The beauty around us: from fad building to pleasure palace.

AuthorSurchin, Anne

Whether used as bastions of pleasure or utilitarian, climate controlled enclosures for container plants, greenhouses have had a long, evolutionary history from their beginnings as fad buildings for European nobility.

When Portuguese explorers brought Citrus aurantium sinensis back from the orient in the 16th century, orange trees first began to be appreciated as specimen plants. They soon turned up on the terraces and in the formal gardens of the upper crust in England, France, Germany and Italy. Structures were devised to protect these plants from the elements and, in 17th century France, the first buildings known as "orangeries" appeared in settings such as Versailles, Chantilly and Sceaux. In Germany, "Gartensale" were used for entertainment purposes, while in England, conservatories featured botanical collections as well as manifesting as jewel-like structures within the larger estate landscape. Pineapples were also grown in glass structures fittingly called "pineries." Constructed from translucent sheets of mica or oiled cloth, "Specularia," go back to the Roman emperor Tiberius who, in 30 A.D., needed to have his desire for cucumbers satiated out of season.

By the 1800s advances in technology made it possible for greenhouses to be built from iron and glass. A conservatory in Chatsworth, England, designed by architect/ botanist Joseph Paxton in 1837, employed timbers, glass, wrought and cast iron with a ridge and furrow system based on the structure of the water lily Victoria regia. Paxton replicated the structural aspects of the lily pad by employing radial ribs shored up with intermediary cross ribs. To carry large sheets of curved glass, iron ribs were interlocked to stabilize the structure. In 1851, Paxton created the Crystal Palace, a temporary exhibit hall for the Great Exhibition in London. The building, spanning 18 acres, was 1,848 feet long by 456 feet wide and featured a 135-foot high barrel vault. At the Royal Botanic Garden just outside London, the ornately Victorian Kew Palm Dome (extant) was built by architect Decimus Burton in 1848.

Greenhouses Move Stateside

In 1849, carpenter Frederic Lord began building wood and glass greenhouses as an avocation in Buffalo, New York. They were so well received that by 1856 he began building them full-time and moved first to Syracuse and then to Irvington near the great estates on the Hudson, where many were being erected. When he partnered with his son-in-law, William Addison Burnham...

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