Paradise maintained in city park Under glass: A Victorian landmark that has survived more than a century of Baltimore history is undergoing $800,000 restoration.

October 26, 1995|By Joan Jacobson | Joan Jacobson,SUN STAFF

There's a little tropical paradise in Druid Hill Park that has survived the Great Baltimore Fire, the 1960s race riots and the diaspora to the suburbs.

Not far from the shooting galleries of West Baltimore sits the flaking but elegant Victorian Palm House -- a conservatory where you'll find a monkey puzzle tree from Australia, a bay rum tree from the West Indies and a Mexican palm that has lived there since the greenhouse was built in 1888.

Now, with $800,000, thecity is restoring the Palm House and the three original greenhouses behind it. By spring, the Palm House will be repainted and 175 custom-built windows will replace the old, cracked ones.

Looking like a giant bird cage with its arched windows and glass dome, the Palm House is the last of its kind in Baltimore -- a rare bit of 19th-century architecture that has survived the city's hard times when other park landmarks have long been lost.

William D. Stine, the city's chief horticulturist, compares it to the conservatory in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, although the Baltimore version is smaller.

The Baltimore conservatory, he says, "is more like a finial, a carved ornament for a piece of furniture -- a button."

If you stand inside the humid Palm House, amid the Spanish moss and massive wild banana, the aroma of clean soil and the brilliant view to the 90-foot glass ceiling bring a faraway comfort.

"When we're finished with that building it should look like it did when it was first erected," says Larry Ge. Smith, who has been the greenhouse supervisor for 15 years. "We are duplicating it to its original look down to the color of the paint."

The conservatory was erected in 1887 and 1888 by the Baltimore Park Commission, which had hoped to add two wings "as soon as funds permit," according to a commission report from 1887.

Funds apparently never materialized, and the Palm House stands wingless today.

Similar conservatories in Patterson Park and Carroll Park have long since deteriorated and been razed, leaving the last of its kind at the southern end of Druid Hill Park.

During the current restoration, the interior of the 50-by-50-foot glass house will be redesigned, and plants will be dug up and rearranged like living room furniture.

As caretaker of the Palm House, Mr. Smith has learned to maintain the indoor exotic plants and the surrounding gardens with a maximum of ingenuity and a minimum of money.

Since the caretaker has no budget to buy plants, tropical specimens come free from institutions or homes that they have outgrown.

Flower gardens outside the conservatory are designed with leftovers from other public gardens.

He salvages and hordes anything that may be useful in the

greenhouses or the garden.

He proudly shows off piles of old cobblestones and some pretty rocks dug up from under the old greenhouses, figuring they will come in handy some day.

Recently, the luxuriant Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania donated 100 orchids that will be displayed in the greenhouses behind the Palm House once they are restored.

The Palm House is best known by visitors for its seasonal displays in November of chrysanthemums and in December of poinsettia, known for their spectacular blooms of yellow, red, pink and white.

The rest of the year, visitors can see exotic plants and trees from India, Madagascar and Australia, as well as from South and Central America. These include the bunya-bunya, the fiddly fig, the pygmy date palm and a plantain tree with leaves that are 10 to 12 feet long.

The monkey puzzle tree -- also called bunya-bunya -- comes from Australia and got its name because only a monkey can figure out how to maneuver up its spiky trunk, says Mr. Smith.

The bay rum tree from the West Indies has the aromatic leaves once used to make men's cologne.

The areca palm from Madagascar has stems that look like bamboo.

When the Palm House opened more than a century ago, the plants "were all considered very exotic."

"Now since we can get on a plane and go from Tokyo tBaltimore in a day, they're not so exotic," Mr. Smith said.

Still, Mr. Smith said the display at the Palm House impresses visitors who come when it's open, Thursdays through Sundays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Small weddings are occasionally held there, and people visiting Baltimore from Puerto Rico and Brazil tell Mr. Smith the Palm House "makes them homesick."

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