Our Heritage

Schönbrunn Palace Palm House Conservatory
8. Vienna, Austria


Schönbrunn Palace Palm House Interior     Schönbrunn Palace Palm House Interior

One of the world’s oldest palaces, Schönbrunn, was built on land that dates back to the Middle Ages. Located in Vienna, Austria, the Schönbrunn used to be an imperial summer residence. However, before that, a mansion known as Katterburg, was built there in 1548. Schönbrunn means beautiful spring and was named for an artesian well located on the grounds. The well provided water for the Holy Emperor Maximilian II and his court who resided there starting in 1569. In addition to lush, colorful gardens and the Palace, this UNESCO World Heritage site also has a unique conservatory known as the great Palm House.

The Palm House conservatory is one of four greenhouses that occupy Schönbrunn Palace Park. The present Palm House was built by metalworker Ignaz Gridl between 1880 and 1882 and was designed by Franz von Segenschmid with the help of structural engineer Sigmund Wagner. The last of its type to be built in Europe, the great Palm House was designed using the most modern technology of the time. With a length of 111 meters, a width of 28 meters and a height of 25 meters, the great Palm House conservatory is the largest glass house (45,000 glass sheets!) on the European continent.

The planning of the Palm House took von Segenshmid several years and entailed visits to Glasgow, Brussels and, in particular, the Kew Gardens in London. The large collection of botanicals collected by the imperial family, after circumnavigation of the globe by Archduke Maximilian became possible, prompted the commission of the conservatory.

Ignaz Gridl formed his iron metalworks company in 1862; it was the first of its kind in Austria and despite tough foreign competition, he was awarded the contract to build the Palm House conservatory. Iron had became a desired building material in Austria as insurance against fires that claimed many buildings (mostly theaters) in the 19th century. According to Hisham Elkadi in Cultures of Glass Architecture (Design and the Built Environment),

One of the most prominent examples of expressed structural ironwork in the nineteenth century is the Great Palm House at Schönbrunn Castle, Vienna… Once again, the separation between the walls and the façade of the building, as developed in the Gothic cathedrals, points to the partial autonomy of the façade as a symbol of cultural values (Leatherbarrow and Mostafavi 2002). The strong interaction between appropriate use of glass, climate, religion or culture and the public has given this type of architecture a special place in history, which remains a major architectural and cultural resource from which we can learn…

A well-designed glass façade can provide a spiritual link between man-made building’s interior and nature…

…The mixture of light, colours and surfaces in glazed buildings was used to flatten the façades and to provide surface impressions.

Georg Kohlmaier, Barrna von Sartory, and John C. Harvey in Houses of Glass: A Nineteen-Century Building Type describe the Great Palm House this way:

Rising out of the basement wall, the glass shell extends without a break up to the lantern, with no edges. Ironwork on the outside had previously been used at Laeken, in the Munich conservatories by August von Voit, and in the Frankenfurt Flora, but nowhere with the results seen here: an iron frame rising from the base and visible on all sides.

…Formal, not structural considerations led to the development of a kind of miniature Roman gallery made of cast-iron columns, which are combined in a complicated way with the sheet-metal arched girders. The development of these structural members was the only compromise made by the architect and the builder with the historicizing taste of the times.
Today, the great Palm House houses approximately 4,500 different plant species, making it one of the largest botanical exhibits in the world. The Palm House conservatory had major repairs made to it beginning in 1948 after U.S. and British aircraft dropped nearly 200 bombs on the Schönbrunn grounds in February 1945 destroying most of the glazing. It was reopened in 1953.

The great Palm House conservatory has 45,000 glass tiles and 2 annexes. The annexes, one on the north side, and one on the south, serve as a cold house and a hothouse. Each pavilion is separated by alternating curved convex/concave iron sheets. A cold house is much like a greenhouse but it relies solely on the sun for its heat. Therefore, the cold house contains plants that can handle colder temperatures. Conversely, a hothouse is always warm and is used for growing plants that cannot tolerate cold.

Some interesting facts about the great Palm House conservatory plants include:

  • An approximately 350-year-old olive tree; donated by Spain in 1974.
  • A “living fossil” species called a Wollemia discovered in 1994, is on permanent loan from the Botanical Garden of the University of Vienna.
  • A Coco de Mer tree (a rare and protected species); donated by the Seychelles in 1990. These trees produce flowers that can take from 11 to 45 years to bloom! The Coco de Mer in the great Palm House conservatory is not expected to bloom for another 50 to 100 years.
  • A Victoria Water Lily, which produces the second largest leaf in the world; the one housed at the Palm House last bloomed in 2001, which was the first time in over 40 years.
  • The center of the Palm House conservatory traditionally houses the tallest plant. The current resident, planted in 2008, is a Livistona Chinensis, a species of palm trees, native to southeastern and southern Asia, Australasia and the Horn of Africa. This Palm House palm was nicknamed the “Mirna Palm” after Austrian swimmer, Mirna Jukic, who won a bronze medal in the 2008 Olympics in the 100-meter breaststroke.

For more information and personal reflections on Alan’s visit to the Schönbrunn Palace Great Palm conservatory, please visit the Tanglewood Conservatories blog.