VOLUNTEER PARK CONSERVATORY
Seasonal House c. 1968
On March 3, 1910, The Seattle Daily Times reported that ideas for extensive improvements of City property had been submitted to the Park Board by J. C. Olmsted. A $2,000,000 bond issue was being put to the voters in the following week. If passed, Volunteer Park would receive the majority of funds to improve the grounds. The highly touted design included construction of a conservatory at the northern crest of the park.
Seattle residents awoke Sunday morning, September 22, 1912, to newspaper headlines which read, Park Conservatory Nearing Completion: New Improvement at Volunteer Park Will Be Thing of Joy and Beauty.
A panoramic photo of the Volunteer Park Conservatory appeared prominently on the page, showing the magnificent structure, all intact but for its 3,426 glass panes. The article praised the forward-looking Park Commissioners who were able to see the future value of the Conservatory as an asset to the City of Seattle.
Volunteer Park Conservatory reachedits 100-year anniversary in 2012, and it remains as unique today as it did in 1912. From the beginning, the Conservatory’s mission was to educate, collect and conserve threatened plants and to transport visitors beyond the open green spaces of the Park to another world that examines connected environments and plant species from around the globe. This philosophy continues today.
For decades our Conservatory has opened its doors to welcome diverse populations within Seattle, the Northwest and to both national and international tourists. The Conservatory’s historic landmark status reflects the distinctive architectural characteristics of this Victorian glasshouse, a true jewel in the crown of Seattle Parks.
Victorian public glasshouses are few and far between. As genuine design challenges, they testify to collaboration among architects, engineers and horticulturists. Those that have survived the test of time have undergone renovations with civic support and/or heritage organization funding.
When the structural integrity of the Conservatory began to fail over the years, energy-saving improvements and some phased renovations were addressed through the Parks Department Major Maintenance Budget and Capital Improvement Projects Fund. Only one final phase remains, the Conservatory East Wing and East Production Houses.
The amazing effort put forth by the City of Seattle, Conservatory staff, Friends of the Conservatory and others has been steady with respect to keeping the Conservatory’s legacy intact, alive and growing.
BLOOMING WEATHER: Although the outdoors still was comparatively leafless and flower-less, The Volunteer Park Greenhouse offered a profusion of blossoms under the careful attention of Al Smith, foreman of the greenhouse work crew. (March 20, 1954)
Ford has produced an ultra smart number this year in the Deluxe Series, shown above in Volunteer Park. Interest in the new model has been unusually high, report local dealers, who say that many a former Ford owner is coming back for a demonstration (November 3, 1940 – Courtesy of David Helgeson)
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
Q- How many panes of glass does the Conservatory have?
A- Volunteer Park Conservatory has 3,426 panes of glass. They were originally held in place by a swamp cyprus wood support structure. These supports were replaced in the 1950s, then again in the 1980s, before being replaced by long lasting aluminum in a restoration phases which started in 1993. The final phase of the Conservatory restoration was completed in 2014.
Q- What is the oldest part of the building?
A- The lunette or peacock window over the main entry is the only original wood and glass piece remaining from 1912 after two renovations. It was restored in 2000.
Q- What is the oldest plant in the Conservatory?
A- The oldest plants on display now are probably the Sago Palm (Cycas revoluta) and the Jade Tree (Crassula argentea). Both are over 75 years old.
Q- Why are the windows white washed in the summer?
A- A chalky paint sprayed on the glass in early summer to protect the plants from excessive sun and heat. In the fall the white wash is removed when days become shorter and darker.
Q- How do you control the temperature and humidity?
A- The Conservatory heating system is computer controlled. Two natural gas fired boilers heat water and valves open allowing hot water into pipes located below the display benches. The overhead and under-bench vents are also computer controlled to regulate temperature and humidity. There is a sensing device in each house.
Q- Who is the statue out front?
A- William Henry Seward (1801-1872) was the US Secretary of State under President Lincoln. He negotiated the purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867 for 7.2 million dollars, about 2 cents per acre. This became known as “Seward’s Folly”.
Q- Do you sell any plants?
A- The FOC Palm House Gift Shop has a variety of plants for sale. We also have two large plant sales per year, on the Saturday of Mother’s Day weekend in May and a Saturday in mid-September.
Q- What happened to that huge cactus that was in the Cactus House?
A- The two large Opuntias that filled half the center bed were removed in 2010 to facilitate emergency repairs to thebuildingoverhead. Workers had to install scaffoldinginside the room to work safely. We have cuttings from both opuntias in pots now, and display them from time to time.
Q- Do you have carnivorous plants?
A- Yes, they are usually found in the boggy planters flanking the pool in the Fern House. Our collection includes Venus Fly Traps, Sundews, Pitcher Plants and more.
Q- Are the fruits on the Fishtail Palm edible?
A- They are not palatable to humans, but are enjoyed by birds and monkeys in the wild.
Q- Where do your plants come from?
A- We grow plants in our production greenhouse space from seeds, cuttings and divisions. We accept selected donated plants from the public. We are a certified US Fish and Wildlife Plant Rescue Center, accepting plants confiscated by US Customs when they are illegally imported.
Q- Who is Ivan Von Katzen?
A- Ivan is our Conservatory spokescat who memorializes a real cat who lived at the Conservatory for many years. Ivan was a black and white feral cat who chose to stayed at the Conservatory long into old age. He passed away several years ago. Ivan von Katzen lives on as Conservatory spokes-cat on Facebook and Twitter. He’d love to be your friend and keep you up to date on what’s happening around here.
Q- How many people work here?
A- There are 3.5 Seattle Park Department gardeners (one works summer only). The Friends of the Conservatory has three paid staff and also provides many volunteers to help with all kinds of tasks.