Cleaning the windows after a long winter is a major chore for most Minnesotans, but at the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory, it’s more like a military operation.
With steel beams and glass panes that reach more than 64 feet over the historic Palm Dome, and rare and exotic plants that require kid glove care, window washing is a multi-phased event that requires careful planning, high-wire rigging, and the help of high cranes provided by St. Paul’s forest service.
“But just check out how shiny those panes are,” horticulturist Margaret Yeakel-Twum says as she inspects the most recent cleaning pass through the North Garden. “It’s really going to sparkle in here.”
There’s no question Como visitors noticed a special spit and polish on display at the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory in 2015 as the campus celebrated the 100th anniversary of its opening on November 7, 1915. In June, Como unveiled the new Centennial Garden, a stylized nod to the traditional European landscape gardens that drew visitors to Como at the turn of the century. Horticulturists also recreated the historic “Palm Walk” plantings and designed a summertime Sunken Garden flower show to showcase the Victorian-era plants visitors might have seen at Como a century ago. The historic Conservatory also basked in the national spotlight as several hundred of the country’s top public gardeners gathered at Como in June for the 75th annual conference of the American Public Gardens Association.
Did You Know?
- Como’s historic Conservatory is named for Marjorie McNeely, a former president of the St. Paul Garden Club and a life-long fan of one of Minnesota’s most iconic destinations.
- Your contributions to Como Friends help to keep seasonal flower shows, free admission, world-class horticultural collections, and other Como traditions growing.
- The King Construction Co. of Tonawanda, New York, built the steel and glass Conservatory for $58,825 in 1914—just under $1.4 million in today’s dollars.
A celebration to remember.
“This centennial has given us a wonderful excuse to showcase how much the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory has meant to this community for so many years,” says Jackie Sticha, President of Como Friends, which threw the final community celebration of the anniversary year with “A Toast the Conservatory” in December. Proceeds from the gala went toward the creation of a $1 million endowment fund for The Charlotte Partridge Ordway Japanese Garden. A similar endowment fund established 15 years ago by the McNeely family and administered by Como Friends helped to secure the future of the historic Conservatory, providing a steady source of sustainable funding to preserving the building’s architectural integrity and horticultural programs. “Creating a reliable source of private funding was just essential to helping the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory survive and thrive on her 100th anniversary.”
A beautiful history.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1974, the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory is one of the few Victorian-style glasshouses to survive in North America. But without just the right climate of civic pride and forward thinking, the Conservatory might never have been built at all.
“American cities grew up very fast during the Victorian era, with almost no planning or effort to preserve public spaces,” says architecture critic Larry Millett, who has covered Minnesota’s landmark buildings in such books as “Lost Twin Cities” and “Once There Were Castles.” But as the 20th century dawned, with robust leaders like Teddy Roosevelt leading the fight for national parks and the public domain, cities began to see the value of saving land and resources for the public benefit. “It was all part of the ‘City Beautiful’ movement, a period of relative wealth in the late 1890s and early 1900s where you saw a lot of building, and when many of the grand public libraries and other institutions came into being,” he says. “It was about creating a more beautiful public realm, and adding a sense of European class to these messy American cities.”
One of the City Beautiful movement’s most vocal proponents was St. Paul parks superintendent Frederick Nussbaumer, a German born landscape designer who lobbied for the creation of a Kew Gardens-style Conservatory for nearly 20 years. City leaders finally took the plunge in 1914, breaking ground on the Conservatory at the same time the State Capitol, the Cathedral of St. Paul, St. Paul’s Central Library, and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts were all under construction as well.
“Como’s Conservatory is part of that the golden age of Minnesota architecture between about 1900 to 1920, where you had the rise of the Prairie School, along with these grand public buildings,” says Millett. “Architecture of that period tends to be really monumental and well built, and the public has a great deal of affection for these buildings.”
The strong sense of ownership Como visitors feel for the Conservatory has helped save the building from a few calamities over the decades. The Great Depression forced much of the Conservatory to close for lack of funds, and rusted rivets were a serious structural problem through the 1950s. A devastating 1962 hail storm smashed thousands of glass panes, but the plexiglass replacements blocked sunlight to plants, and required a second renovation with glass.
To the rescue.
Concern over continued deterioration prompted the formation of the Como Conservatory Restoration Society which secured Como’s place on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974, as well as a $12 million renovation that opened in the early 1990s. The group was just one of a long legacy of community and docent groups to raise private funding to protect the Conservatory’s future, a mission that’s been carried forward by Como Friends—a merger of several nonprofit fundraising groups that incorporated under one banner in 1999. Over the last 15 years, Como Friends has invested more than $35 million in improvements at the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory and the Como Zoo, including the new Fern Room opened in 2005, Tropical Encounters opened in 2006, and The Ordway Gardens opened in 2013.
While the Conservatory may be a 100 years old, a century of community commitment to the building and the botanical collections it contains have made the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory’s future brighter than ever.
“Conservatories like this got their start during the start of the industrial revolution, an era when people began to realize just how essential it is for humans to stay in contact with nature, and that lesson has only been strengthened over the last century,” says Como horticultural curator Tina Dombrowski. “We have an affinity for plants and animals, and we find comfort and inspiration in nature. I think that’s one of the reasons the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory is still so relevant to visitors today.”