The Enid A. Haupt Conservatory at the New York Botanical Garden

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The Enid A. Haupt Conservatory at the New York Botanical Garden

The Enid A. Haupt Conservatory is one of the premier greenhouse facilities in the United States. The New York Botanical Garden (NYBG), located in the Bronx, New York, is the institution for which the Conservatory is the centerpiece. Inspiration for the park and the conservatory stemmed from Nathaniel Lord Britton and his wife Elizabeth. The couple had visited the Royal Botanic Garden at Kew on their honeymoon and thought a similarly magnificent park and conservatory should be built for New York City. The NYBG and the Conservatory were the result of their dream.

The conservatory was designed by the major greenhouse company of the time, Lord and Burnham Co. The design was modeled after the Palm House at the Royal Botanic Garden and Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace in the Italian Renaissance style. Groundbreaking took place on January 3, 1899 and construction was completed in 1902 at a cost of $177,000. The building was constructed by John R. Sheehan under contract for the New York City Department of Parks. Since the original construction, major renovations took place in 1935, 1950, 1978, and 1993.

The 1978 renovation was a major turning point for the conservatory as it exists today. By the 1970s the building was in a state of extreme disrepair and had to be either substantially rebuilt or torn down. Enid Annenberg Haupt saved the conservatory from demolition with a five million dollar contribution for the renovation as well as a five million dollar endowment for maintenance of the building. This renovation was also significant in that it restored the conservatory closer to the original design, which had been compromised during the 1935 and 1950 renovations. Due to her generous contributions, the Conservatory was named the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory in 1978.

The 1993 renovation was significant for the inner workings of the conservatory. At this time, the mechanical systems to control temperature, humidity, and ventilation were upgraded with state-of-the-art computerized systems. Also, the exhibits were completely redesigned. Today, the conservatory continues to serve as a focal point of the park and a center for learning and education. It is often referred to as the crown jewel of New York City and is a New York City landmark.


While the creation of the New York Botanical Garden was inspired by Nathaniel and Elizabeth Britton’s visit to the Royal Botanical Garden at Kew, its creation was dependent on a complex series of events. As early as 1877 ideas were floating in New York City to create a botanical garden, however the funding could not be obtained at the time, though the efforts led to parkland being set aside for future use. Ultimately, authorization to set aside 250 acres (1.0 km2) specifically for a New York Botanical Garden was received in 1891. The principal officers of the new corporation set up for the Garden were Cornelius Vanderbilt, Andrew Carnegie, and J.P. Morgan, with Nathaniel Lord Britton as the new secretary. From this early beginning, the NYBG was set up:

The Conservatory has always been a key part of the mission of the NYBG and was considered a key element of the overall concept from the very beginning. As soon as the master plan for the garden was drawn up, planning for the conservatory was started.

The commission to design the Conservatory was given to the greenhouse firm Lord and Burnham very early in the process. The primary designer of the building was William R. Cobb, an architect employed by Lord and Burnham. Due to Nathaniel and Elizabeth Britton’s experience in London, the design was modeled largely after the Palm House at the Royal Botanical Garden at Kew, while it was also influenced by Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace. The new Conservatory was primarily made of steel, cast iron, wood, and glass. The design was in the Italian Renaissance style and was highly ornamented.

The original design remained largely intact until renovations in 1935 and 1950 which significantly compromised the original design. During these renovations much of the elaborate decoration was removed. The 1935 renovation in particular was described as “an attempt to halt the deterioration of the endangered building and bring it up to the prevailing taste of European Modernism.” By 1978, the Conservatory was in a state of extreme disrepair and was slated for demolition due to a lack of funding for a substantial renovation. At this time, Enid Annenberg Haupt saved the conservatory with a five million dollar contribution for the renovation as well as a five million dollar endowment for maintenance of the building. Edward Larrabee Barnes was the architect for this major renovation, after which the conservatory was renamed the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory.

The most recent renovation was completed by Beye Blinder Belle Architects in 1997 and was significant for the inner workings of the conservatory. At this time, the mechanical systems to control temperature, humidity, and ventilation were upgraded with state-of-the-art computerized systems. The new systems allow optimal growing conditions for a greater variety of plants. This opportunity led to a complete redesign of the exhibits which remains largely intact today. The redesign created a transitioning environment through the various pavilions that is meant to convey a trip over the mountains from the wet western slopes, up through the rainforest, and down through the dry desert.

