November 15, 2010

CALS Will Likely Tear Down Conservatory

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Administrators in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences are considering tearing down the Liberty Hyde Bailey Conservatory, which has been closed since Oct. 15 because of health and safety hazards. CALS Associate Dean made the announcement in a meeting with plant biology faculty last Tuesday, and has since emphasized that if the structure is torn down, its function as a valuable teaching and research facility would be replaced by a similar structure on campus.

Faculty reacted strongly to the announcement, expressing concern that the decision was final and that there would be no replacement to the conservatory. Students soon caught word of the conservatory’s uncertain future, and have compiled a petition to save the structure from destruction.

“This conservatory is a resource that sets our College and University apart from others,” said Heather Lee ’12, president of the Hortus Forum, in an e-mail. Lee has led the petition effort. “This is one of the few public open greenhouse spaces that are available and an oasis away from the cold and dreary Ithacan months.”

Lee said the petition has inspired support from members across the Cornell community.

“I feel as though it really brought the issue forward and got the administrators to think more about the decision and realize the gravity of the situation,” Lee said of the petition.

However, according to CALS Senior Associate Dean Jan Nyrop, there has been considerable miscommunication over the demolition decision, which he reiterated has not yet been finalized. He also noted the University’s commitment to replacing the conservatory’s function if it is torn down.

“We’ve been studying replacing that building for four years,” Nyrop said. “The strong likelihood is that that conservatory will be taken down, but there will definitely be a conservatory that will support teaching [in its place.]”

The conservatory is currently under review by the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, which is deciding whether it can be considered a historical landmark. Though landmark status may save the conservatory from demolition, Nyrop, the CALS senior associate dean, said that keeping a non-usable structure on campus for posterity’s sake may not be worthwhile.

“You look at this this thing, and you think, it’s a dinosaur,” Nyrop said. “We are going to make sure we meet the function of the conservatory … I would hope that we have a plan by the end of the year.”

In recent weeks, University Grower and Handler Carol Bader, who is the conservatory manager, has moved many plants from the conservatory to the modern greenhouses on campus, including the other “purple greenhouses” near the Plant Science building and Ken Post Laboratory near the Veterinary School.  As of last Friday, no one was allowed further entrance to the conservatory.

According to Ed Cobb, a research support specialist in the plant biology department, the University was planning a restoration project for the conservatory and sent the project to contractors last spring, but all bids returned significantly over budget. Original plans were made to begin restoration last summer.

Nyrop said that the cost of renovating the conservatory would be five times as expensive as simply building a new structure. He also said another option would be to update one of the campus greenhouses to be able to serve as a conservatory.

According to Prof. Karl Niklas, plant biology, a conservatory differs from a green house in that a conservatory is able to “grow trees out of the ground,” as opposed to simply housing smaller plants.

Niklas said that if the University does not replace the existing conservatory, the overall size of the diverse plant collection may need to shrink, which would be detrimental to the department.  He emphasized his hope is that the University will replace the conservatory with a suitable substitute.

“The real point here is to keep the teaching collection of plants accessible to students and professors,” Niklas said. “Virtually every academic day, we use the conservatory. I’ve been doing that for 32 years.”

Cobb also said that moving the plants to other facilities would reduce their availability for educational purposes. The conservatory is directly connected as a part of the Plant Sciences building, which made it easy for professor’s to take their classes on short field trips for teaching purposes, he said.

“To use the plants in our classes will take much more time for our staff and faculty,” Cobb said. “It adds hours to the prep time [during the winter].”

He added that moving the plants between Ken Post Laboratory, near the Vet School, and the Plant Science building may damage the organisms, which are sensitive to the Ithaca climate.

Liberty Hyde Bailey —  the founder and first dean of CALS — designed the conservatory during the Great Depression in 1930 to continue his research on tropical palms.  Due to financial restraints and Bailey’s own frugal habits, he opted not to add elaborate features. The largest manufacturer of greenhouses in the country at the time, Lord and Burnham, completed construction of the conservatory in 1931.

According to Adrienne Smith-Reiman grad, after Bailey officially retired, new generations of scientists studying different types of plants added new diversity to the conservatory.

In addition to its importance in botanical research and education, Smith-Reiman suggested that the conservatory provides a key role in the community. During the winters, she said, students frequently visit to grab “their fix of color.”  She also noted that community artists, photographers and writers often visit the conservatory.

Original Author: A.D. Muscente