Golden Gate Park’s Conservatory of Flowers in San Francisco is truly an architectural gem of remarkable brilliance. The oldest building in the park and the oldest municipal wooden conservatory remaining in the U.S., this large botanical greenhouse houses exotic plants from the high- and lowland tropics, aquatic and potted plants.
Visiting the Conservatory of Flowers
The Conservatory of Flowers is a living museum that houses many rare and endangered tropical plant species. The Conservatory is also a recognized leader in conservation education of tropical flora. Each of the five “rooms” in the Conservatory has a particular focus with its horticultural exhibits and floral displays.
Four galleries have permanent displays while the fifth will house changing exhibits themed around particular plant groups or plant attributes.
Entry is from the center. After passing through a welcome hall with historical and donor information you enter the Main Dome.
One of the finest examples of Victorian architecture in San Francisco — a city famous for its Victorian homes — the 12,000 square-foot greenhouse is the oldest existing glass and wood conservatory in the United States. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the California Register of Historic Places, the Conservatory is a City and County of San Francisco Landmark and a Historic Civil Engineering Landmark of the American Society of Civil Engineers.
After a major windstorm severely damaged the Conservatory of flowers in 1995, closing it to the public, it gained a much less welcome designation when it was placed on the World Monument Fund‘s list of the 100 most endangered monuments — one of the few American buildings on the list.
Conservatory of Flowers History
The history of the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park’s begins with eccentric businessman, piano maker and successful real estate investor James Lick.
James Lick’s name is familiar to residents and visitors to San Francisco from the James Lick Freeway, James Lick Observatory, James Lick High School, the James Lick Mansion in Santa Clara and many other enduring Bay Area landmarks, sculptures and monuments. Conflicting reports suggest the Conservatory — which was still in crates when Lick died in 1876 — was a kit built in Europe and shipped around the Horn, was intended for the City of San Jose where Lick had built a mansion surrounded by exotic plants imported from South America and around the world, or was built (or at least assembled) by Lord & Burnham, a greenhouse manufacturing company from New York.
It’s believed that the Conservatory was at least partially constructed with native California redwood.
A group of prominent San Franciscans purchased the still crated Conservatory in 1878 and offered it to the City of San Francisco for use in Golden Gate Park.
Opened to the public in 1879, the Conservatory survived the 1906 earthquake intact although it had suffered frequent structural damage from rot and fire—most notably in 1883 when a boiler explosion set the main dome on fire and completely destroyed it. Charles Crocker donated restoration funds. The Conservatory was closed again for structural repairs from 1933 to 1946.
A lack of original plans, extensive prior use of leaded paint to glaze the 16,800 window panes—all of which would need to be replaced with safety glass—a structurally inadequate brick foundation, extensive rot to the non-redwood structural members and many other challenges threatened to make the 1995 closure permanent.
In 1998 the National Trust‘s Save America’s Treasures and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton adopted the Conservatory. In 1999 the Friends of Recreation & Parks’ Board of Trustees (now known as San Francisco Parks Trust) voted to lead a multimillion-dollar fund raising effort to restore the Conservatory.
Eight years after it was closed the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park reopened on September 20, 2003.
The Conservatory’s most valuable and famous plants — the giant Imperial Philodendron that was 100 years old in 2003 and the cycads — share the main dome with economic plants that we all eat or use daily including chocolate, coffee, vanilla, cashew nuts and more. Looking up at the 55 foot high central dome you will marvel at the complex, intricate detail of this historic Victorian structure. The Lowland Tropics gallery simulates a steamy lush jungle with frequent light rains falling from above. Expect to get damp.
One of only four highland tropics displays in the United States — the room to the right of the Conservatory’s main dome is home to a large collection of delicate high-altitude orchids. The lower temperatures in this 93 foot long arched gallery mimic those in the misty cloud forests of tropical mountaintops covered with dense mosses, ferns and stunted trees.
Giant water lilies, native to the Amazon River in Brazil, are the feature plant in the Aquatic Plants gallery at the East end of the Conservatory. Victoria amazonica made its North American debut at the Conservatory of Flowers in the 1880s. A large free standing metal and glass sculpture by artist Stephen Hirt lets you see the lily’s intricate lower structure — a structure that is said to have influenced the design of the entrance to the Crystal Palace in London. Additional art glass sculptures provide information about exhibits throughout the Conservatory. A collection of carnivorous plants is also featured in the Aquatic Plants gallery.
The Potted Plants gallery features color themed flower displays and an assortment of decorative urns and containers from around the world. The Conservatory’s Victorian roots are recalled in the Potted Plants gallery which is reached by backtracking through the Highland and Lowland Tropics galleries. Garden historians use the term ‘Victorian Pot Culture’ for the diversity of potted plants displayed on benches that a visitor would encounter in a Victorian glasshouse.
The far west gallery in the Conservatory is reserved for special exhibits. Seasonal floral displays with a San Francisco flair will rotate with two “mini-blockbuster” exhibits a year themed around particular plant groups or plant attributes.