Fantasy Under Glass 

New conservatory adds a focal point to Lewis Ginter.

As elegant architecturally as Richmond’s new conservatory may be, the roots of the 8,000-square-foot structure stem from scientific fascination with flora in the 18th and 19th centuries, as the British empire extended its global reach. In 1500, only 200 kinds of plants were being cultivated in England. By 1839, the number was 18,000 — and growing fast. There was competition to acquire new and rarer plants among the upper and middle classes who built hothouses. These were either attached to their homes or built free-standing on their grounds.

It didn’t hurt that England’s glass tax was repealed in 1845. And then, in 1851, Joseph Paxton, an English garden designer, devised his revolutionary plan for the Crystal Palace, a gigantic London exhibition hall celebrating the achievements of Queen Victoria and her popular husband, Prince Albert. This prefabricated, skeletal, metal and glass structure was the largest building in the world when it was completed and was a popular sensation.

The Lewis Ginter conservatory is a rare opportunity for Virginians to visit an example of this architectural archetype on this side of the Atlantic. The Bronx’s New York Botanical Gardens offers a much larger conservatory and the national conservatory on the Washington, D.C., mall has recently been restored. But Richmond’s greenhouse, while grand, is more intimate and can be enjoyed in relative serenity, sans the crowds that throng the mall with its attractions.

The new conservatory was designed by Richmond architect Glave & Holmes Associates and constructed by Kjellstrom & Lee Inc. This structure appears both old and new. From a distance it appears to be a historically classical recreation — its proportions seem so correct. Up close, the building takes on another dimension, the steel structure so clearly celebrates the art of contemporary building.

The conservatory’s high-domed rotunda serves as the spoke of a glass and painted steel structure that extends in three directions. The two longest wings, which house extravagant horticultural displays, are fully enclosed. The covered, rear extension, which doesn’t include exhibits, is open-air and designed for multipurpose use or special events. Inside, there are three major exhibition spaces. The center rotunda is anchored by a 35-foot Christmas palm tree and surrounded by other trees nearly as tall.

Rodney Robinson, a landscape architect from Wilmington, Del., has created asymmetrical garden designs in each of the wings and his paving treatment is different in each room — square flagstones in the rotunda, brick in the English garden and irregular paving stones in the tropical wing. Throughout the structure, low retaining walls encourage visitors to sit and enjoy the surroundings.

To the left of the rotunda, one passes through double glass doors and into a wing housing an English garden. Densely planted seasonal specimens jockey for space with more exotic plants to create a color explosion. A Tudor-inspired cottage, which manages to not look cute, is the centerpiece. The only disappointment is lack of accessibility to the cottage’s interior. One of the characteristics of this botanical garden is its well-placed gazebos that invite one to sit a spell. Why is the cottage off-limits?

The other wing of the conservatory is equally luxurious in scheme, but more tropical in feel with some 200 orchids planted in profusion.

What one doesn’t see in any of this is the system that keeps the place looking so perfect — beneath the soil, hot water circulates through rubber hoses that heat the soil to desired temperatures.

For visitors, the rooms’ air temperature and humidity is pleasant, not oppressive, as in some other conservatories. And there is none of the odorous aspect one associates with greenhouses where manure is used as fertilizer.

Outside, from multiple vantage points around the gardens, the conservatory serves as a pleasant and orienting feature. The view is particularly dramatic from across the lake near the children’s gardens.

I’d suggest making a visit to the conservatory the last stop when visiting the gardens as the icing on the cake of an always seductive and serene experience.

Richmond is a place of remarkable cultural riches. Many of our museums and performing-arts groups have been generations in the making. That Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden has taken flight so quickly is because of the vision, generosity and efforts of many Richmonders whose steady leadership and hard work is paying dividends. The new conservatory is an architectural exclamation point for an already remarkable place. And with cooler weeks approaching, the fantasy under glass makes a compelling case for visiting the garden on otherwise gray or frigid days. S


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