Conservatory in bloom

Gardens: After two years of renovation, `the jewel of Druid Hill Park' is reopening today.

September 24, 2004|By Stephanie Hanes | Stephanie Hanes,SUN STAFF

It started with a camellia plant, a gift from "the Orient" that needed a home during Baltimore's frigid winters.

Then history and fads kicked in, prompting city officials to build in 1888 a glass conservatory that became a staple of Druid Hill outings in the early 20th century, before the conservatory was left to languish.

Now, once again, the Baltimore Conservatory and Botanic Gardens has urban trends on its side. The soaring glass-and-iron structure reopens today with new greenhouses, plants and additions a decade after community members and city officials started fighting its decay.

The rebirth of "the jewel of Druid Hill Park" -- two years after it closed to the public for renovations -- fits a nationwide trend for urban park conservatories, such as those in Chicago, San Francisco and Pittsburgh. Over the past few years, these 19th-century Victorian structures have been reopening with new plants and displays in hopes of attracting a public more comfortable with the city and history and increasingly tired of sprawl, concrete and suburbia.

"There is a whole new appreciation for glass houses across the country," said Kate Blom, the on-site manager of Baltimore's conservatory.

In 1998, residents upset with the decline of the once-regal structure formed the Baltimore Conservatory Association to help push the city to renovate it. The state and city put up a combined $5 million to transform what had been, as Blom said, "a sad, neglected place" into a sparkling horticultural oasis.

"It's a drastic change," said George Cannoles, who has been driving for eight years from his Harford County home to volunteer and work part time at the conservatory. "When I first came down here, these greenhouses were empty, everything was makeshift. As you can see now, it's magnificent."

He gestured to the tropical jungle growing in one of the conservatory's three new theme greenhouses. A pathway winds through lush green vegetation punctuated by bursts of purple and magenta. A man-made tropical pond is filled with candy-colored water lilies.

This "tropics house" is flanked by a "desert house" on one side -- with dry air, an Arizona stone path and prickly cacti -- and a "Mediterranean house" -- complete with fruit trees, herbs, fuchsia flowers and blue-tiled fountains -- on the other.

"In the 1920s, if they had a tropical house, they'd display tropical plants in pots," said William Vondrasek, the city's director of horticulture. "Conservatories have moved to a naturalistic setting. The plants are in the ground; it evokes the feel as if you were walking in a tropical jungle."

Alison VanEvery, who will run education programs at the conservatory, walked along the cobblestone path of the Mediterranean room and stopped at an olive tree. She gently lifted a branch to reveal a small, plump, inky-black fruit.

"It's amazing when it's growing right in front of you," she said. "Something that you usually see in a supermarket in a jar."

Behind her was a camellia japonica, the shiny-leafed plant with the ballerina-pink flower, a relative of the flora the city received as a gift in the late 1880s prompting the conservatory's construction.

Glass conservatories became popular in Europe during the 19th century, as the upper classes looked for a way to preserve the plants brought back from the tropics and other regions by explorers.

By the late 1800s, U.S. cities had followed suit. Baltimore's glass conservatory is the second- or third-oldest in the country, depending on which historical reference one consults. The city once had four conservatories, but all but the Druid Hill one have been destroyed.

The conservatory's original buildings are the glass-paneled palm room and attached orchid room.

Purple, white and pink orchids now drip from grates installed along the walls of the smaller room. Soaring palms look up five stories to the glass ceiling in the main structure. A misting system has been installed to better nourish the plants.

Those rooms are attached to the greenhouses by pavilions -- spaces that will keep patrons from having to walk outside in the winter and will allow the conservatory to be rented for weddings and other parties.

"I think we have something here for everybody," said Blom, admiring a huge fan-shaped palm. "If you want to relax, learn, if you're into design, color."

Last night, Mayor Martin O'Malley and others gathered to celebrate the opening.

"It's a magical place," said Elizabeth Hopkins, the president-elect of the Baltimore Conservatory Association. "You can go to the tropics, the desert, the Mediterranean without leaving town. It really is the jewel of Druid Hill Park."

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