As the Conservatory has evolved over time, the central principles that have guided the NYBG’s mission have remained consistent. The park and specifically the Conservatory, continues to this day to serve as a center for learning and education. Also the Conservatory remains the focal point for the park and is certainly the element that draws the largest crowds to visit the NYBG. Given the Conservatory’s history and success, it was dedicated as a New York City Landmark in 1976.


The original architect for the Conservatory was the green house company Lord and Burnham Co. Lord and Burnham was “the premier glasshouse design and fabrication firm of the time” and completed several large commissions in addition to the NYBG Conservatory. Lord and Burnham began as Lord’s Horticultural Manufacturing Company, which was founded in 1856 by Frederick A. Lord. His son-in-law William Addison Burnham joined the business in 1872 and the name was changed to Lord & Burnham.

Mr. Lord was a carpenter from Ipswich, Massachusetts. He built himself a greenhouse in 1849 after moving to Buffalo, NY and was subsequently asked to build greenhouses for others. He built greenhouses on the side until he decided to open his own company. In 1870, Mr. Lord moved to Irvington, NY to be closer to his clients. Much of his early work consisted of greenhouses for large private estates along the Hudson River.

In 1877, Lord and Burnham was contracted to build a conservatory in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, California. This was one of the firm’s first public works and led to many future projects. Jay Gould, the railroad tycoon, made an order in 1881 for several greenhouses to be constructed in Irvington, New York. The greenhouses built on his estate were said to be the first steel frame glass houses constructed in the United States. In addition to their embrace of new materials, Lord and Burnham was innovative in the development of boilers, which were a key part of the functioning of the greenhouses.

Lord and Burnham was awarded the commission to design the Conservatory in 1896. William R. Cobb (1869-1934) was the architect working for Lord and Burnham who was in charge of the design of the Conservatory. He was a noted horticultural designer and served as the first vice president, secretary, and general sales manager of Lord and Burnham. As a designer for Lord and Burnham, Cobb designed many parks, conservatories, and private estates throughout the country.

Site and Context

The original architect for the NYBG was Calvert Vaux (co-designer of Central Park). He served as an adviser during the formulation of the preliminary design along with Samuel Parsons. The plan they developed together was submitted in 1896 (shortly after Vaux’s death), and was ultimately followed almost exactly. A notable exception of deviation from this plan was the location of the Conservatory, which was the only major element not built on the site shown in the Vaux plan.

From the time the land was secured for the park nearly until the Conservatory construction began, the placement of the Conservatory within the park was heavily debated. The advisory committee of the Parks Department favored a formal spatial arrangement of buildings within the park, while the NYBG disagreed; they believed greater separation of the buildings would ease the management and supervision of crowds. Ultimately the Conservatory was placed away from other buildings in the park. Especially at the time, this was an unusual arrangement, as the Conservatory had no axial or visual connection to the Museum or any other buildings in the park.

The site ultimately chosen in 1898 was mainly an open field; some have suggested this open site was chosen to save existing trees. Additionally, the chosen site placed the Conservatory in a location where the building is visible from the boundary streets along the south and west of the park. Southern Boulevard and other adjacent streets were realigned and reorganized when the site was developed. The arrangement created visibility of the Conservatory from the road and presented the building as a public icon, a relationships which remains today.

Equally important to the overall placement of the building within the park was the development of the immediately surrounding gardens. The adjacent gardens were considered important supporting resources to the Conservatory and also related to the geometry of the building. “The elaborate, multiple domes style of the Conservatory and its topographic position above the surrounding grades dictated the clean lines and geometries of the surrounding paths, sloping terraces, and planting beds, further integration building and setting.” All of the adjacent garden elements were formal, geometric, and orthogonal to reflect the architecture of the Conservatory.

Form and Use

The Conservatory form developed as a combination of the latest technologies in greenhouse design and more traditional ideas of ornament. The overall shape and layout of the building is geared both towards the functional aspects of the interior greenhouse spaces as well as creating a monumental form from the exterior to portray the significance of the building. Lord and Burnham made heavy use of ornament at the Conservatory and was a trademark aspect of their civic and public conservatories. The heavy ornamentation here and in other buildings at the time was an essential element in defining the building’s status and historical appearance.

