If public horticulture were an inflorescence, the San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers (SFCF) would be a most beloved corolla. On August 31 st 2005, the Longwood Graduate Fellows class of 2006 found themselves amidst a rare and beautiful spectacle of architecture and horticulture display. Assembled in 1879 from a kit purchased by San Francisco entrepreneur James Lick, this 1,200 square foot conservatory has become a true mainstay of both Golden Gate Park and the San Francisco community. During their visit, the Fellows benefited from the presentation of information on a variety of topics surrounding the Conservatory's unique history, administrative techniques, horticulture identity, and future aspirations.
The Conservatory is distinguished as being one of only a few structures constructed of virgin redwood heartwood, at a time when iron fabrication was preferred. SFCF is the oldest public conservatory in the western hemisphere and is listed on local, regional, state, and national registries of historic buildings. The Conservatory suffered an ill fate in 1995 when an atypically powerful windstorm destroyed much of its aging infrastructure. Prior to its reconstruction, the World Monuments Fund listed SFCF as one of the world's top 100 most endangered buildings.
The Conservatory restoration project was a crowning achievement for all those involved, including the Conservatory's Director, Mr. Scot Medbury, with whom the Fellows had the great fortune of meeting during their visit. The restoration project provided the Conservatory with a unique opportunity to engage the philanthropic community in an unprecedented manner. This outreach was a huge success.
Upon entering the Conservatory's lovely vestibule, the Fellows encountered a donation box fashioned in the shape of the structure itself. An immediate glance to the left revealed an elegant glass panel explaining the Conservatory's history, including the seven-year restoration process. Alongside this unique narrative were the names of those individuals, organizations, foundations, and government entities that enabled the successful restoration of the building's infrastructure; and there were many, each with an accompanying story.
Restoring a 130 year old landmark required the immediate removal of hundreds of plants, many of which were too large to place in a traditional greenhouse. In order to save these valuable specimens, the Conservatory contacted a California nurseryman whose company's facilities were suitable to steward such mammoth plants during the restoration process. These services were provided pro bono. In return for the owner's generosity, the Conservatory offered to "etch his name in glass perpetuity" on the panel in the vestibule, indicating an in-kind donation. To this offer, the man unexpectedly responded by writing a $10,000 check for the restoration. This is just one of many wonderful stories of philanthropy directed toward this project.
In order to reach out to the broader community, the Conservatory charted a two-and-a-half year public relations campaign designed to attract media to the project. Included in this campaign were opportunities for press, including a diversity of local and national news stations, to view the evolution of the project. No stone was left unturned, or un-filmed.
The now-restored building is a true horticultural, architectural, and artistic delight. Steel and glass sculptures of Victoria water lilies accompany the Conservatory's unique collections of tropical plants. Living specimens of these enormous, emergent, aquatic plants, introduced to the United States via the Conservatory in 1879, may be found in the easternmost wing. A unique and rare collection of orchids, including the largest assembly of the Andean genus Dracula, may be found in the east wing. During the restoration, a single 130 year-old philodendron vine remained in its original place, carefully enclosed within a climate-controlled scaffolding structure built especially for the purpose. Accompanying this gentle giant in the main dome are tropical plants of ethnobotanical importance including vanilla, cocoa, breadfruit, and coffee.
The westernmost wing of the Conservatory contains a Special Exhibits gallery currently displaying an exhibit of medicinal plants. This wing is an important addition, as it will enable the SFCF to present itself as a garden that changes over time, and is therefore worth a repeat visit. The Conservatory looks to these special exhibits to increase visitation, attract sponsorship and invite media coverage. The west wing also contains an "Asia Meets America" hall that hosts floral designers on a rotating basis. The Conservatory seeks to maintain a fresh image. Image preservation and cultivation are high priorities, particularly as the organization moves further away from its September 2004 grand opening that featured an evening fundraising gala that generated $350,000. With a good financial future, the Conservatory has turned much of its attention to programming.
The Conservatory must be especially attentive to maximizing the value of its message, in light of a visitor capacity of only 220 people. SFCF's Curator of Education, and only paid education staff member, Lisa Van Cleef, facilitates an interpretive program through the training of over one hundred docents. These highly interested individuals participate in an eight-week training program and are responsible for leading any special tours or school visits throughout the Conservatory. SFCF currently provides a "Plant Adaptations" education program for third and fourth grade classes, which is free to public and private schools in San Francisco. Ms. Van Cleef has been successful at connecting with local schools and is expanding her education programming to include secondary education.
Plans for the Conservatory's future are well underway. In the aftermath of initial fundraising successes, SFCF brought together a team of experts to mastermind a $4 million exhibits program rich with a diversity of exhibitions and special programs. In speaking to the Fellows, Mr. Medbury asserted, "Aim only for the best," a mantra that will likely guide the Conservatory in the years to come. SFCF has a rich history, a dedicated staff, and in only eleven short months has reaffirmed its position within the San Francisco cultural landscape and community.