The San Francisco Conservatory Of Flowers
Considered as one of the largest urban parks in San Francisco, California, the Golden Gate Park houses many sights and attractions that can amaze every tourist and even the locals. One of the main attractions - the Conservatory of Flowers – has been serving visitors for more than a century. Though it is the oldest building in the park (as well as being the oldest remaining municipal wood and glass conservatory in the US), many still enjoy visiting this award-winning architectural and engineering structure. Despite being one of the most photographed and loved attractions in the Bay Area, understanding its past will have you appreciate this special spot in the city.
It is believed that there is a more detailed history about the Conservatory of Flowers. However, its beginnings are credited to James Lick, a known real estate investor. He bought a piece of land where he built his mansion, then surrounded it with exotic plants from different parts of the world. Then, Lick commissioned a company to build conservatories for him. Unfortunately, James Lick died on October 1, 1796. He was not able to witness the building of the conservatory on his estate, as his trustees soon placed the property for sale.
His assets were distributed to different beneficiaries which included charitable institutions. One of them is the Society of California Pioneers, which focuses on California’s art, history, and culture. The same organization has received 33 tons of glasses that make up the unconstructed conservatories. These glass pieces were sold to well-off locals and philanthropists of San Francisco in 1877. They ended up donating them to be used in the Golden Gate Park, with a stipulation that it should be built within 18 months.
The Park Commission only accepted the donation formally the following year. They hired the source of the donated conservatories – Lord and Burnham – to build these structures. Some of the materials were locally sourced. The conservatories were built quickly, despite the shipwreck of the steamer Georgia carrying some of the materials needed for the construction. When the wood-and-glass conservatory was finished, it did not have a formal opening date.
It offered different attractions like the fountain in the entryway, gallery of flowers and hardwood plants, orchid house, a large pond for aquatic plants, and Victoria Regia – the giant water lily that became the Conservatory’s first exhibition that was attended by many visitors. Despite the public’s overwhelming response, the structure faced many disasters and challenges. The American railroad specialist Charles Crocker donated $10,000 for repairs when the fire started in 1883. There was also the earthquake in 1906 – the building was not harmed but it was transformed into a refugee camp for homeless people. Another fire happened in 1918 that damaged a part of the building.
In the 1930s, the Great Depression happened and the budget to maintain the structure was cut and even threatened for closure. Moving forward to 1995, a wind storm greatly affected the conservatory. The building’s glass elements were shattered and some plants were destroyed. Management had decided to close the structure and people feared it would not open again.
There were several local fundraising events, which led to national attention in 1996. It became a part of the World Monuments Fund list of 100 Most Endangered Sites. It was also included in the “Save America’s Treasure” program. These efforts raised $25 million for restoration, including those from the San Franciso Parks Alliance (which used to be San Francisco Parks Trust). The restoration started in 2000 and continued until the public reopening in September 2003.
As of today, it has entertained countless education tours and wedding parties. Some consider it the most romantic spot in San Francisco. Aside from housing the stunning and rare plants, the conservatory also entertains talks with renowned authors, and education trips for students.
If you haven’t had the chance to visit this unique treasure in San Francisco, put it on your To-Do list, whether you are a local or a visitor to our city.