A look at the history of the Volunteer Park Conservatory, built in 1912 and celebrating its centennial with a public party on Aug. 12, 2012.

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The Volunteer Park Conservatory, which celebrates its 100th birthday this year, is many things.

It’s a botanical United Nations where you might find a Madagascar palm sharing an arid, stony bed with cactuses from the American Southwest, or an Egyptian papyrus rising up between a giant bird of paradise from South Africa and an Australian tree fern.

It’s also a time capsule aimed at the future, relaying messages from one generation to another about the variety, ingenuity and uses of plants.

In other ways, it’s a performance. Its 6,800-square-foot public premises are backed up by roughly 12,000 square feet of greenhouses and other production space where plants are propagated and prepped for dramatic entrances in the Palm House, Fern House, Bromeliad House, Seasonal House or Cactus House.

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The serene beauty of the conservatory and its contents make it look as if the plants are simply set there and take care of themselves. But that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Behind the scenes, bloom-conjuring wizardry is always going on. Right now, groups of chrysanthemums are being nurtured to come into a bloom at three-week intervals in September and October. In their computer-controlled environment, carefully calculated doses of water, heat and light are teasing plants into creating the colorful “show” the gardeners want.

That show first got its start in 1910 when landscape architect J.C. Olmsted submitted a plan for city-park improvements, requiring a $2 million bond issue. The bond issue was authorized on March 8, 1910, and in December of that year, the Board of Park Commissioners instructed Superintendent J.W. Thompson to prepare plans for a $30,000 conservatory at the north end of Volunteer Park.

In March of 1912, The Seattle Times reported that construction of the building would begin “as soon as special material can be obtained from the East.” But the dates for the completion and opening of the conservatory are strangely vague.

The Seattle Times ran a splashy piece with big photographs on Sept. 22, 1912, saying there was “little remaining to be done except to complete placing glass in the framework and to link up to the greenhouse proper the service plant.” They expected the building to be completed within a month.

In January 1913, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer told its readers the building was complete but it still hadn’t been stocked. But by the spring of 1915, The Seattle Times felt confident running a story headlined “Beauty Riot in Hothouse,” proclaiming that anyone visiting the conservatory’s “perfection of blooms” now had “an asset making for happiness in human affairs far beyond their own realization.”

Plant-growers and plant-lovers have long tried to create gardens that defy the climates where they’re located. In her book “Crystal Palaces: Garden Conservatories of the United States,” Anne S. Cunningham reveals that the first greenhouses were built in ancient Rome using semitransparent mica as glazing.

Advances in iron, steel and glassmaking technology gave rise, by the mid-19th century, to “grand public conservatories,” most notably in London, at the Palm House at the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew (1848) and at the Crystal Palace, built for the city’s Great Exhibition of 1851 and covering 18 acres of Hyde Park. “Iron,” Cunningham writes, “was the backbone that made it happen.”

The Volunteer Park Conservatory is a relatively early arrival, and a rare survivor. Conservatories built for the 1853 New York World’s Fair and in Philadelphia for the 1876 Centennial Celebration were soon destroyed by fire. The Missouri Botanical Garden’s Linnean House, built in 1882, is “the oldest continually operating display greenhouse in the United States,” Cunningham says.

Among the very wealthy, private conservatories were popular, of course, and greenhouse companies offered conservatory “kits” you could assemble. Volunteer Park’s came from Hitchings & Company, a New York firm in partnership with Lord and Burnham, the major manufacturer of conservatories and greenhouses in the U.S. around the turn of the century. It was erected on-site by park department staff.

The kit cost $5,000. Total cost — including laying the foundation, building the heating plant, all the glazing, etc. — eventually came to $50,000.

“The structural frame of the conservatory was made of steel,” Cunningham writes, “although the graceful roof arches originally were built with Southern swamp cypress. In spite of persistent dampness, both inside and out, the cypress lasted for seventy-five years.”

Garden conservatories, she adds, are notoriously difficult to maintain: “The misty level of 90 percent humidity that benefits tropical plants simultaneously wilts people and wreaks havoc on structural materials and paint.”

That explains why Volunteer Park Conservatory, which costs $450,000 a year to operate, is in need of roughly $3.5 million in repairs. The Palm House (renovated 1999), and the Fern House and Bromeliad House (renovated 2006) are in good shape, with all of the old wood replaced with aluminum and the original lightweight sheet glass replaced with specially laminated tempered safety glass.

But the Seasonal House and Cactus House, which still have a good amount of wood framing, are in urgent need of attention, as is a greenhouse behind the scenes that was built in 1922 to accommodate Anna Clise’s orchid collection, donated to the conservatory in 1921.

Things looked dire for the conservatory earlier this year. But a sustainability report, with suggestions about alternative funding, has senior gardener David Helgeson “cautiously optimistic” about the conservatory’s future. The recommendations included charging a small entry fee of $3 or $4 (currently a $3 donation is suggested at the door), in combination with free days, free admission for children and availability of an annual or family pass.

Volunteer Park Conservatory is far from alone in its fiscal uncertainty. Yet the news from other conservatories bodes well.

“Of all of the public ones that have been threatened with closure recently due to lack of funding,” Helgeson says, “none of them have closed. There’s always been an alternative plan developed to keep them open.

“The lightness, the airiness and the moist warmth are exactly what makes the building so vulnerable to decay.”

San Francisco’s Conservatory of Flowers, Helgeson notes, had to be rebuilt from the ground up. After an eight-year closure, it reopened in 2003.

Volunteer Park Conservatory has weathered its 100 years better than some of its counterparts, he notes. It survived a brutal 1916 snowstorm that collapsed the dome of St. James Cathedral. And it rode out the earthquakes of 1949, 1965 and 2001, thanks in part, Helgeson believes, to the flexibility of its wood framing.

“We went through the Depression,” Helgeson continues. “We went through two world wars without closure. As far as I know the place has never been closed for any reason, for any extent, other than maybe to repair some glass. But for 100 years, it’s been open.”

With that in mind, Helgeson and his crew are putting all their effort into celebrating the occasion. In the Seasonal House, a dozen varieties of scented geranium — popular when the conservatory opened — are on display.

Friends of Volunteer Park Conservatory have outlined the building in high-efficiency LED lights that give a fairy-palace appearance at night. Helgeson says they’ll be in place throughout the centennial year and possibly beyond.

As for this Sunday’s festivities, they include a free birthday cake, punch and champagne. Nice way to mark a century of floral pleasures.

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@seattletimes.com

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