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Visiting the Howard Peters Rawlings Conservatory in Baltimore

A lifelong resident of Baltimore, Dolores loves to share her interest in the historic spots of her beautiful and quirky home town.

Baltimore's Conservatory at Druid Hill Park

Baltimore's Conservatory at Druid Hill Park

Howard Peters Rawlings Conservatory

The beautiful glass palace at the southwestern edge of Druid Hill Park is the second longest surviving glass botanic conservatory in the United States. Designed by George Aloysius Frederick, the designer of Baltimore City Hall and Cylburn Mansion, the main part of the complex was opened in August 1888. Additional greenhouses were added in the early part of the 20th century. Renovations between 1999 and 2004 added new buildings and included lead paint abatement, soil improvements, and renovations of heating, watering, and drainage systems.

The older part of the conservatory at Druid Hill Park contains the Palm House and Orchid Room. The greenhouses contain a Mediterranean Room, Desert Room, and Tropical Room.

Surrounding flower beds burst into bloom in spring and continue into fall. The conservatory offers educational workshops for adults and children, special events, flower shows, and a farmer's market during the local growing season. But my favorite time to visit is in the depths of winter. It's a wonderful feeling to step inside and simply breathe. The lush greenery is like a tonic after months of cold and dull color.

If you are interested in houseplants this is the place to view various popular plants in all their glory. Grown in optimal conditions, you can see what a mature tropical plant looks like. Check out the lighting and humidity and gauge whether you can reproduce these conditions in your own home. Look at the color, size, and growth patterns of various plants to learn whether your own plants compare.

The conservatory is also a good place to make plans for future purchases. You may think that a certain plant would look great in your home, but you may decide against a plant that grows ten feet tall with leaves the size of a small area rug.

The Howard Peters Rawlings Conservatory is free to the public with a suggested $5.00 donation. Plants, books, and posters are offered for sale in the front lobby. Visiting the Conservatory got me started on my houseplant collection (40+ plants) and allowed me to purchase a few very affordable orchids.

Palm Tree

Palm Tree

The Palm House

The Palm House is the original building at the Howard Peters Rawlings Conservatory complex in Baltimore. The height of the roof allows for the growth of tall palm trees with are underplanted with low growing plants.

Mediterranean Room at the Howard Peters Rawlings Conservatory

Mediterranean Room at the Howard Peters Rawlings Conservatory

The Mediterranean Room

The Mediterranean Room duplicates a Mediterranean climate. Though usually found on the western side of a continent near an ocean or sea, a Mediterranean climate offers hot, dry summers and mild winters. The winters feature foggy or rainy days with some mild, sunny days.

The Mediterranean House contains olive and citrus trees, scented geraniums, rosemary, and bay. In the photograph, you can see large rosemary specimens in bloom. The scent is heavenly.

Banana Musa

Banana Musa

The Tropical Room

The Tropical Room keeps the plants at warm temperatures and high humidity. Twelve hours of daylight duplicate tropical lighting conditions.

Here you can see banana plants, papaya, tree philodendron, bird-of-paradise, plumeria, ginger, and gardinia. Many of the plants are popular houseplants which are, in general, tropical understory plants.

Agave Plant

Agave Plant

The Desert Room

The desert Room offers warm temperatures in an arid 20–30% humidity. Desert plants include saguaro, agave, yucca, several types of aloe, jade, and a wide variety of cacti and succulents.

The Orchid room at Baltimore's Howard Peters Rawlings Conservatory

The Orchid room at Baltimore's Howard Peters Rawlings Conservatory

The Orchid Room

The best time to visit the Orchid Room is February when so many orchids are in full bloom. The sight of so many beautiful flowers is an inspiration for orchid lovers or people who just miss the opportunity to view blooming plants.

If you are new to orchids, this is a great place to check out specimens that interest you and get a feel for their growth patterns, size, and scent. While we are all used to seeing Phalaenopsis in the grocery store, it can be a shock to see the immense size of some Vandas and Oncidiums.

