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Extreme Makeover 

Eight years after a storm's devastation, the Conservatory of Flowers reopens

Wednesday, Sep 17 2003
James Lick's loss is our gain. The real estate king was kind enough to croak after ordering a Victorian greenhouse kit, but before erecting it on his Santa Clara Valley estate. Lick's trustees had no need for the giant terrarium and offered it for sale in 1877. Just in time, too -- John McLaren was finally wresting a luxuriant park from an uninhabitable three-mile strip of sandy, wind-swept dunes. Civic-minded San Franciscans purchased the kit, still in its original crates, and offered it to Golden Gate Park.

In 1879 the Conservatory of Flowers opened to showcase local and exotic flora. But the wood-and-glass edifice proved too fragile for the beating Mother Nature dealt it over the next 116 years. Fire twice destroyed its magnificent dome, and tremors jostled the structure, causing the city to close the Conservatory for more than a decade in 1933. Piecemeal repair work kept the Conservatory open for another six decades, until a Pacific storm's 100mph winds smashed the glass dome and walls, killing 1,000-plus plants. Appalled Rec and Park officials who surveyed the damage put a $12 million price tag on repairs, an impossible goal for the perpetually cash-strapped park system. The glorious showpiece of a building seemed doomed.

But the city hadn't banked on San Franciscans' love for the Golden Gate Park fixture. Despite steadily rising restoration costs, private sources stepped in to augment government grants. S.F.'s Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund supplied the biggest chunk, $5 million, with an interesting requirement that any corporation-hating local would love -- the Conservatory had to keep its original name. No 3M Gallery of Flowers or Wal-Mart Wonder Gardens for us.

Even with the money problem licked, overhaul was dicey. The building's plans were destroyed in the 1906 fire; reconstructing the structure was something like playing with a life-size, delicate Erector set. But eight years and $25 million later, the exquisite greenhouse is ready. The exterior is, of course, refurbished to its original glory. But it's the $4 million improvements to the formerly ho-hum interior that'll wow the crowds. The dome now hosts "Lowland Tropics," a lush, steamy jungle of exotic plants (including cacao, coffee, vanilla, and cashew), over which the Conservatory's century-old, 30-foot philodendron towers. The East Wing's "Highland Tropics" displays dense mosses, ferns, tropical trees, and a vast new collection of high-altitude orchids. But the "Aquatic Plants" area is the real stunner, with a sizable pool holding the Victoria amazonica water lily, the giant water flower whose translucent leaves can grow to 6 feet across, as well as a macabre collection of meat-eating killer plants.

Will the Conservatory's interior at last live up to its dazzling exterior? With the doors finally open, we can judge for ourselves.

About The Author

Joyce Slaton


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