The building is a series of large glass pavilions that are all very open on the inside, as is typical of greenhouses. The pavilions are laid out symmetrically around the large central Palm House pavilion. In plan the building is divided into eleven pavilions, where each pavilion has a distinct geometry defining it in relationship to adjacent pavilions. Together the pavilions form a 512-foot-long (156 m) ‘C’ shape with the central pavilion (with its 90-foot-high (27 m) grand dome) in the center. The use of ornament creates a hierarchy among the pavilions. The central dome is the most elaborate, followed by the corner and end pavilions. The interconnecting pavilions are the least ornamented.

Functionally, each pavilion houses a different group of plants representing various conditions found around the globe. The configuration of the building into distinct pavilions allows for each of these global regions to be treated separately in terms of the temperature and humidity maintained for the plants. While the collections have changed over time, the basic concept of display has remained fairly consistent. The base collection is generally permanent, with additional plants brought in for special exhibitions throughout the year. For example, there is an extensive orchid show every spring that draws many visitors to the Conservatory. During the orchid show, thousands of orchids are brought in and are incorporated into the existing collection.

The conservatory is a major resource in the international study of horticulture as well as a center for learning for the public. For example, every year hundreds of scientists travel to the Conservatory to study the rare palm and cacti exhibits. The original goal of the conservatory to serve as a center of learning and to advance knowledge of the art and science of horticulture has remained intact since the opening of the conservatory and park. Additional greenhouses have been built on the grounds of the NYBG to provide additional space for research. These greenhouses are a tremendous resource for scientists while also supporting exhibits in the main Conservatory. As a symbol of the NYBG however, the Conservatory remains the main draw of the park and its form has developed an iconic status in New York City and beyond.

Materials and Methods

The main materials used in the construction of the conservatory were steel and glass, in addition to a range of materials used for the base, ornament, and waterproofing. The main structure of the building was made of steel although a few of the pavilions had wrought iron columns. Also, wood beams were used in some locations. Later renovations to the building altered some aspects of the structure. For example, many steel elements were replaced and wood beams were replaced with steel.

Glazing was clearly the other major element in the Conservatory. Standardized sized glass panes were used to the greatest extent possible, with 16-inch (410 mm) panels cut to length in all pavilions except the Palm House (the main pavilion.) The Palm House incorporated 20-inch (510 mm) glass. All pavilions called for second quality French and American glass. Additionally, clear and ground glass was used depending on the orientation of the glass. All vertical glass was left clear while certain portions of the roof glass were ground. However, the ground glass was not alone sufficient to provide shading and additional means were employed which would allow for modification depending on seasonal conditions. Stipling and waterproof movable shades were used for additional shade control.

In addition to the structural and glazing systems, a variety of other materials were used for the base of the building, the waterproofing, ornament, and other secondary functions. Bluestone, Buff Bedford Stone, North River brick, and Tennessee marble were used for the masonry work. For leaders and gutters throughout most of the building, copper flashing was used. In some areas cast iron was used for the gutter system. Cast iron was also used for sills, friezes, columns, railings, mullions, transom bars, and snowguards.

While the Conservatory has undergone many renovations since the original construction, the same palette of materials has generally been maintained. However, the building systems behind what visitors see have been greatly altered in major efforts to maintain the best possible environment for the plants inside. Though technology has advanced greatly, the commitment to state-of-the-art systems has remained unchanged since the earliest boiler systems installed by Lord and Burnham.


Since the opening of the NYBG, the Conservatory has been a tremendous resource for the community in the New York City area as well as for the global scientific community. The public focus of this Conservatory was an important step in the larger history of greenhouses, especially at the time of its construction. Around 1900, greenhouses were a privilege only for the upper classes and carried with them a great air of exclusivity. The explosion of greenhouses across the world was due to a variety of influences. Colonial expansion and expanding worldwide travel at the turn of the century brought with it a certain mania for people to bring exotic flora into their lives, and the possibility was made complete through the development of the modern greenhouse. The Industrial Revolution resulted in such feats as Paxton’s Crystal Palace, which marked the beginning of commercialized greenhouse design and construction. The Enid A. Haupt Conservatory opened up the opportunity for people of all classes to enjoy the greenhouse experience. Also, as New York City expanded in the nineteenth century, open space became more and more precious. The NYBG as a whole provided a release from the pressures of city life and the Conservatory brought the opportunity for new and exotic experiences wholly outside the routines of everyday life. For the scientific community, the Conservatory has always been a major resource for scientists from all over the world and has helped established the New York Botanical Garden as a leader in horticultural research. The Enid A. Haupt Conservatory continues to uphold the ideals and traditions from its earliest beginnings and is a tremendous resource for New York City and beyond.

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