November 16, 2010

Historic Greenhouse Faces Unclear Future

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The Liberty Hyde Bailey Conservatory – named for the founder and first dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) – was closed to all traffic last Friday due to safety concerns of falling glass and structural deterioration. Administrators announced last week that they are considering tearing down the 78-year-old greenhouse, which is connected to the Plant Science Building. In recent years, efforts have aimed to maintain the historical foundations of the conservatory while renovating its failing structure for future use.

The History of the Conservatory

“Liberty Hyde Bailey felt like greenhouses were living classrooms,” explained Greenhouse Grower Carol Bader, who has worked in University greenhouses for over 20 years.

Bailey is widely considered to be “the father of American horticulture” and was a renowned botanical taxonomist. In addition to his plants in the Conservatory, his collections of plant samples from around the world comprise the Liberty Hyde Bailey Hortorium, which resides on the fourth floor of Mann Library.

After retiring from his term as the first dean of CALS, in 1930, Bailey hired the renowned greenhouse manufacturer Lord & Burnham to produce a University conservatory for the study of taxonomy. The company was the largest producer of conservatories in the early 20th century.

According to Research Support Specialist Edward Cobb, Bailey was a frugal man, and while the Great Depression continued to plague the American economy, he chose not to spend money on extravagant purchases. For this reason, the conservatory lacks a special “portico” – a special entrance designed to minimize heat loss as visitors enter the greenhouse. Instead, Bailey “splurged” on one key feature – the distinctive curved sides of the greenhouse.

Conservatories are often distinguished from other greenhouses by their larger size and height, which allow for the growth of full gardens and tall trees.

The design of such conservatories allow for the study of highly diverse collections of plants through the establishment of “micro-environments,” Bader said.  Compared to other greenhouses on campus, the conservatory allows for the growth of tall, tropical trees. These trees produce an understory – a  “micro-environment” for the growth of shrubs and grasses.

The growth of such tall trees, as well as the placement of adjacent buildings, creates disproportionate zones of light and temperature; in addition, miniature ponds and watering regimens create patterns of humidity and moisture. This creates different areas that allow plants from both deserts and rainforests to grow under one roof.

In addition, the establishments of micro-environments make conditions more conducive to the growth of rare plants that generally would not tolerate Ithaca’s climate.

The two rooms of the conservatory were built to meet Bailey’s exact specifications. In recent times, the first room – the student house – stored a diverse collection of plants, ranging from carnivorous species to the unusual living fossil found in the Namib desert in southern Africa, Welwitschia mirabilis.

Numerous undergraduate classes use these plants for instruction in evolution, diversity and morphology, said Prof. Karl Niklas, plant biology.

The second room – the palm house – was named for Bailey’s extensive collection of tropical palms. After retiring as dean of CALS, Bailey spent 35 years examining the unexplored taxonomy of the palm family. During his lifetime, only a few species of palms were recognized among the thousands that are known to exist today.

According to Addy Smith-Reiman grad, after Bailey retired, new generations of scientists continued his botanical studies, examining the taxonomy of other types of plants. With each scientist, the conservatory’s diversity increased.

The Future of University Botanical Studies

The conservatory is currently composed of cypress wood, which is lightweight, resistant to the elements and generally lasts 50 years, Research Support Specialist Ed Cobb, plant science, said.

According to Cobb, Lord & Burnham originally recommended that the University complete regular maintenance of the facility every 15 years. This maintenance includes removing all the glass, treating the wood structure, replacing any broken pieces and returning the glass to the frame.

In previous semesters, with the aid of Bader and Prof. Dan Krall, landscape architecture, Smith-Reiman taught a class about “designing and curating a living collection,” called Landscape Architecture 4940: Reconstructing a Living Classroom. The class encouraged students to study other conservatories and to produce possible designs for the renovation of the Conservatory.

According to Smith-Reiman, her students actually designed a “rehabilitation” project, rather than a “restoration” project. In a restoration project, a property is repaired to resemble the property at a specific point in time; in a rehabilitation project, additions are made that add modern functionality while preserving the historical, cultural and architectural values of the original property.

For the conservatory, these plans included the addition of a portico, which was originally left out of Bailey’s design. In addition, some students produced new designs for the exterior of the structure while others focused on transforming the interior of the Palm House, unifying the space for efficient research activity and practical community use.

These changes were initially set to be implemented as soon as summer 2010, but were cancelled once the costs exceeded the budget. CALS has stated that, due to financial restraints, such restoration and rehabilitation projects are not suitable options. The cost of renovating the existing conservatory could be as much as five times more expensive as building a new greenhouse.

Although CALS continues to investigate the issue, Dean Jan Nyrop of CALS has stated that the University will designate a substitue structure that will serve the same function as the original conservatory.

According to Smith-Reiman, “The conservatory is a community asset, not just a Cornell asset.”

For instance, she indicated that local photographers, painters and grade school classes have made use of the diverse botanical collection.

“During the dark days of winter, a lot of people actually go there to get their fix of color,” she said. “This [proposed rehabilitation] really encourages a place for quiet reflection.”

Original Author: A. Drew Muscente