Druid Hill Park visitors will stroll through a balmy climate among banana trees, vanilla vines and pots of jasmine when its greenhouses reopen, freshly re-stocked with the flora of the desert, tropics and Mediterranean climates following an ambitious $3.5 million refurbishment of the park's Conservatory, beginning this month.
The Conservatory consists of the park's Palm House, a fancy Victorian landmark that faces Auchentoroly Terrace, three adjoining greenhouses built in 1892 and exterior gardens.
"I can see a new life for the Conservatory, with students getting a hands-on lesson in science here," said William Vondrasek, the Conservatory's new supervisor.
Vondrasek, who has a math degree from the University of Chicago and who took the job earlier this year, sits in the work room not far from a miniforest of potted palms, where he's planning an ambitious program for what has been an undervisited -- and often little-known -- part of the city park.
"The Palm House is built out of glass. Plants need light to grow. We can teach climate and environment in there. Students could learn photosynthesis. Then we could take a leaf off a fragrant tree. They could learn about where perfume comes from," Vondrasek said.
For decades, Baltimoreans have walked through the Palm House at Christmas and Easter to see the seasonal shows of potted red poinsettias and white lilies set out under 30-foot-high palms and bunya-bunyas, an Australian ornamental evergreen tree with long thin needles.
In addition to being a pretty place to see flowers, the Palm House and Conservatory occasionally are rented for less than $200 for a wedding.
The Palm House, thanks to its exuberant architecture and exotic plants, has traditionally received the lion's share of attention. Three greenhouses at its rear -- closed for repairs for a number of years -- haven't merited much recognition. About the only new vegetation installed in them has been the cast-off houseplants surrendered by elderly people moving out of their homes to smaller quarters.
According to the plans of landscape designer Patricia M. O'Donnell, each of the three greenhouses will have a theme -- the tropics (black pepper vines, pineapple plants and coffee trees), the Mediterranean (jasmine and strawberry arbutus) and desert (cactus and aloe).
There is also discussion about rearranging the stately palm trees in the Palm House so that visitors can better see the building's soaring arched glass panels.
The Conservatory's renewal has been spread over a number of years. The Palm House's exterior was renovated several years ago with dozens of windows made by the Pella firm in Iowa. Once the greenhouses are filled with new plants (this work is expected to take up much of 1998), parks officials plan to consider constructing a meeting room for local horticultural societies and other uses.
And when this is all done, the grounds adjacent to the Palm House will be made into gardens that emphasize Maryland's native plants and trees.
"I see this as a real learning experience," said Vondrasek, who credits his interest in park work to one summer when he rode his bike through Chicago's green spaces to get to a lifeguard job. Along the route, he found himself under a canopy of trees set in place by the famous Olmsted brothers, the pioneering landscape architects of 80 years ago.
"I found myself liking the parks more than the physics I was studying. The biological sciences were a little more interesting," he said.
Beautiful Baltimore Inc., the group that funds planting of springtime daffodils and street trees, has donated a children's garden in memory of local television personality Stu Kerr. The new garden will be at the Palm House's south side.
"Who knows what we might be able to do? We're even looking into having a gift shop and would consider having a restaurant here," said William Stine, the city's chief horticulturalist.
The Conservatory at Druid Hill Park is open Thursday through Sunday, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The Christmas Poinsettia Show will run from Saturday to Jan. 4.
Information: Baltimore Bureau of Parks, horticultural division, 410-396-0180.
Pub Date: 12/01/97