Rawlings Conservatory and Botanic Gardens of Baltimore, Maryland, formerly known
as the Baltimore Conservatory, was completed in 1888. It is one of the oldest surviving glass
conservatories in the United States.
The Conservatory is located in Druid Hill Park, which is listed on the National
Register of Historic Places. The first recorded history of the property dates back to 1652, when
Lord Baltimore claimed the land (before that it belonged to the Susquehannock native Americans).
Lord Baltimore assigned the land to George Buchanan, one of several original commissioners
responsible for the establishment of Baltimore City. The Buchanan-Rogers family then used the area
as a country estate and plantation. They named the estate Auchentorolie, or "fields of sorrel",
after the Rogers' ancestral home in Scotland. Baltimore Mayor Thomas Swan created a Parks Commission,
which purchased Auchentorolie in 1858. Mayor Swan dedicated the land as a park in 1860. In 1873, land
was set aside for the Baltimore Conservatory, but due to financial limitations, construction on the
Conservatory did not begin until 1887.
The original Conservatory was completed in 1888 and consisted of the Palm House and
the Orchid Room. Designed by architect George Aloysius Frederick, the Palm House, with its 175 windows
soaring 50 feet into the air, is a spectacular example of Victorian architecture. The adjacent Orchid
Room, although smaller in scale, is equally stunning.
Although no one is sure what specifically inspired Baltimore's Palm House, it bears a
strong resemblance to both the
Palmhaus in Austria and the Palm House at the Royal Botanic Gardens,
Kew in England. Like Kew, it was built out of glass and iron and created specifically to house exotic
palms in an unobstructed space.
Baltimore City originally boasted four conservatories, but the other three fell into
disrepair during the Depression and the war years and eventually were demolished. Fortunately, the
Baltimore Conservatory was rescued from a similar fate, thanks to the efforts of a group of dedicated
citizens and city workers, city issued bonds, and the State of Maryland Open Space Program.
The multi-million dollar renovation project began in 1999 and culminated in 2004 with
the renaming of the facility in honor of Delegate Rawlings, who had been instrumental in securing
funding for the renovations. The project included lead paint abatement; refurbishing of the outdated
water, heating, and drainage systems; and excavation and amendment of the soil in the planting beds.
Three production greenhouses, which had been added to the complex in the 1920's, were converted to
display Mediterranean, tropical, and desert plants. New hardscaping added in these greenhouses featured
Arizona flagstone, rock boulders from the painted desert of Utah, a tropical pool, a misting system,
Italian tiles, and fountains, Two pavilions, specifically designed to complement the original
architecture of the Palm House, also were added to accommodate additional visitors.
Today's Palm House includes many large specimen palms, among them the Bismarck,
European fan, cat, Christmas, dwarf coconut, metallic, lady, Fiji fan, Chinese fan, bottle,
and foxtail. The Orchid Room features a rotation of blooming orchids from around the world.
The Mediterranean House includes olive and citrus trees, scented geraniums, oleander,
Bunya-bunya pine, and various herbs. The Tropical House features fruiting plants such as banana,
strawberry guava, pineapple, papaya, and coffee, along with the showy flowers of canna, bird-of-paradise,
plumeria, ginger, passionflower, and gardenia. An epiphytic wall displays tillandsias ("air plants") and
ferns, and a waterfall and pond showcase aquatic plants and fish. The Desert House includes giant saguaro
cactus, agave, yucca, and many other varieties of cacti and succulents.
Sadly, the Conservatory is once again facing a financial crisis as the City of Baltimore
struggles to balance its budget. Nevertheless, a small but dedicated group of staff and volunteers
continues to expand programming to reach out to more people with diverse interests, and to teach
environmental, social, and cultural lessons. New classes include Yoga, T'ai Chi, and Plants & People
Sunday educational programming. The 3rd Annual Art Under Glass show will be held this spring, and a Summer
Concert Series will be featured this summer. Students from schools in Baltimore City and surrounding counties
visit for tours and planting activities that comply with the State of Maryland's science curriculum. The
Conservatory is a popular venue for weddings and other social functions.
Despite many challenges, the Conservatory continues to fulfill its mission to foster an
appreciation and understanding of plants from around the world and the vital roles they play in our lives.
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