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Conserving A Tradition – Coastal Style Magazine

By Jon Westman

Some would consider it a lost art. Others simply a “greenhouse.”

Alan and Nancy Virts consider it their privilege to enhance, educate and expand the boundaries of an ancient architectural marvel. The co-founders of Tanglewood Conservatories share a vision and a passion to design and build a combination of the romanticism of 19th Century glass architecture with state-of-the-art technology and master craftsmanship.

“Conservatories have a rich history dating back to the days when wealthy families of Victorian Europe would travel the world and bring back varieties of plants and trees,” Alan said. “They needed warm climates to survive the colder months, so the idea of a glass-enclosed conservatory was developed. Europe is where you’ll find the majority of conservatories today, either renovations of existing glasshouses or construction of new conservatories. I’ve found that conservatories are to England what screen porches and decks are here in the U.S.”

One of only a handful of American-based conservatory builders, Tanglewood has doubled in size during the past five years. Thirty employees produce 20 to 25 conservatories each year using only top-grade materials. The conservatories are pre-built at Tanglewood’s 40,000-square-foot workshop in Denton, Md. and shipped to the customer for installation. Design to completion typically takes 9 to 12 months.

“Our clients initially create their conservatories for a specific purpose, as a swimming pool room or a music room, for example,” Alan said. “But it quickly becomes the room in the house where they spend most of their time, and more of our clients are incorporating plants and gardens into their spaces, sort of a return to the origin of the conservatory.”

Established in the 1990s, Tanglewood Conservatories is already recognized around the world as one of the most architecturally advanced and detail-oriented conservatory builders in the business.

The developer and builder of Sandalwood’s premier resort project in Shanghai, China, selected Tanglewood Conservatories to build the glass structures for their ultra-elaborate estate homes. One of the world’s most exclusive residential properties, the Sandalwood Estate consists of eighteen private homes, many with conservatories and garden rooms set in a landscaped, park-like setting.

“Our design flexibility and collaborative attitude won us this terrific project,” said Alan, who also serves as Tanglewood Conservatories’ President and Director of Architecture. “The Chinese builders had some very specific requirements and we were able to help them achieve the architectural look they wanted by marrying our technology with their building techniques and materials.”

Locally, an Easton homeowner asked Tanglewood to design a conservatory, accented with a cupola and copper roof, that would serve as an ideal space to take in the accompanying river views. In Annapolis, Tanglewood delivered a complex design that was seamlessly integrated with the homeowner’s existing property. Custom windows were also incorporated into the conservatory that matched those at the residence. In Seaford, Alan and his talented team created a conservatory elegantly encasing a space that featured a stone spa built into the floor.

“This was one of my favorites,” Alan said. “It was beautiful and finished with leaded stained glass windows and lightly stained mahogany. The people did a fine job decorating it. When you walk in, you think you’re in a little chapel.” Tanglewood is currently producing a conservatory for homeowners in St. Michael’s and the interest in these unique structures is gaining considerable momentum across the Delmarva Peninsula.

“It seems like we are doing more (on the Eastern Shore),” Alan said. “I think you only have to look at the amount of building that is going on here and the size and scale of the homes. We kind of create a feature on these larger homes.” Recent regional projects include a conservatory in Cleveland, Ohio, designed to take advantage of waterfront views of Lake Erie that was shipped completely assembled and set into place with a crane; a Georgian-styled conservatory serving as office space and exhibit showcase for a midtown Manhattan gallery of architectural artifacts; and a 3,500 square-foot conservatory to house an indoor swimming pool in East Hampton, NY.

“A great conservatory design begins with the client,” Alan said. “We listen to their desires, ideas, feelings and needs. While working together, the client begins to see their dreams become reality as the architectural process unfolds and the conservatory becomes uniquely theirs. It is a wonderful feeling to have the opportunity to go and work in some of these places, especially when the clients really do let us into their world to allow us to do a really good job.”

“It is a lot more fun when you get to sit with the client and go back and forth, as opposed to working with an architect and a builder on a commercial project,” Virts said. “People who especially come to us and want to be involved see something truly special. These homeowners are just beaming.”

If acceptance of their work in the marketplace is any indication, demand for Tanglewood’s conservatories may force the company to expand again soon.

“As our creativity and experience in glass architecture grew, our conservatory design projects generated more interest,” Alan said. “We live on the quality of our work and the high level of customer care we provide. For our talented craftspeople, these are dream projects destined for some of the world’s most beautiful homes. We seem to keep growing. People love what we are able to do.”