In Its History, SF’s Conservatory of Flowers Has Burned Down Twice, and Was Nearly Destroyed By a Windstorm In 1995


The history of the grand Victorian greenhouse in Golden Gate Park that has served as the San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers since 1879 is kind of crazy, and it’s had to be rebuilt three times already.

Following news this week of the mayor’s proposed legislation that will bring the Conservatory of Flowers, along with the Japanese Tea Garden, under the oversight of the SF Botanical Garden Society — with the three gardens soon to be known collectively as the Gardens of Golden Gate Park, with free admission for SF residents to all three — we at SFist thought it was time to look back at the somewhat dramatic history of this structure, and how it came to be in the city in the first place.

Longtime San Franciscans may not know that this example of ornate, Victorian-era, glass-enclosed greenhouses made its way to Golden Gate Park via an upstate New York manufacturer — or that this is now the oldest public example of a wood-and-glass conservatory in North America. It came to San Francisco not through the original design of the park, but somewhat by happenstance, after a wealthy fan of such structures ordered two for his estate in San Jose.

According to the Conservatory’s lore, early California real estate mogul James Lick was the original buyer of the conservatory’s structure — he reportedly ordered two, but no one is too clear on what became of the second one. Records are scant, but it’s believed that the glass and framing came, sort of as a kit, from the New York-based firm of Lord and Burnham — who began around 1849 building glass greenhouses in the Buffalo area, and later relocated to Irvington, New York to be closer to clients in the Hudson River valley.

Lick’s order in 1876 was the company’s first big commission, by one telling — with an order to model two 12,000-square-foot conservatories after one that Lick had seen in London’s Kew Gardens.

But Lick would end up dying in October of that year after the greenhouses had already been shipped — likely on a boat chartered by Lick himself — from New York, down around Cape Horn, and up to San Francisco Bay. 33 tons of glass then sat unused while Lick’s estate was divvied up, and what didn’t go to various beneficiaries ended up in the hands of the California Academy of Sciences in SF, and the Society of California Pioneers.

The following year, in 1877, the Society of California Pioneers arranged to sell the greenhouses to a group of “27 prominent San Franciscans and local philanthropists,” as the Conservatory explains, including former Mayor William Alvord, Charles Crocker, Leland Stanford, and Claus Spreckels. The men intended to then donate to the structures to the city for the then-under-construction Golden Gate Park.

And so, reps from Lord and Burnham were summoned to the West Coast in 1878 to help the city put the conservatory building together according to the company’s specs — it’s believed that, maybe, the remaining glass for the second greenhouse was used for other structures around the park. And in April 1879, the Conservatory of Flowers opened to the public, and immediately became a big attraction — featuring a Palm Room, an Orchid House, and a giant water lily, the Victoria regia.

The Conservatory, post-fire, in 1883. Photo via OpenSFHistory.org

It was only four years later, in 1883, that a fire that started in the Conservatory’s furnace room burned the central dome and destroyed many exotic plants. Charles Crocker reportedly donated $10,000 for the dome’s reconstruction — and it was raised six feet in the process.

Electricity and better temperature regulation would come in 1895, but yet another fire would destroy the place in 1918, which resulted the partial collapse of the roof.

The Conservatory in 1890. Photo via OpenSFHistory.org
The Conservatory in 1945. Photo via OpenSFHistory.org

By 1971, despite some neglect over the years, the Conservatory would land on the National Register of Historic Places.

Perhaps the biggest disaster in the Conservatory’s history, and one that would result in a seven-year closure, was a devastating windstorm in the second week of December 1995 that followed torrential rains — which also caused a massive sinkhole in Sea Cliff. There were reports of wind gusts over 100 miles per hour on December 12, which toppled an estimated 1,000 trees in Golden Gate Park — and as the Chronicle reported at the time, the damage to the Conservatory was immediately seen as the worst casualty, with hundreds of panes of glass broken and much of the interior now exposed to the elements.

Damage estimates were initially around $10 million, but by the time the repairs were done and the Conservatory reopened to the public in 2003, the costs totaled $25 million. The Conservatory credits funds from the Richard & Rhoda Goldman Fund, and the fundraising efforts of the organizations that would become the SF Parks Alliance, which continues to oversee the Conservatory today.

If you haven’t been over there to smell one of those rare corpse flowers in bloom or check out the regular exhibits, you should! It’s just $7 for SF residents at the moment, though in a few months, it may be free.



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