Nature Under Glass – Chester County Magazine
At Tanglewood Conservatories Alan and Nancy Virts honor nature with their glass structures designed with artistic and spiritual values
By Margo Aramian Ragan
When Alan and Nancy Virts were deciding upon a name for their construction company, the only one that captured their vision was Tanglewood Conservatories, Inc. “Music, as exemplified in the site of Tanglewood, Massachusetts, is an appeal to the sensual as well as to the spiritual side of man,” Nancy explained. “We believe the conservatories we build are a celebration of those two concepts, making the name appropriately descriptive of what we are trying to accomplish.”
Alan holds the title of president and founder, but he readily concedes to the contributions of Nancy as chief operating officer. “She has an artistic sensibility upon which I rely,” he said. “Our marriage and partnership is a synergy between that artistic talent and my skills as an architect.”
Conservatories occupy a special niche in construction; they have a history and specific criteria that make them unique. For the uninitiated, a conservatory is a glass-walled addition to a dwelling that adds living space. That, however, is a skeletal description of a conservatory, especially the ones Alan and Nancy build.
Historically conservatories can be traced as early as 600 B.C. with the establishment of The Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Here was one of the first attempts to which archeologists can attest to man’s attempt to build a structure to preserve and/or protect their plants from the vagaries of nature. In the 16th century wealthy individuals who traveled to exotic lands wanted to return to their homeland with samples of the plants they saw and experienced, hence the interest in construction of glass-walled structures that would allow sunlight to nurture plant life.
But taxes played an important role in the history of conservatories. England, for example, levied a heavy tax on glass, which put a damper on conservatory construction. The levy remained in place until 1845. Once the onerous tax was lifted, Victorian England embraced conservatories in estate home design, and authors such as Jane Austen and Oscar Wilde celebrated them in literature. A conservatory became a statement of the homeowner’s wealth and culture.
Given the rich and fascinating history of conservatories, one can understand why a knowledgeable person would not refer to one as a greenhouse. They are much more than that, and Alan and Nancy are very cognizant of preserving the integrity of the conservatories they construct.
“As a child, I always loved to build things,” said Alan. “It was natural for me to follow the career path of becoming a builder, but I soon realized that I lacked design knowledge. I enrolled in the University of Maryland, receiving a degree in architecture in 1983.” Unfortunately for Alan, traditional architecture left him feeling “like a fish out of water.” Sitting behind a desk drawing plans, however intricate, did not satisfy his yearning to build as well as design.
He took the next logical step, and that was to form his own company where he could build what he casually calls “normal things”. His professional career totally changed when a client came to his office with a request for a conservatory. “My immediate response was ‘Yes, I can do this,’ even though I had never built one before,” admitted Alan. “The more research I conducted into conservatories, the more fascinated I was with the concept.”
Initially he was going to use prefabricated products sent from the United Kingdom, but he was appalled at what he found. “These products were upgraded backyard greenhouses,” he recalled, “with none of the quality standards and design details that make conservatories unique.”
Despite having no formal training in conservatory construction, but filled with immense interest and energy in the concept, Alan built his first conservatory. Once that was completed, a second client by chance happened to request a conservatory. Thus began the specific niche in the industry that Alan and Nancy have carved for themselves.
What makes Tanglewood Conservatories a leader in the field is that all the work is done on their work site and assembled at the client’s residence. Their workshop is located in Denton, Maryland, where they have 40,000 sq. ft. of space, building 20-25 conservatories per year. “Think of assembling one of our conservatories as a giant LEGO set,” Alan laughed, minimizing the technical aspects of what he and his staff are able to accomplish. Getting to this step, though, is a long, technical and personal journey.
Nancy is generally the first person with whom a client comes into contact. Her discussions focus on what the client understands a conservatory to be, and what his/her needs and wants are. There are occasions, however few, where she steers the prospective client to other companies. “When it is clear that we are not a good fit for the client, it makes good business sense not to pursue the contract,” she said. “Because the time frame for building one of our conservatories may be long, Alan and I build up relationships with our clients. We become family as well as business associates, so it is important to the entire process that all of us thoroughly understand one another.”
Tanglewood’s conservatories are custom designed and made to blend into the environment, while at the same time, maintaining the integrity of the structure. When completed, there is a marriage of the interior with the outdoors. Nature becomes an integral part of the dwelling, extending the living space exponentially.
Alan’s enthusiasm for each new project is contagious. With each assignment comes a challenge. “Everyone knows how to build a house,” Alan said. “There are tried and true methodologies that indicate what options can be used in any particular situation.” When building a conservatory, though, Alan says he has to invent his own systems because the work is so customized and detailed. He works closely with a structural engineer in setting up the design where all pieces are coordinated to fit precisely with one another.
“I feel I am constantly pushing the envelope in terms of design,” Alan said. “Our conservatories reflect the Old World design while incorporating the needs and wants of the 21st century.” A recent request from a client reflects how flexible Alan has to be. This client wants an all-steel conservatory, which means Alan has to invent all new systems for holding the pieces together. “Every challenge energizes me,” Alan reflected. “Basically it is an organic approach to the construction of a conservatory, one idea spawns another.”
Recently another client requested stained-glass windows in her conservatory, specifically depicting different wild flowers. Her idea was a throwback within the history of conservatories when the wealthy delighted in having exotic flowers on display for their guests. Alan was faced with a dilemma. Tanglewood Conservatories has many talented craftspeople on staff but no one who could paint flowers on leaded glass.
“So I visited a local art museum and studied the work of several artists,” Alan explained. “I found someone whose work I admired and who would be willing to invest in the time, energy and technical equipment to complete the project.” The resulting conservatory is a remarkable example of the beauty of colorful leaded glass, an example of the artistic collaboration that Alan and Nancy nurture in their company. Despite all the technical difficulties in creating this specific conservatory, Tanglewood can now offer that kind of design to others.
Alan and Nancy’s talents have spread beyond our shores. A company in Shanghai, China, found their website and contacted Tanglewood to construct conservatories for their own development of estate properties. Since Tanglewood creates each piece of a conservatory structure in their workshop, I wondered how Alan handled the problem, which to him was no problem at all. “Just as I do in all situations. Our staff carefully packaged each piece and placed them in a shipping container. Only this time the container was going overseas, not to any place in the states,” he added.
A crew was flown to China and installed the conservatories for eighteen private estates. The only glitch that occurred was that one section of glass was made incorrectly here, but the export crew knew how to direct Chinese artisans to correct the situation. “Because we are logistically organized and have superior project management, we can take the assignment of constructing a conservatory and install it anywhere in the world,” Alan asserted.
Both Alan and Nancy wee a conservatory as a triumph of artistic and spiritual values. The aesthetics of each structure speaks to the integrity of the design. “When I design and build a conservatory, I marvel at the symmetry of the lines and mastery of detail,” he concluded. “We at Tanglewood don’t just build a structure, we like to think we are continuing and preserving an architectural legacy.”