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Crystal Palaces: Garden Conservatories of the United States

Crystal Palaces: Garden Conservatories of the United States
Anne S. Cunningham
Princeton Architectural Press
Publication Date: 

cloth, 178 p., $45

Crystal Palaces: Garden Conservatories of the United States is the story of conservatory design in America, 120 years of the history of these crystal palaces from the turn of the century through the Great Depression and on to the present day. Twenty-five major public garden conservatories, from all parts of the country, are covered in this book. Some were built in the Victorian era, while others were constructed in the past decade. Some, like the Edith A. Haupt Conservatory in the Bronx, look like a delicate fairy tale castle. Those built more recently take on the shape of a geodesic dome, like the Conservatory at the Missouri Botanic Garden, or become aluminum and stainless steel pyramids, like San Antonio's Lucille Halsell Conservatory. This book tells you their histories — how they were designed and built, and something about their collections — and it even provides details on their exact location and visiting hours. Each of the 25 conservatory sections is accompanied by numerous color photographs.

While descriptions of the conservatories take up by far the greater part of the book, the introduction is worth reading for a general history of glasshouses, as well as for a list of the materials used in their construction and the problems arising from their use. There is also an interesting description of the different types of exhibits (Linnean vs. naturalistic) and the increasing use of fauna, such as butterflies, to spice up the collections. Finally, there is a section that deals with the infrastructure required to support these conservatories, such as the complex heating and cooling systems, the great amount of water required, the plant production houses, and, of course, the staff — gardeners, horticulturalists and designers — who keep the displays alive and thriving.

Crystal Palaces is a unique book on an interesting subject, beautifully done. Today, when the natural world is rapidly disappearing, the role of the conservatory is more important than ever. And the book's introduction helps to make this clear, in this quote from the New York Times: "What we seek to conserve now is not individual plants, transplanted from their native habitats, but rather nature itself."

— Jim Kemper