The Gem of Golden Gate Park

There is an immensely valued historical landmark in the the North Eastern part of Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. Last year (2020), Golden Gate Park celebrated its 150 year anniversary. Before the park’s inception (1853), the land the park occupies was known as the Great Sand Bank owing to the plethora of sand dunes in the area. The city of San Francisco asked William Hammond Hall to survey the land in hopes of making use of that space. With Hall’s help, a design was drafted and implemented and we now have what we know as Golden Gate Park today.

The conservatory of Flowers wasn’t originally intended to be part of Golden Gate Park. For that story we have to go back to the 1870’s and review the involvement of the richest man in California. James Lick was a California Pioneer who made his riches in real estate. Lick, originally a Pennsylvania native, was the son of a carpenter and subsequently learned the trade early in his life. In tandem, he also learned how to make pianos and quickly mastered the trade, eventually opening his own shop in New York City. In 1848, after moving to Argentina and then Peru (where most of his piano sales were), Lick moved to San Francisco with his fortune, tools and 600 pounds of chocolate from his Peruvian neighbor, Domingo Ghirardelli.  When he arrived in San Francisco, Lick quickly sold all of the chocolate and sent word to Ghirardelli, convincing him to move to San Francisco and sell his chocolate there. He followed the advice and eventually founded Girardelli Chocolate Company. But I digress… 

Lick soon developed a love of horticulture and in the early part of the 1870’s resolved to build two conservatories on his estate in Santa Clara.  It is believed that Lick commissioned these conservatories from Lord and Burnham, the leader in conservatory manufacturing at the time. It is also believed that they were patterned after the conservatories at Kew Gardens in London. The supplies were crated up and sent from New York, around Cape Horn, and then up to San Francisco. One of the ships unfortunately sank during the trip, and the lost materials had to be replaced with local, old-growth redwood.

James Lick unfortunately died before construction began. After his assets were distributed to specific beneficiaries, the crates were donated to the Society of California Pioneers. Eventually the materials were sold off to some prominent San Francisco Philanthropists like LeLand Stanford, Claus Spreckels, Charles Crocker and others.  These men subsequently donated the supplies to the City of San Francisco to be used in Golden Gate Park for public use, and the conservatory as we know it today came into being. 

The glass house was very popular when it first opened its doors in 1879. The west wing was stocked with ornamental foliage like azaleas and other flowering plants.  A little known fact is that women would cut and steal these blooms to take home to place in their dining rooms and parlors.

The 140 year old conservatory has endured its fair share of accidents and natural disasters. In 1883 there was a boiler fire that destroyed the central dome and many exotic plants. Charles Crocker donated money to have the dome restored, and not long after (1895) the building received electricity, including lights.

The great earthquake of 1906 generated minimal damage to the structure. The grounds surrounding the conservatory (known as Conservatory Valley) became a refugee camp for many people who lost their homes from the disaster. Another fire in 1918 precipitated damage to the glass roof and also to a potting room. Sadly, the structure was threatened with closure during the 1930’s due to the great depression and reduction of staff.  The neglect during this time period caused considerable deterioration and repairs were too costly and couldn’t be implemented.

The conservatory was eventually restored and reopened, but in 1995 there was an intense wind storm with gusts up to 100 MPH in the early morning of December 12th – smashing 40 percent of the glass and destroying rare plants.  With millions of dollars needed for repairs the conservatory was closed again. Many San Francisco locals gathered together to save the conservatory, an effort which eventually got national attention. The site eventually was included in the World’s Monuments Funds list of 100 Most Endangered Sites. Twenty five million dollars was needed and raised, resulting in a much celebrated reopening celebration in 2003.

Here are some Interesting facts about the Conservatory of Flowers:

-The conservatory contains roughly 1,700 plant species

-It’s the oldest building in Golden Gate Park

-The building’s structural skeleton is made exclusively of wood

-It is built in the Victorian style

-It contains the world’s largest public collection of high-altitude orchids

-The conservatory has 16,800 window panes

-The greenhouse features carnivorous plants

-Sometimes it stinks

-Each year in the spring the glass is whitewashed to mitigate the light coming in. Winter rains wash it off, letting in more light during the darker months.

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