The Volunteer Park Conservatory (Part 3 of 3), Continuing a Rich Cultural Tradition

In my previous two posts about the Volunteer Park Conservatory (VPC), I focused on the economic, cultural, and technological forces that shaped the greenhouses that the VPC greenhouse is modeled after. In today’s post, I will come full circle and write of the resulting cultural developments the greenhouse and its offspring helped to foster.

Built cultural spaces, as we understand them today, were far fewer in the 19th century even if one accounts for a smaller population. As noted in part one of this three part post, the rising middle class with its growing numbers put a new impetus on places to house leisure time. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, leisure time was primarily enjoyed only by the nobility and the wealthy merchant classes. Both of these groups had the means to build residences on estates that could house their interests and leisure time pursuits in the arts, sciences, and society. And, should they tire of their own environs, the salon culture promoted intermingling of the wealthy with their kind, with soirees being held in each other’s estates.

That is not to say that popular culture and its venues did not exist prior to the Industrial Revolution. The Globe Theatre, where the Bard’s works were performed in the 17th century, existed but was unique. As was the case of the Globe, cultural venues were not built to the level of permanence we expect of our cultural facilities today, and did not last even 50 years. One had to wait until the 19th century and the social and political upheavals in Europe to witness the establishment of the modern, public (open to all) architectural and cultural landscapes. Oftentimes founded on the former estates of the nobility, who were either forced to abandon, develop, or sell them to quell social unrest and the growing calls for a more democratic life, these  public places emerged in full bloom, founded (as it were unintentionally) on the largess of the gentry. In fact, most major parks in Europe as well as its first museums were former palaces and gardens. The greenhouse figured into this ‘repurposing’ of the built environment from the private to the public realm. Things quickly took evolved, with new structures being purpose built to quench the publics’ cultural appetite. Among the first of these structures for culture was the Altes Museum, by Karl Schinkel (c. 1830). This date parallels that of the first greenhouses, for although there is no direct architectural relationship between the two, the former’s emergence is a barometer of a developing trend that greenhouse designers would later exploit.

Concurrent to the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the middle class, the mid 19th century also marked the age of European nationalism, and the robust efforts of self-promotion among nations that, for perhaps the first time since the ancient Greek Olympics, involved actions outside of warfare. One such way for self-promotion was the world’s fair or exposition. These events were the largest social events a nation could host, with millions of visitors in attendance and a chance for nations to parade their technological and scientific prowess. The Eiffel Tower (1899) is testament to the ambitions structures realized in the world’s fair frenzy (as is Seattle’s own Seattle Center home of the 1962 World’s Fair). The fairs, interestingly enough, became their own means to an end. Staging one required a tremendous investment of resources and ingenuity, not the least of which was to create structures to actually house the various exhibits and the massive crowds that were part and parcel to the event. And the crowds were massive, fueled by the growing middle class and their ability to attend these seminal events. The spaces required for the events were such that had never been demanded of a public, non-ecclesiastical or commerce building (at least since Greek or Roman times). Previously, buildings such as these were funded privately and built for – and constructed by -- generation. What was needed for this new type of exhibit space for the world’s fairs was an economical (publicly financed), quickly assembled structure (these fairs were conceived and executed quite quickly) that enclosed previously unimagined volumes of space.

The architectural model of the greenhouse was the model used to achieve these goals. Made of modular materials that were economical to manufacture and quick to erect, this building type was ideally situated to fulfill the new, ambitious uses. Enclosed in glass, these buildings displayed the world’s wonders in a brightly lit and voluminous space. The watershed event for this erecting this new building type (evolved greenhouse) was the construction of the Crystal Palace for the Great Exhibition of 1851, in Hyde Park, London (Hyde Park itself being of former Royal hunting ground). Based upon technologies pioneered by greenhouses, the Crystal Palace was a massive building even by today’s standards, and enclosed almost 1 million square feet and was over a quarter mile in length, and is credited by many historians as the first building of the modern movement; was it also among the first of the modern, cultural movement as well?

An interesting connection exists between the Crystal Palace and the VPC, aside from the later being modeled physically on the former – the VPC was among the first cultural buildings in Seattle (built in 1912), being built (and founded) prior to the Seattle (now Asian) Art Museum, the Frye Art Museum, and the Henry Art Gallery. Albeit on a decidedly more modest scale the Crystal Palace, the VPC fulfills its pioneering cultural and educational callings with verve. With an impressive array of plants, the VPC continues its mission to educate its visitors to a variety of botanical treasures from all corners of the globe. With both intimate and grand spaces for viewing (or drawing) their collection, as well as informative exhibits the VPC embraces it its heritage, providing spaces for the inquisitive, the artistic, or simply the passer-by.

All images from the VPC, taken this September except the B&W image of the Crystal Palace, from Wikipedia.

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