Milpitas Camera Club Field Trip
Field Trip: Conservatory of Flowers
Trip Date: January 30, 2005
Report Author: Scott Hinrichs
Report Date: February 4, 2005

A fair sized group of club members and associates came to the San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers, located on Kennedy Drive in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park on Sunday, January 30. Most did their own thing while touring the beautiful high Victorian glass and wood building that has graced the Haight-end of the park for more than a century. After getting our fill of images we all went our separate ways, so this particular trip turned out to be a very low-key event. Sunday is not a particularly good day for field trips, however, this trip had to be shifted a day to accommodate the snow trekkers who went to the Sierras on Saturday. Dave, organizer of the snow trip, joined us at the conservatory with satisfactory reports of a wonderful day spent in the snow.

The conservatory is a worthy destination. If you like photographing beautiful tropical flowers and exotic plants, then you should go there often. The only challenges for photographers are the extreme humidity and the policy of no tripods on the narrow walkways. (If you use your tripod like a monopod, nobody complains.)

Recently the 125-year-old conservatory was reopened after extensive renovation. The building was severely damaged in 1995 by a freak windstorm with gusts of up to 100 miles per hour that wreaked havoc on the structure.

Although relatively small, this exquisite building contains a collection of many rare and beautiful tropical plants including palms, room-sized philodendrons, delicate orchids, bromeliads, carnivorous plants and a pond with numerous water plants. The water lilies are my favorites. There is also an interpretive wing hosting rotating exhibits, including an upcoming butterfly exhibit. Most conservatory buildings of this era were patterned after the granddaddy of all conservatories, the architectural milestone Crystal Palace in London’s Hyde Park, which was the site of the 1851 Great Exposition. That massive building, designed by architect Sir Joseph Paxton, set architectural precedents worldwide and gave rise to thousands of smaller versions in cities all around the world. This particular design was a replica of an iron and glass conservatory in London’s Kew Gardens.

An interesting story surrounds the way that San Francisco acquired the historic building, which is listed on the National Trust for Historic Places. Wealthy businessman and philanthropist James Lick purchased it in prefabricated form from an East Coast company and had it shipped to San Jose in crates. Lick planned to give it as a gift to the city of San Jose, where he had built a new mansion. Lick was known for his eccentricity and his disregard for his own appearance and comfort. Lick changed his mind about the gift, however, when a local newspaper criticized his characteristically shabby dress. The conservatory, still in its shipping crates, was put into storage and forgotten. After his death in 1876, the crates were discovered among his possessions and a group of San Francisco businessmen purchased the conservatory from his estate. They, in turn, presented it as a gift to the park commission in charge of the newly created Golden Gate Park. The building was erected in 1878 and first opened to the public in 1879. (Another conspicuous part of Lick’s legacy is Lick Observatory that overlooks the Santa Clara Valley on the crest of Mt. Hamilton.) Miraculously the conservatory survived several fires, a boiler explosion and the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 relatively unscathed. The facility was mostly neglected during the mid-twentieth century and the doors were locked in 1933 and it sat abandoned. It was repaired and reopened in 1946 and remained open until the 1995 windstorm nearly destroyed it. Various historic and civic groups raised funds for the facility and it reopened on September 20, 2003, sparkling and polished like the gem it was designed to be.

If you find yourself in Golden Gate Park and have a couple of spare hours you might take your own stroll through the conservatory. (It can easily be toured in an hour, or you can sit on one of the many benches inside and relax.) The facility opens at 9 a.m. and costs $5 per person to enter. Seniors 65 and over can enter for $3.

Street Parking is available throughout the park. (Try Martin Luther King Jr. Drive or park on Funston Street on the north border of the park. If you arrive early enough, there might be some spaces open.) On Sundays, Kennedy Drive is closed to automobile traffic and open only to skaters and bicyclists. Be sure to pay attention to the regulation signs because San Francisco generates a lot of revenue from “misunderstandings” with her tourists.

If you want to make a day of it at the park, you can take a short stroll to the newly reconstructed Asian Museum, Stowe Lake, the Japanese Tea Garden and the Strybing Arboretum. Steinhart Aquarium and the California Academy of Sciences are currently closed because of reconstruction.

© 2005 S.R. Hinrichs