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Exceptional Properties Magazine

Beyond the Glasshouse – Exceptional Properties

Conservatories add a sense of wonder and magic.

By De Schofield

Ever since the Victorian Era, known as the “Golden Age of the Glasshouse,” conservatories have spoken to the desire of homeowners to enjoy the wonders of nature from within the comforts of a climate-controlled environment. At their highest level, today’s custom conservatories set the bar for the utmost standards of design, craftsmanship, and quality, representing one of the most creative ways to add beauty and value to any estate home.

“A conservatory is much more than a room. It’s an experience,” says Amy Magner, director of the U.S. branch of Oak Leaf Conservatories Ltd., which specializes in creating English-style conservatories for residential properties throughout the world. “It’s a jewel-box structure made of glass that is dazzling and magical. It draws you in and transforms space.”

Oak Leaf has its roots in the historic city of York, England, where for the past 25 years, it has continued the Victorian British tradition of producing handcrafted, bespoke conservatories, orangeries and garden rooms. Premium-grade hardwood, typically mahogany, is specifically chosen for its structural strength, density, durability, finish and beauty. Hardwood is used for all doors and frames, window frames and sashes, and columns and moldings. The roof structure, too, is entirely made of hardwood, with the interior featuring a natural wood finish. The exterior features a virtually maintenance-free, purpose-designed, extruded aluminum system outfitted with gaskets and seals that holds the structure intact and provides essential weatherproofing.

Tradition of a more American variety instills the work of Maryland-based Tanglewood Conservatories, with production facilities on the Eastern Shore of Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay, a location that helps it pay homage to the area’s long tradition of boatbuilding and woodworking.

“We couldn’t have chosen a more appropriate location for building custom conservatories,” says Alan, who owns the company with his wife, Nancy Virts. “Our workforce of 25 employees is heir to a 300-year-old craft and woodworking tradition here. They’re an accomplished, self-reliant team whose ancestors worked as skipjacks building wooden ships and oyster boats for use on the Chesapeake Bay.”

All of Tanglewood’s projects are designed and prebuilt at the company headquarters, then disassembled and shipped to the client’s home, where a team of craftsmen installs the conservatory. One of Tanglewood’s most noteworthy projects was the design of a conservatory and gazebo for a historic home in Pennsylvania.

“The original structure on this property was built in the late 1700s, and the land was given to the original owners by William Penn,” says Alan. “When the current owners purchased the property, they gutted it and rebuilt the main house in the same original architectural style as the original and commissioned the conservatory as part of the renovation.”

The 1,200-square-foot conservatory was made of stained mahogany with a brick-clad exterior and copper-clad roof. It also incorporated hand-painted stained glass that featured the wildflowers that grow on the property.

“Our business is divided evenly between conservatories designed to blend with existing homes and those that are incorporated as plans for new home construction,” says Alan. A typical project can take as long as a year and easily cost more than $1 million.

Conservatory owners are often collectors who commission their bespoke structures to house everything from rare orchids to rare turtles.

“One of our most unusual conservatories was built to accommodate the owner’s turtle collection,” Magner shares about a single-story, glass enclosed structure that was commissioned for a new 20,000-square-foot estate home in New Jersey. The conservatory was designed to complement the Old World European style of the home and sited for convenient access near the husband’s home office.

One of Oak Leaf’s most memorable designs was commissioned for an estate in Michigan to house the owners’ collection of glass sculptures by internationally renowned artist Dale Chihuly. Appropriately designed as an all-glass structure in homage to the artworks displayed within, the conservatory features a two-story peaked roof design to showcase the focal point, a Chihuly-designed glass chandelier that hangs from the center of the roof.

From family rooms and media centers to dining extensions, the majority of conservatories are utilized as adjunct living spaces that require some sort of shade mechanisms; therefore, site planning issues involving the use of glass or solid walls and considerations such as blinds or shades play a critical role in the planning process. This is all part of the design process and included in the manufacturing, with roof systems designed to house blinds that stack up like Roman shades. Windows, too, since they compose the perimeter of a conservatory, are essential in achieving the desired look and function of the space, involving decisions regarding choice (or combination) of fixed, operable, or motorized windows as well as type and style of glazing.

Design styles can vary from classic, domed additions to whimsical, outside-the-box statement rooms.

“The design is only limited by the client’s imagination,” says Magner, who relates the story of clients in Michigan who commissioned a conservatory addition to their home so that their four Maine coon cats could luxuriate in the year-round comfort of their very own, climate-controlled environment. Connected to the home’s master suite, the 200-square-foot structure featured lots of glass for maximum bird-watching and was well appointed with built-in perches, a scratching area, custom pillows, and toy-storage areas.