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Marjorie McNeely Conservatory in St. Paul’s Como Park is one of few remaining Victorian ‘crystal palaces’

The conservatory at Como Park in St. Paul, which opened on November 7, 1915, is a well-maintained example of a Victorian greenhouse. While many similar “crystal palaces” have been torn down, St. Paul’s conservatory has remained a center for horticulture, recreation, and education for over a century.

In 1873, the city of St. Paul purchased about 300 acres of land for a public park around Lake Como. When Frederick Nussbaumer became superintendent of the St. Paul parks in 1891, he enhanced the natural landscape of Como Park by balancing it with space for recreation, artistic floral displays, and exotic plants.

Gardeners wintered or propagated some of the plants in a small lean-to-style green house. Since Como Park supplied the plants for the entire park system, however, Nussbaumer needed more indoor growing space. In 1891, the Park Board approved Nussbaumer’s plan for the first conservatory that would be attached to a new superintendent’s residence.

Como soon became a leader in park floriculture, and by 1913, there were nine separate greenhouses. Some of them were badly in need of repair. That year, Nussbaumer proposed a plan for a single large conservatory to replace the collection of greenhouses. He designed a Victorian glass house reminiscent of the palm house at Kew Gardens near London, where he trained. The building rose seventy-two feet at the top of its dome, with wings extending to the north and south. It opened on November 7, 1915, as both a production facility for plants used across St. Paul and as a year round get-away for city residents. About 3,000 people visited on its first day.

In 1918, the conservatory became the home of St. Paul’s annual fall chrysanthemum exhibition. Spring and holiday flower shows began in 1925. A sunken garden was added to the south wing in 1927.

Workers rehabilitated the structure and replaced some of its glass between 1953 and 1957. In 1962, however, a hailstorm damaged over half the glass in the conservatory and many of the plants inside. The repairs cost about $75,000. Fiberglass replaced most of the damaged glass.

The next year, the conservatory made headlines when its rare Agave Americana (called the “century plant”) unexpectedly bloomed. A shoot grew to be so long—thirty-five feet—that a panel in the roof had to be removed. After growing for months, the stalk bloomed into over 300 flowers.

In 1974, the conservatory was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. It was in desperate need of repairs, and the public took action to help restore the building. Community groups took ownership by holding meetings and putting on shows. Volunteers gave tours and helped with fundraising. The conservatory increased its focus on education and began offering garden classes to the public in 1974.

In 1978, St. Paul’s sister city of Nagasaki, Japan, gifted a design for a Japanese garden by landscape architect Masami Matsuda. The Ordway family donated the money to create the Como Ordway Memorial Japanese Garden outside of the conservatory.

The city published The Como Park Master Plan in 1981, and The Como Conservatory Planning Advisory Committee published the Como Conservatory Master Plan for its restoration in 1984, which the Metropolitan Council approved. The $13.5 million first phase included restoration of glass and structural elements, as well as updated electrical, heating, ventilation, and water systems.

On July 31, 1999, the conservatory received the HortLandmark Award from the American Society for Horticultural Science for its historical, scientific, environmental, and aesthetic value. It was only the third site to receive this landmark status.

In 2002, the Donald McNeely family donated $7 million to the Como Conservatory, which renamed it the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory. This money helped open a new wing and a combined visitors’ center for the conservatory and Como Park Zoo. The visitors’ center connected the facilities, serving as the main entrance for both. It included a gift shop, classrooms for its educational programs, and other amenities. A Tropical Encounters exhibit opened in the visitor’s center in 2006. The new wing of the conservatory included an orchid house and fern room.

Further additions included an edible garden in 2011, a year-round bonsai gallery in 2013, and a Centennial Garden in 2015 for the 100th anniversary of the conservatory. At this time, the conservatory managed nine gardens—six indoors and three outdoors.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.

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