The History of the Home Conservatory

orangerie-gardensHome conservatories are a general term that can also include orangeries and greenhouses.  While many individuals may feel that conservatories are a relatively new concept they really are not.

The history of these structures starts out in the early times of the ancient Chinese and Roman Empires.  Both of these cultures were exploring the world in the great age of Exploration and needed a way of protecting fragile plants from the cold winds of winter.  Conservatories provided this protection.  These decorative glass houses provided not only protection but also a way of stylishly displaying ones exotic plant material.

At this point, the structures begin to become more specialized with the collection of citrus fruits.  This type of plant material collection moved from Italy northward toward Holland.  The Dutch then took the Italian orangerie design and made it more sophisticated.  This splendid development can be seen at Louis XIV’s orangerie at Versailles.

Then, in the early nineteenth century, many individuals wanted to make these great structures not limited to the aristocracy but to all.  The Industrial Revolution provided the technology to create massive, public conservatories and indoor gardens.  This movement was also spearheaded by the Victorian desire to improve the lives of the masses.

Science, as well, was playing a role in this movement.  Individuals such as Charles Darwin were stirring up interest in plants and botany.

To expose the masses to exotic plant material, the conservatory or greenhouse needed to move from the home to the garden.  In this move, the structures became larger and begin to house plant ecosystems, such as a tropical forest or a water garden.  These ecosystems could now be viewed anywhere in the country during anytime of the year.

The later part of the nineteenth century brought wealth and prosperity to the masses due to the improvements spearheaded by the Industrial Revolution.  Many individuals started attaching conservatories to their homes so that they could enjoy exotic plant material.

The early twentieth century saw the downfall of conservatories, orangeries, and greenhouses.  World War I, the Great Depression, and World War II reduced the disposable income that individuals had and in doing so caused many of these structures to become abandoned.

These great structures of glass began to disappear from the urban landscape as interest in plant material began to decline and the cost of upkeep became prohibitive.

The 1970’s brought about several factors that aided in a revival of greenhouses.  During this time there was a “back to nature” movement that included interest in solar energy.  This interest spearheaded the development of high performing insulated-glass.  With this development, small greenhouses began to spring up.  These structures then progressed to sunspaces.

Sunrooms during the late 70’s and 80’s started to change into stylized conservatories.

Today, conservatories serve many different purposes.  They can be used as dining rooms where fresh fruit can simply be picked off the vine or a theatre space where light and sound bounce off the glass walls with elegance.  Today’s conservatories provide environmental controls such as vents that make the experience inviting unlike those from yesteryears.

But what ties today’s conservatories to those of yesterday are the pure desires to surround us with the beauty and curiosity of nature year-round.

Mindy McIntosh-Shetter has been an Agricultural Science educator, and is a horticulture and/or environmental blogger who earned a degree from Purdue University in Agriculture Education with a minor in biology, and natural resources. Presently she is finishing up her Masters in Environmental Education and Urban Planning for the University of Louisville while working on her own agriculture/environmental blog.

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