Greenhouses and conservatories were quite fashionable in the latter half of the 19th-century, appearing on private estates and in public parks. Tropical plants were brought to California from around the world by explorers and botanists; some were even hired by collectors to stock their greenhouses.
The precise origin of the Conservatory of Flowers is shrouded in mystery, but the story begins with James Lick, a California pioneer who made his fortune in real estate. He also practiced horticulture, and in the early 1870s, ordered two conservatories for his estate in Santa Clara. Although accounts conflict, he likely commissioned the structures from Lord and Burnham – the preeminent American manufacturer of conservatories until the company shuttered in the 1980s. Most sources believe Lick’s conservatories were patterned after conservatories in London’s Kew Gardens. It is likely that Lick chartered a ship to transport the crated conservatories from Lord and Burnham’s headquarters in upstate New York to San Francisco via Cape Horn, where they were unloaded and sent to his estate in San Jose. Lick’s purpose for these conservatories was unclear. Perhaps they were to be a gift to the City of San Jose or for his own personal use; regardless, Lick didn’t live long enough to carry out his intentions.
James Lick died on October 1, 1876. After his assets were distributed to specified beneficiaries, including many charitable causes, the remainder of his estate was divided between the Academy of Sciences and the Society of California Pioneers. The latter received crates of glass equaling 33 tons: Lick’s unconstructed conservatories. In 1877, the Society of California Pioneers sold the conservatories to 27 prominent San Franciscans and local philanthropists, including former Mayor William Alvord, Charles Crocker, Leland Stanford, and Claus Spreckels. It was the intention of these men to donate the conservatories to the City of San Francisco, for public use in Golden Gate Park.
William Hammond Hall – Golden Gate Park’s surveyor and first superintendent – included a site for a conservatory on his first plan of the park in 1871. This vision was realized when the Park Commission formally accepted donation of the Lick conservatories on January 2, 1878. The Commission hired Lord and Burnham to build the Conservatory, since the crates allegedly included plans already drawn up by the company. Founding partner F.A. Lord came to San Francisco to personally oversee the project. Significant use of old-growth redwood and other native trees in the building’s infrastructure indicate that some construction materials were locally sourced. A stipulation of the donation was that the Conservatory be erected within eighteen months, and it was constructed incredibly quickly, in spite of the shipwreck of the steamer Georgia, which was carrying over $1,000 of the Conservatory’s construction materials. This may explain why the Conservatory does not seem to have a formal opening date, but rather a soft opening sometime in the middle of April 1879.
The question remains: if Lick originally owned materials for two conservatories, and only one was built in Golden Gate Park, what happened to the second structure? Several theories abound, including the possibility that it was used to construct several smaller greenhouses in the park. The true answer remains lost.
The Conservatory was an instant sensation when it opened in 1879 and quickly became the most visited location in the park. The original configuration of the interior spaces included a fountain in the entryway and another in the Palm Room, under the dome. The west wing displayed flowering and ornamental foliage in one gallery and hardwooded plants, like azaleas, in the other. The east wing featured the Orchid House and an aquatic plant gallery with a large pond, which contained the Conservatory’s first blockbuster exhibit: the Victoria regia. This giant water lily, with leaves that grow several feet in diameter, was the first of its kind to be grown in California, and brought both recognition and crowds to the Park.
Aside from its popularity with locals, the Conservatory also became a standard stop for any visitor to San Francisco, including Civil War veterans, convention attendees, Presidents, and fellow horticulturalists and gardeners.