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Marjorie McNeely Conservatory
From its inception, the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory, formerly known as the Como Park Conservatory, has been a lush botanical retreat from the city for its visitors. In 1873, with the goal of creating a public park, the St. Paul Chamber of Commerce purchased 257 acres of land just inside the city limits on the north and west shores of Lake Como. The land suffered from neglect, however, until 1887, when the city allocated funds to develop the area into a landscaped park. Horace William Shaler Cleveland was employed to design the park and his plans promoted the preservation and development of the site’s natural features.
Cleveland’s naturalized approach to parks was slightly reworked by Frederick Nussbaumer, Superintendent of Parks from 1891 to 1922. A native of Baden, Germany, Nussbaumer was trained in mechanical and civil engineering, botany, and landscape architecture. In the late 1860s he worked in London’s Kew Gardens and met Horace Cleveland while living in Paris. Nussbaumer did not feel that floral displays, pavilions, benches, and drinking fountains conflicted with the general character of a park. To sustain the floral displays, Como Park’s first greenhouse for propagating bedding annuals was approved in the fall of 1888, with additional greenhouses for larger plants built starting in 1891.
By 1913, the nine Como greenhouses supplying plants for the entire park system were in need of repair and overcrowded. Nussbaumer proposed that a single glass conservatory be built to replace the assortment of current buildings, a plan that was eventually approved by the park board. Nussbaumer and Toltz Engineering Company of St. Paul collaborated in the design process, and King Construction Company, which offered greenhouse kits out of their location in New Tonawanda, New York, supplied the conservatory’s structural elements for the price of $58,825. The 60,000-square-foot conservatory design arrived by train in St. Paul as a kit of prefabricated parts including the iron and steel framework, cedar ribbing with fitted curved glass, and rot-resistant redwood trimming.
On Sunday, November 7, 1915, not quite two years after the plan was proposed, the Como Park Conservatory opened to the public. Classical balance and symmetry were organizing features of the new conservatory, with a glazed skeletal structure that conveyed lightness and elegance. From the central dome, which measures 100 feet at the widest point, arched wings extend out on a north-south axis; these wings each measure 105 feet in length and forty-six-feet in width. Extending from the east side of the central dome are three curved-eave production greenhouses, each measuring 105 feet long and forty-six feet wide, while a service building, boiler room, and coal shed were located in the rear. Today, only two of the production greenhouses are used for their original purpose; the central one is now devoted to ferns and is open for exhibition. The dome is the tallest part of the structure, rising seventy-two feet from the ground to the tip of its ventilating cupola, and is the perfect setting for displaying the tallest palms. Ionic pilasters decorated the spaces between the louvered windows and the glassed-in vestibule through which visitors entered. In total, the structure enclosed one-half acre under glass.
In 1924 landscape architect and the new Superintendent of Parks, George L. Nason, rebuilt the fourth growing house and had a fifth added. Other upgrades to the conservatory at that time included the installation of new marble walkways in the North Garden and Palm Dome. The Sunken Garden was added to the conservatory’s south wing in 1927. Elaborate flowers shows at Christmastime, in mid-winter, and over Easter drew large crowds, and the annual fall chrysanthemum show quickly became a cherished tradition among the public.
On June 23, 1962, a strong hailstorm damaged many of the glass roof panes, in addition to harming a large number of plants and trees. The broken glass panes were replaced with fiberglass and the conservatory opened again in November of that year. By the 1970s, however, the conservatory needed restoration. The Como Conservatory Master Plan was published in 1984 by the Como Conservatory Planning Advisory Committee, which had consulted with architects from Ralph Burke and Associates and the Division of Parks and Recreation. The first phase of a $13.5 million project started one year later. Over the next seven years, the architecture firm Winsor/Faricy restored the conservatory and repaired or replaced the heating, ventilation, water, and electrical systems. Improvements included blue-tinted glass, fresh paint, two elevators that made the split-level Sunken Garden accessible for visitors with special needs, new iron railings and flagstone walks, and updated climatic and electrical systems. The framework and glass of the Palm Dome were also completely rebuilt.
This building continues to change and evolve in order to keep up with technology and the demands of the time. In 2002 the conservatory was renamed in honor of Marjorie McNeely, a founder of the St. Paul Garden Club, after her family gave a large donation to the Como Zoo and Conservatory Society to establish an endowed fund. May 2005 saw the opening of Tropical Encounters and a new wing of the conservatory, both designed by Minneapolis-based HGA Architects. This new addition maintained the visual language of the conservatory with white steel, glass, and anodized aluminum frames. Tropical Encounters is located on the south end of the Visitor Center, and is a two-story exhibition that combines both the plant and animal worlds. Guests are able to visit a neo-tropical rainforest and explore the interactions between plants and animals.
The Marjorie McNeely Conservatory is the centerpiece of the 384-acre park’s multi-faceted landscape, which is owned by the City of St. Paul and managed by the Parks and Recreation Department. Directly across from the conservatory’s main entrance are the Enchanted Garden, Excedra, and Frog Pond. Just north of the conservatory is the Charlotte Partridge Ordway Japanese Garden, a gift from the people of Nagasaki, St. Paul’s sister city. Masami Matsuda, a landscape architect from Nagasaki, designed the garden as a peaceful retreat. Opened to the public in 1979, it was then completely renovated in 1990–1991 under Matsuda’s supervision, with additional renovations that took place in 2012. Leading to these gardens is the Ordway Gardens wing, a new indoor/outdoor space that features a Bonsai Pavilion, Huelsmann Foundation Meditative Garden, Huss Foundation Terrace, and the Jo and Gordon Bailey Pine Grove Walk. The park also contains the Como Zoo, Como Town amusement park, the Cafesjian Carousel, Como Lake, an eighteen-hole golf course, a lakeside pavilion, pool, picnic shelters, athletic fields, numerous public art objects, and gardens.
Open year-round, admission to the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory is free to the public.
Hess, Jeffrey A., and Paul Clifford Larson. St. Paul's Architecture: A History. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006.
Millett, Larry. AIA Guide to the Twin Cities. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2007.
Nelson, Charles W., “Como Park Conservatory,” Ramsey County, Minnesota. National Register of Historic Places Inventory-Nomination Form, 1974. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C.
Price, Susan Davis. Minnesota Gardens: An Illustrated History. Afton, MN: Afton Historical Society Press, 1995.
Roethke, Leigh, and Bonnie Blodgett. Jewel of Como: The Marjorie McNeely Conservatory. Afton, MN: Afton Historical Society Press, 2009.
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