Orangeries: Sunny Side Up –
Traditional Products Magazine
Light-filled conservatories and orangeries are graceful complements to new old houses.
Somehow, the advent of spring makes us crave what we were missing all winter: the color green, the smell of plants, and lazing about in the warm sun, For centuries, however, clever people (and wealthy monarchs) have had the resources to keep the tropics nearby, even in the dead of winter. What good is an empire on which the sun never
sets if you cannot see orchids midwinter or house microclimates under glass that educate visitors about far-off horticulture?
Long before sunrooms and four-season porches were de rigueur in the American middle-class home, the monarchs of Europe were transplanting sultry climates into their cold climates. Outside of Versailles, Louis XIV had a grove of citrus trees imported from Portugal, Spain, and Italy. The trees were planted in pots that could be wheeled indoors when the temperatures dipped too low. The building that protected the tropical trees came to be known as an orangerie, after the grove it protected.
The Louvre, in Paris, has l’orangerie, the famous Second Empire addition that protected the tropical trees of the surrounding Tuilerie Gardens. Long ago, the small stone structure was transformed into a museum. Orangeries were originally heavy stone buildings that prevented the wild temperature variations common to colder climates. They prevented the deadly damage that freezing temperatures would wreak on the fragile plants. But orangeries were not only the domain of France. The Tayloe House in Williamsburg, Virginia, has the oldest surviving orangerie in the United States. As developing industries made construction advances possible, the orangerie began its transformation into a glass house, or conservatory. The Industrial
Revolution meant that strong metal structures could be built without relying on the thick masonry walls of early orangeries. Glass could be made in larger, flat panes that filled in the space between metal supports. These advances meant that buildings could be taller, more expansive, and let in much more light. The conservatory was born from the techniques of modern industry.
In 1851, Prince Albert, consort to Queen Victoria, sponsored the Great Exhibition in London. Councils and committees considered and rejected several plans for the Hyde Park location. Most designs featured too much masonry, which would take too long to install and would be difficult to remove after the exhibit. John Paxton, a gardener and architect with experience creating large conservatories capable of covering an acre of land, submitted a design that relied on the latest technology. His iron and glass building was lightweight, inexpensive to manufacture, quick to build, and east to dismantle.
Still, only the wealthy class had the land and property on which to build. As the years stretched on, however, the conservatory became more affordable to a wider group of people. Glass was mass produced, and steel and other support materials were manufactured more easily than in their early days.
By the mid-20th century, conservatories became sunrooms with the sloping roofs and clean lines of the era – even if that design did not mesh with the style of the house.
Today, adding a conservatory onto a house, or replacing an old one that doesn’t complement the house’s lines, require a balance of history, style, and realistic assessment. Alan, Founder of Tanglewood Conservatories in Denton, Maryland, acknowledges that difficult balance. “Our approach is to listen to the spoken and unspoken cues that we get from the homeowners – not just about what they are adding to the house, but their thoughts on the functionality and about architecture and design in general.” Alan listens to how much the client wants to be informed about historical appropriateness and creates a custom conservatory that blends in seamlessly with the style and history of the house. A well-designed conservatory or sun room fits the house perfectly because of the sense of proportion and scale.
Communication about design is the most important factor of the addition, says Alan. Clients come to Alan’s firm for his skill and talent, but, “in the end,” says Alan, “they say they feel like they designed it themselves. That’s how I know we’ve been a success and listened to all of the client’s cues.” The balance that the clients are seeking, and that which architects like Alan put into real form, is what makes a quality conservatory. The addition of glass, wood, and metal needs to look like it belongs there; its quality stands
out because the building itself does not.
When Robert and Patricia bought their 1930s Tudor- style house in Brookline, Massachusetts, in 2000, it needed a lot of interior renovation. While restoring the house, they kept thinking of the existing mid-20th-century-style conservatory (just off the dining room) and how it could be improved.
After tackling the heating, wiring, and plumbing in the main house, they moved on to upgrading the conservatory. The low, sloping roof was replaced with a mahogany and glass structure that complemented the Tudor features of the house.
“We added gables to increase the height of the room,” says Patricia. The gables are visually appropriate to the house and make the room feel more open and spacious. “The design took months to finalize,” she says, because they wanted it to be right. As Alan says, it’s foolhardy to do anything but a thorough job on such an important addition. Pieces for their building were numbered and shipped from the manufacturing plant and assembled on-site.
Because of the region’s climate, it was important to take into account things like snow load and drainage to make sure the new addition would stand the test of time and the New England winters. The steel supports hold more than the 30 pounds per square foot required, just in case of a major snowfall.
The renovation also provided the homeowners the opportunity to upgrade the heating and air conditioning. “It was state of the art at the time it was built, giving us the chance to add in modern conveniences and accessories – like low voltage lighting,” says Robert. “It’s 80 degrees in there in February, when it’s minus 2 degrees outside,” adds Patricia. They incorporated tinted, low-emission glass into the roof to limit the heat gain while the clear glass in the walls keeps an unobstructed view of the yard.
The homeowners wanted to keep the interior features of the conservatory, which has art deco elements that echo the accent touches original to the house’s interior. A pink marble lion’s head fountain and mirrored wall were carefully restored. They had to call in specialists to move the marble away from the wall in order to fix the fountain works. “Between the marble and the stone wall,” says Patricia, “we found old newspapers” that had been placed there when the conservatory was originally built. Out of respect for history, they continued the tradition for future homeowners who might have to repair the fountain. They placed editions of the Boston Globe declaring that the Red Sox had finally won the World Series behind the marble! Now the conservatory is used as a place to sit and read or to have friends and family over for brunch. Their orchids and other plants recall the structure’s original purpose. Tanglewood’s Alan says that the conservatory has come to a new level. While it was primarily an eat-in sunroom in the mid-20th century, it is now anything that clients can think of. “We’ve done rooms as horticultural showcases, dining rooms, great rooms, even pool houses and bedrooms. “People are no longer restrained in what these rooms can be.”