Photos by Tessa Carmeni, Styling by Paris Kim
Since 1879, the grandeur of San Francisco’s Victorian architecture has lain within a single building, flourishing with life. The Conservatory of Flowers makes its mark at the beginning of the long and adventurous Golden Gate Park of the city, housing nearly over thousands of tropical and exotic plants from potted orchid varieties, to Spanish Moss of the lowlands and even carnivorous Amazonian specimens. A designated historic landmark of the city in its own right, the Conservatory is a small wonderland amongst the ruins and rebirth of a city so set on striving forward, a piece of the past, with roots that go deep, literally.
In fact, it is one of the first municipal conservatories and the oldest standing one made of wood, a popular choice of material as opposed to steel, thanks to its mass availability out West at the time. However, such a place shouldn’t be overlooked as a stuffy, antique facade. It is a wonderfully interactive piece of the uniqueness that makes Golden Gate Park one of the liveliest places in San Francisco, just as high ranking among the wild bison or Stow Lake row boats. Notable events that occur within the glass flora menagerie are tropic-themed Valentine’s Day soirees, the annual bloom of the infamous corpse flower, and even private events from galas to weddings. In 2017, a spectacular light show against the conservatory commemorated, through psychedelic floral imagery, the 50th anniversary of the city’s very own Summer of Love.
The Conservatory has made its mark and keeps itself relevant even as 140 years have passed since its construction. It is an aging monument that transforms itself through the years as an ageless wonder. But even as its own history has come a long way, the concept of conservatories remain a classic, delicate way to capture the imagination. First built in the 16th century to house and nourish the fresh citrus fruits and plants of the Mediterranean brought about by trade, early “orangeries” expanded beyond simple housing in 19th Century as England was just discovering new glass and heating technology essential to their longevity. Fruits remained, but now these houses were able to sustain extended forms of flora from these same lands, and at the height of Victorian England, visitors were granted dreams of far away destinations and an escape from the outdoor world, into a glass-encased place of ease and relaxation, and even a bit of adventure.
In the mid-20th Century, interest and construction around conservatories were on a decline, as improved glass insulation technology pushed less in favor of plant cultivation and more so for great, airy sunrooms that one could bask in and entertain. But in today’s world, with the offsets of a changing climate and global landscape, simple escapes into conservatories are greatly welcomed. Even by the 1970’s, smaller and many privately-built conservatories began a comeback and brought back with them the luster and zest of Victorian-influenced designs. All is right with the world, as long as nature can never truly disappear– in defense of this truth, the existence of a conservatory proves very essential, and hopeful.
As you may find yourself lost among the lush moss and flowing branches that dip into the running pools beneath the clear canopies, a conservatory is the very testament to the curious nature of bygone, elegant times that discovered the beauty in nature and took careful steps towards its preservation in a harsh world like Victorian England. Little has changed regarding our fascination for these enclosed worlds; only the decades, the centuries perhaps. And before stepping back into the cool air beyond the walls and into modern times, you’ll have to remember to check each crevice, every corner– who knows what you might miss, and may never see again. We’re already lucky to step back into the past once with these conservatories, so it’s best to make every glance count.
Visit the Conservatory of Flowers at 100 John F. Kennedy Jr. Drive,
San Francisco, CA
Learn more at conservatoryofflowers.org