Druid Hill Park Conservatory greenhouse is a whimsical collection of glass, curved steel and light

"Can we conceive what humanity would be if it did not know the flowers?" — Maurice Maeterlinck

On a sun-splashed late autumn morning, the Druid Hill Park Conservatory, that wonderful whimsical-looking building from the age of Queen Victoria, is a brilliant symphony of curved glass and light.

It makes a visitor to this quiet western corner of Baltimore's 600-acre Druid Hill Park think that he's gotten lost and ended up instead in Belle Epoque London, Vienna or Paris.

In the late morning light, it is glowing as if suddenly 4,000 lights had been snapped on all at once, illuminating it with a silver-white glow that makes one squint for a second or two as its lines come into focus.

This is the landmark Palm House, the city's municipal greenhouse, which has stood since 1888 facing Auchentoroly Terrace and Gwynns Falls Parkway.

And in addition to serving as a working greenhouse, it offers park visitors or motorists toiling on their way in or out of the city a brief respite from their troubles and concerns.

"For over 100 years, the Druid Hill Park Conservatory has brought a touch of the tropics to Baltimore. Under the glass of the glorious Palm House, exotic plants with enchanting names — fiddle-leaf fig, never-never plant, freckle-face, zig zag asparagus and bird of paradise — grow lush and green, creating a tiny, pristine rain forest in the midst of urban noise and sprawl," observed the old Sunday Sun Magazine in a 1988 article.

Margaret Haviland "Peggy" Stansbury, who founded the Federal Hill Garden Club and is a former city Parks Board commissioner, joined with photographer David Simpson in creating a paean in both words and evocative photography to the historic conservatory.

Their book, "Glass House of Dreams: Baltimore's Victorian Glass Palace in the Park," was recently published by Palm House Studios.

In the book's opening, Stansbury has written an informative essay on the glass house movement that became the "rage of the mid 19th century, beginning in England and spreading throughout Europe due to World Fairs and exhibitions," she writes.

According to Stansbury, the first glass house conservatory in America was built for the New York World's Fair of 1853, which was followed in 1876 for the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition when Horticultural Hall rose on the grounds of Fairmount Park.

Both structures were eventually destroyed by fire.

She writes that Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux incorporated conservatories into their park designs. "The glass house became a gathering place to soothe tired citizens and entertain them with exotic plants from around the world," she writes.

Druid Hill Park had its origins in 1860 when Lloyd Nicholas Rogers sold Druid Hill, his estate and mansion, to the city for $475,000 during the administration of Mayor Thomas Swann.

Howard Daniels, an engineer and landscape designer, was hired to lay out walks, walls, drives and gardens. George Aloysius Frederick, who was a 19-year-old architect hired by the Baltimore City Parks Commission, then headed by John H.B. Latrobe, was charged with designing buildings and pavilions as well as a glass conservatory.

Frederick would go on to a fairly illustrious career with such notable commissions as the present City Hall, Fourteen Holy Martyrs Roman Catholic Church and the Edgar Allan Poe monument in the courtyard of Westminster Presbyterian Church.

Land was set aside for the glass conservatory. But it wasn't until 1887 that construction began, and Baltimore's glass house, with its 175 windows and a roof that soared 90 feet, was completed the following year. An Orchid Room was also added to the structure.

I was surprised to learn, courtesy of Stansbury, that there had once been glass conservatories in addition to Druid Hill Park in Carroll Park, Clifton Park and Patterson Park — all now gone — and that the Druid Hill glass house is the second-oldest surviving example in the nation.

When the conservatory opened to the public on Aug. 26, 1888, The Sun reported that "nearly one hundred large trees and over one hundred small plants have been transferred from the Patterson Park conservatory."

The inventory, according to the newspaper, included rubber, cocoa, palm and dragon trees, azaleas and date palms.

Stansbury also collects beautifully colored vintage post cards. One of the cards, probably dating to 1910, is of a red open touring car with its two occupants, a woman with a Gibson Girl-era coif and a man sporting a gray suit and boater, taking in the glories of the glasshouse.

A real bonus and probably a rather rare card shows the demolished conservatory in Patterson Park. It was more horizontal than its Druid Hill cousin, which soars straight up in an impressive show of brick and glass that is finished off with a glass-sided cupola sporting a weather vane.

Simpson's photography dramatically records not only the incredible plants that reside there but especially the soaring Erector Set cast-iron beams that support the panes of glass that gently arch over the gardens below.

"It is quite remarkable with its cast-iron frame and lacy windows that glow to us from 1888," Walter Schamu, a Baltimore architect and architectural historian, said the other day.

"It is remarkable and here it stands in Baltimore. There's a lot of engineering in that building, and I think it's just neat," Schamu said.

After the death in 2003 of veteran legislator Howard P. Rawlings, it was renamed the Howard Peter Rawlings Conservatory and Botanic Gardens.


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