The long-languishing and often-overlooked Baltimore Conservatory and Botanic Gardens in Druid Hill Park is blossoming again after a major overhaul that took four years and cost $5 million.
The imposing Victorian glass palace, closed for repairs since 2000, received truckloads of tropical plants, flowers and palm trees this week to fill its four main display rooms. Renovations of the soaring five-story space, which contains 1.5 acres of indoor gardens surrounded by walls of glass windows, was funded with money from a city bond issue and the state's Program Open Space.
Due to reopen in April as a free public facility, the expanded and renovated conservatory is set in the city's Druid Hill Park, also home to the city zoo, a reservoir and several refurbished tennis courts.
Baltimore Recreation and Parks Director Kimberley A. Flowers said city officials are betting that the improvements will easily double the conservatory's annual attendance of 50,000 visitors. Two new pavilion rooms may be rented for functions such as bar mitzvahs and weddings, she said.
Flowers characterizes the improvements as a "renaissance" for a structure that was built in 1888.
"Druid Hill Park is the second-largest municipal park, second only to Central Park, and this is an elegant and magical structure in the heart of Druid Hill Park," Flowers said yesterday. "This [upgrade] will also do a lot for the surrounding neighborhoods like Mondawmin and Reservoir Hill. We think it will be a regional draw as well."
Starting with lead paint abatement, the project also replaced aging electricity, water and heating systems; commissioned new designs for footpaths and fountains; and changed the soil.
Plain walls were painted with warmer hues, such as terra cotta. Most painstakingly, the new rooms were built in the same arched Palladian-window style to match the historical design.
An expert from Chicago's botanical gardens came to visit and offer advice, Flowers said.
Bill Vondrasek, the conservatory's chief horticulturist, said that this week's arrival of 500 varieties of exotic flora marked the beginning of a concerted campaign to make the facility more inviting to visitors.
For greenhouse supervisor Kate Blom, the deliveries were thrilling.
"Last night I felt like I was 5 years old and Santa Claus really was coming to town on a truck from Florida," Blom said with a laugh. "I've missed the plants and people."
Being carried in the door was papyrus, which the ancient Egyptians plucked from the Nile to make paper. Blom pointed out another attraction with an even older lineage: the prehistoric cycas, whose prickly leaves are known among horticulturists as "dinosaur salad."
The cycas and many other specimens, which had been part of the conservatory's collection before the renovations began, were stored in nearby greenhouses.
Vondrasek was quick to give chapter and verse on the fresh feel and personality of the flower palace, down to the fog misters.
"The fact that the plants are here, the heat and fog system is running, I'm pleased as punch," Vondrasek said as he directed plant traffic coming into the greenhouses. "If you come back in 20 years, some of these [tree] specimens are sculpturally amazing."
Vondrasek said that the time spent to complete the renovations gave him a chance to rethink the conservatory's place in the city's life and develop a more informal approach that emphasizes the pleasures of the experience -- not botany education.
Once all four main rooms -- the Palm House, the Tropical Room, the Desert Room and the Mediterranean Room -- are open, Vondrasek said, he would like visitors to feel as though they are stepping into an enchanted and friendly garden, not a museum with Latin names affixed to every plant species.
Vondrasek turned to three conservatory employees -- Melody Sparr, Chris Jeschke and George Cannoles -- and said, "Interact with the public, that's my vision for the place. If you're hosing weeds and someone has a question for a gardener, dust yourself off and feel empowered to stop and talk."
Volunteer master gardeners -- such as Steve Nordfjord of Dickeyville, who came to observe the delivery -- are also part of the outreach program.
"Let visitors feel the place and arouse their curiosity; don't hit them over the head with signs," Vondrasek said. "Appeal to the emotions and engage their senses."
To encourage visitors to appreciate the flowers, plants and the rain forest exhibit, Vondrasek expects to install "smell chambers" to intensify some of the most alluring scents -- orchids, jasmine and citrus, for example.
For visitors who come to learn the proper names and origins of plants, tours will be available, he said, along with a sign posted in each major area.
A new cafe and gift shop are also in the works to update the Victorian conservatory, which had fallen into a neglected state.
Whether the cafe's coffee will be the "coffea arabica" found in the equatorial greenhouse is still on the table.