A typical orangery. This one is on the grounds of Ruulo Castle in the Netherlands

A typical orangery. This one is on the grounds of Ruulo Castle in the Netherlands

A Short History of Greenhouses and Botanic Conservatories

The Roman Emperor Tiberius kept an early form of a greenhouse to shelter tender plants. Portable plant beds on wheels could be hauled out into the sunshine, then wheeled indoors during the evening or on cool winter days. Thin sheets of mica allowed for transparent walls that let the sunshine in. It has been said that Tiberius never went a day without consuming snake melons, a type of melon that resembles a cucumber, grown in his own "greenhouse."

The construction of specialized buildings to house tender plants gained popularity in 16th century Europe. Brick-walled buildings featured large south facing windows for the cultivation of citrus trees. These buildings were called orangeries and were often heated with stoves during the winter.

In 1737, Andrew Faneuil built America's first greenhouse at his some on Tremont Street in Boston. You can still see an early American orangery at George Washington's home in Mount Vernon that was inspired by Margaret Carroll's orangery at Mount Clare in Baltimore.

The Wye Orangery, built in 1785 in Talbot County on Maryland's Eastern Shore, is thought to be the only remaining 18th century orangery in the United States.

By the mid-1800s homes of the elite often featured an addition based on the orangery. These conservatories housed plants raised in beds, as opposed to greenhouses which contain potted plants. A conservatory was originally described as a glassed room that was attached to a home or building.

Palm House at Kew Gardens

Palm House at Kew Gardens

Victorian Botanic Conservatories

The Victorians were immensely fond of gardens and greenhouses. Botany became a passion in the 19th century, a time when people not only kept home gardens but also enjoyed the study of botany. Plant collections became so popular that even teenage girls approached the subject with fanatic interest. Victorian adventurers brought plant specimens from abroad. Middle-class housewives filled their homes with house plants, and exotic species were cultivated by many.

The Crystal Palace, the largest of its kind, was built in 1851 out of cast iron and glass for the Great Exhibition at Hyde Park in London. It was destroyed by fire in 1936.

The plant craze began in Europe but soon spread across the Atlantic to the United States. The Baltimore Conservatory's design resembles both the Vienna Palm House in Austria and contains elements of the Kew Gardens Palm House (1848) at The Royal Botanic Gardens in London.

By the mid-1800s new technologies allowed for greater use of glass. Instead of brick walls interspersed with glass, the new conservatories featured large sheets of glass supported by thin frames. Frames made of cast iron, steel, or wood supported large sheets of cast plate glass. New production methods created inexpensive yet strong sheets of plate glass that allowed more light inside buildings.

At one time Baltimore City was home to four botanic conservatories: The Druid Hill Park Conservatory, one at Lake Clifton, one at Carrol Park, and one at Patterson Park (pictured below).

Three of the four fell into disrepair and were demolished. The conservatory at Patterson Park was built in 1876 with a wooden frame. The wood frame began to deteriorate in the early 20th century and was torn down in 1948.

Conservatory at Patterson Park in Baltimore Maryland

Conservatory at Patterson Park in Baltimore Maryland

Visiting Baltimore's Remaining Conservatory

The Rawlings Conservatory is open on Thursday and Friday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., and on Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Check with the website for schedule changes and holiday closings. The conservatory is closed on Thanksgiving and Christmas Day.

The conservatory offers workshops for adults and children, nature programs, and holiday displays. The site is available for private events.

Free parking is available just outside.

Sources

  • Glass House of Dreams, by Margaret Haviland Stansbury; Palm House Studios, Inc. 2010
  • Baltimore's Historic Parks and Gardens by Eden Unger Bowditch; Arcadia Publishing; 2004
  • Article: "Finding Inspiration in the Conservatory," Dennis Hockman, Baltimore Sun; March 18, 2011
  • Article: "Druid Hill Park Conservatory Greenhouse is a Whimsical Collection of Glass, Curved Steel, and Light," by Frederick N. Rasmussen; Baltimore Sun; Nov. 19, 2010.
  • Article: "What the Roman Emperor Tiberius Grew in His Greenhouse," by H S Paris and J Janck; Ancient History Encyclopedia; Sept. 17, 2012

© 2014 Dolores Monet