included Over'lyre, a piece by Senn, and this piece was re-installed in 2006 in memory of Sharon Priebe, a long time supporter.
Rainforest Bell, by Toshiko Takaezu (1922-2011) was installed on loan in the Seasonal House in 2002 and remained until 2012. Two wrought-iron display trees designed by Randy Benson hold tillandsias in the Bromeliad House. In 2013 the conservatory presented an exhibition of fine-art glass works by Jason Gamrath in a three-part series titled Botanical Exotica -- A Monumental Collection of the Rare and Beautiful.
The conservatory has also long hosted classes and day camps for school-age children and provided space for art classes, events, and public gatherings, including an annual holiday open house.
Survivor and Landmark
As the Volunteer Park Conservatory celebrated its centennial in 2012, David Helgeson noted that Seattle's conservatory stood stalwart during its 100 years, more than some of its counterparts. It survived the massive 1916 snowstorm that collapsed the dome of Seattle's St. James Cathedral. It withstood the earthquakes of 1949, 1965, and 2001. It remained opened during the Great Depression and two world wars. The conservatory's only closure was a 10-month period in 1979 and 1980 for renovations to the Palm House.
In contrast, conservatories built for the 1853 New York World's Fair and the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Celebration were soon destroyed by fire. The famed Crystal Palace in London burned down in 1936. The Volunteer Park Conservatory is one of just three historic glasshouses on the West Coast. The other two are the W. W. Seymour Botanical Conservatory in Tacoma's Wright Park and the Conservatory of Flowers in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. In September 2008, the historic conservatory on the Capitol Campus in Olympia was closed by the state due to lack of funds.
The Volunteer Park Conservatory and adjoining potting shed were designated as a City landmark in 2002. The conservatory is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places; its nomination form noted that it retains its original appearance in spite of having undergone substantial renovations over the years. In August 2000, the first "Preservation in My Neighborhood" award was given to the Friends of the Conservatory by Historic Seattle, a nonprofit organization that works to preserve the city's history and architecture.
Given its age, the conservatory continued to need repairs and was expensive to maintain. In 2011, due to extensive budget cuts, the City considered closing the conservatory in 2013. Led by the Friends of the Conservatory, a group of citizens embarked on a campaign to save the landmark. The City hired a consultant to identify a more financially stable model for operating the building. Following the results of a 2012 study, the City adopted a $4 (for adults) entry fee, which it began collecting on February 1, 2013. In March 2013, the Seattle Parks Foundation announced it had reached its goal for a capital campaign to complete a multimillion-dollar restoration of the conservatory, due in large part to efforts by the Friends of the Conservatory.
More than a century after its construction, the Volunteer Park Conservatory, which has been referred to as the crown jewel of the Seattle park system, hosts some 85,000 visitors a year. By preserving the conservatory, Seattle is not only maintaining a historical treasure, it is carrying on the tradition and wisdom of prior generations by providing a warm and lovely respite for its citizens and visitors.