Alan’s Forthcoming Book on Conservatories

Posted August 22nd, 2013 by Alan Stein and filed in General, Greenhouses, Insights, Wye House
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Nearing completion is an enLIGHTning new book by Tanglewood’s President and Director of Architecture. “Conservatories” is a perspective on the historical development and modern relevance of the conservatory. The book promises to bring to light new aspects of the development and significance of the orangery, greenhouse and conservatory.


The first conservatory known in history dates back to circa 30 A.D. His physician has told the Roman governor, Tiberius that he must eat one cucumber each day. Thus, construction begins on a specularium, a house designed for the growing of plants. Fires outside the building’s stone walls heated the air inside the room, thin sheets of translucent mica (a shiny, silicate mineral) were used to form the roof and allow sunlight in. Five hundred years later, Thomas Hill, in his gardening book, “The Gardener’s Labyrinth” references this first greenhouse by telling his readers:

Ruins of Villa Jovis

The young plants may be defended from cold and boisterous windes, yea, frosts, the cold aire, and hot Sunne, if Glasses made for the onely purpose, be set over them, which on such wise bestowed on the beds, yielded in a manner to Tiberius Caesar, Cucumbers all the year, in which he took great delight…

The first practical botanical greenhouse is thought to be a building in Leiden, Holland where Jules Charles, a French botanist, raised tropical plants for use in the development of medicines in 1599. The greenhouse, incidentally, is still there!

Engraving of the Hortus botanicus in Leiden

Modern conservatories date back to 300 plus years ago when visitors to Mediterranean destinations began returning from their travels with tropical fruits and plants that could not survive the cold weather climates of Europe. Orangeries, or limonaias (lemon-houses) as they were known in Italy, started out as simple pergolas built over the plants and trees and evolved into the more elaborate Victorian glass and aluminum structures seen in public parks and gardens all over the world. However, the public arena is not the only place the buildings are found today. Conservatories became a way for the wealthy to show off their fortunes during the 18th century and continue to be a way for even the not so well off today as a way to enjoy the outdoors, inside.

Beginning as rooms with tall, south-facing windows, conservatories have grown to become cozy, all-weather rooms for entertaining and relaxing, as well as for plant preservation and propagation. Nineteenth century England was the golden age of conservatories as the British love for gardening was paired with the new technologies for iron, glass, and heating systems were being developed. As the industrial revolution began and iron and glass became less expensive to produce (and the glass tax in Britain was repealed), it became easier for architects and builders to bring their ideas to fruition. As more industrialists became wealthy, more capital was raised to bring these once only available to the rich buildings to the public, in the form of public botanical gardens and parks. Conservatories then, have served to bring not only rare plants and trees to the general public but also to bring the public to the plants – a way for everyone to experience nature in a way that makes it easier to see and experience no matter what the weather and no matter where you live.

In the United States, a Boston merchant, Andrew Faneuil is credited with having the first American conservatory built, in 1737. And, George Washington, wanting to serve pineapple to guests visiting Mount Vernon, had a greenhouse built specifically to grow the fruit there.

George Washington's Greenhouse at Mount Vernon

The Wye Orangery, in Talbot County on Maryland’s eastern shore, not far from the Tanglewood Conservatories offices, is believed to be the only remaining American 18th century greenhouse.

 The Wye House Orangery, in Talbot County, MD

Conservatories and greenhouses have gone from being a necessary building to help preserve the health of a Roman emperor to status symbols of the rich to sunrooms and greenhouses attached to middle class homes used for entertaining and relaxing.

Perhaps someday they will be used all over the world to help feed nations as well!

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