victorian traditions ~ marjorie mcneely conservatory

If you have read this blog before, you probably know that I have a love for all things Victorian and Edwardian.  Whether it is the aesthetics of the era, or the gentile way of the ladies who did tea and lunch, there is a level of femininity in these two eras that thoroughly attract me.  This interest extends to gardening, especially English Conservatories. 

When I see a conservatory, I immediately think of the big English estates like in the movie Greystoke or Downton Abbey.  These beautiful enclosures—usually constructed of glass and iron, allowed the fortunate owners to extend their garden season or to have a wonderful garden year around.  While these structure originated in the 16th century, it was not until the 19th century that they reached their golden age due to wealthy estate owners wanting to grow citrus—from lemons to oranges brought from the Mediterranean to England by traders.  But this golden era came to a screeching halt with World War II.  After that the focus turned to constructing simple sunrooms.  But in the 70s, there was a renaissance of Victorian style English conservatories but in a smaller scale.  

I love conservatories and when I enter one, I feel transported to another era when the rich had enough money to bring plants and flowers from exotic places to grow them in these enclosures and enjoy them year around. I also think that being from the tropics—when I find , myself surrounded by tropical plants in Minnesota (the refrigerator of the US), it takes me back to the island. And this is exactly what happened when I visited the Marjory McNeely Conservatory in St. Paul, Minnesota.


Designed by Frederick Nussbaumer and Toltz Engineering Co., the conservatory was established in 1915 and it is one of the few remaining glass domed Victorian style gardens in the US.  This garden encased under the glass conservatory was the culmination of a dream of Frederick Nussbaumer, who was the Como Park gardener.  As a young man, he worked at he worked at Kew Gardens in London where he fell in love with the glass palm house.  Though there was skepticism about undertaking such a frivolous project, it was hugely popular when it opened.  At one point, the conservatory had around 77,500 original plants some which still survive.

So, you may be wondering what were my favorites in this beautiful place:

No. 1 The conservatory dome.


The structure is composed of a 64-1/2 foot tall central domed palm house and two 26×100 foot wings flanking it. One wings holds the sunken garden, where you can find gorgeous displays of season flowers, and you automatically think “wedding” when you see it.  It is just a beautifully designed garden.  The other wing has a vast display of food producing and medicinal plants.  There is a fourth section that really took me back to my childhood-- the fern room. There is also a peaceful Japanese garden which was our last stop before we headed home.  In 1974, the structure was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.


No. 2 The Palm Tree House.  As an island girl, this was like going back home. From the lush green fronds, to the humidity, and the scent of this collection of plants. It was all gorgeous! But I really love how there were seating areas and sculpture hidden by fronds forming this areas that felt like like private rooms.

Bismarckia nobilis is my favorite palm tree. And this one was HUGE and so healthy!

Bismarckia nobilis is my favorite palm tree. And this one was HUGE and so healthy!

No. 3 The Orchid Nook.  The small collection in this nook rotates through the seasons and this day's selections were beautiful.


No. 4 The Sunken Garden.  This conservatory is famous for this wing, and you can see why below.  The collections displayed rotate seasonal and I cannot wait to experience it in the future.


No. 5 The Fern House The variety of ferns is staggering and as soon as I walked in I was bombarded with this scent of vegetation, moisture and soil that reminded me the lush vegetation of the island I was born in.  I immediately had images of my mom tending to her fern, using the fish emulsion which gave them that emerald green color.


The fern house

I need a wall garden like this! 

I need a wall garden like this! 

I love stag ferns and these were gorgeous!

I love stag ferns and these were gorgeous!


No. 6 The Japanese Garden.  The Japanese garden is outdoors and while I am normally not too much into this kind of garden, it was a beautiful place and I found myself really loving it.  Very peaceful and a wonderful way to finish our tour.