The Conservatory of Flowers has captivated guests for more than a century. This gem of Victorian architecture has a long and storied history, and is the oldest public wood-and-glass conservatory in North America. As a city, state and national historic landmark, the Conservatory remains one of the most photographed and beloved attractions in San Francisco.
A GEM FOR ALL
Conservatories were fairly common among North American aristocrats in the 19th Century. Wealthy citizens erected greenhouses on their estates and created glass rooms in their urban mansions. Tropical plants were brought to California from around the world by explorers and botanists. Some were even hired by collectors to stock their greenhouses.
In the mid-19th century, James Lick, a wealthy businessman and philanthropist, ordered the greenhouse for his Santa Clara estate. Unfortunately, Lick died before it was erected, and the parts remained in crates, unused for decades. The kit was put up for sale by Lick’s trustees in 1877, and purchased by a group of prominent San Franciscans who offered it to the City. The civic-minded group of donors included Leland Stanford, founder of Stanford University and Governor and Senator of California, and Charles Crocker, the industrialist responsible for much of the railroad system in the West. The Conservatory opened to the public in 1879. It was an instant sensation and quickly became the most visited location in the park.
DESTRUCTION & RECONSTRUCTION
Since its opening, the building has seen more than its share of accidents and natural disasters. This photo from 1883 shows the damage done to the dome by a boiler explosion. Charles Crocker came to the rescue with $10,000 for the restoration work. During this restoration, the dome was raised by six feet and the eagle finial on top of the dome was replaced with the planet Saturn, likely a reference to the ancient Roman god of agriculture.
In 1918, the dome and adjoining room burned again, and in 1933 structural instabilities caused a 13-year closure. The most devastating damage was done by a wind storm in 1995. After a winter of storms, 20 percent of the trees in Golden Gate Park were toppled and wind patterns changed. As a result, a relatively mild windstorm severely damaged the newly exposed Conservatory. Forty percent of the glass smashed, a portion of the rare plants were lost, and the building had to be closed.
In early 1998, the Conservatory was placed on the 100 most Endangered World Monuments list by the World Monuments Fund. The National Trust for Historic Preservation adopted the Conservatory into its Save America’s Treasures program, launched as part of then First Lady Hillary Clinton’s Millennium Council projects (Clinton is seen here with Senator Barbara Boxer and Mayor Willie Brown). Publicity from these efforts eventually led to a fundraising campaign to raise the $25 million dollars for the rehabilitation, which included support from the Richard & Rhoda Goldman Fund. The Conservatory reopened in 2003.
Docents are often asked how the Conservatory faired in the earthquake of 1906. The building stood strong, without damage, and the area leading up to the building, known as Conservatory Valley, became a location of temporary tents housing San Franciscans escaping the devastation and fires throughout the city.
VICTORIAN MEETS MODERN
Since reopening in 2003, over 2 million visitors have visited the Conservatory of Flowers, including tens of thousands of school children on free educational tours and hundreds of couples marrying in the most romantic spot in San Francisco. This modern version of the Conservatory strives to connect people and plants in a way that is most meaningful for the Bay Area community and for visitors from around the world.
Travelers from the coldest places on earth stroll through the warm Special Exhibit Gallery where biannual exhibits feature prehistoric landscapes or swamps teeming with hungry carnivorous plants. Locals learn about current horticultural and gardening trends like aquascaping, find inspiration in the Conservatory’s living walls, and take workshops on building terrariums out of repurposed materials.
And the Conservatory is a place where horticultural societies, botany students, and young plant enthusiasts gather to study collections and ensure passion for living museums and conservatories will continue to flourish.
Since re-opening in 2003, the Conservatory has garnered numerous local, state and national awards. Learn more.
Whether you’re a native San Franciscan, a visitor from another side of the world, or a classroom of budding botanists, the Conservatory of Flowers offers an intimate up-close experience with rare and endangered plants unlike any other. Come see what treasures await you!
Golden Gate Park | 100 John F. Kennedy Drive | San Francisco, CA 94118 | 415-831-2090