By Stephen Miller, Editor
– The Capitol Hill Times -
The East support greenhouse of the Volunteer Park Conservatory feels like a haunted house. Stepping between warped and rotted wooden planting counters, dried leaves crack underfoot like a spilled bag of stale potato chips. Several of the conservatory’s 3,426 glass windowpanes lie strewn about, shattered across tables after losing their grip and falling from the green mold-filmed ceilings. Rusty chains hang from chipped, white rafters that support the dying structure. Looking north, past a dead palm fawn and through a broken window, the granite headstones of Lake View Cemetery rise ominously across green hills.
Once used for propagation in support of the large, gleaming greenhouse familiar to most visitors, the East wing has stood empty for about 10 years – years that have taken a toll.
“It was getting too unsafe for people to be in there,” says senior gardener David Helgeson. “Panes were coming up in the wind.” He opens a door to a low-lying walkway along the wing’s southern wall. Countless brown, dried carcasses line the concrete path.
Since 1993, the Seattle Parks Department has been working to renovate the conservatory’s original structure, now in its 100th year. Nineteen years of architectural drafts, plans, construction and budgets have managed to bring the western sections, including the central Palm room, up to date. Now, the city just doesn’t have the funds.
“The city has the building permit and the drawings and they don’t want to spend the money,” said Audrey Van Horne, the original architect responsible for planning the renovation. Though citywide budget cuts may account for the lack of funding, Van Horne said the city is “also very reluctant to say that they will, in their next budget, even pay for part of it.”
Renovating the East support greenhouse, cactus and seasonal houses will require $3.5 million. So far, the Friends of the Conservatory, a nonprofit organization that cooperates with the Seattle Parks Department to support the conservatory and organize events, has raised about $100,000 and is depending heavily on donations from those who enjoy the park to close the $3.4 million gap.
The conservatory’s 4.5 staff positions and $450,000 yearly budget are operated through the city’s general fund, Helgeson said. The current feeling among many at the conservatory is that continuing to fund the park is more of a commitment than the city would like for a general fund that has not kept pace with a ballooning infrastructure.
Rick Daley, an Arizona-based consultant with experience on similar projects across the country, was hired by the parks department to find ways to make the park more self-sufficient. “Certainly one of the things we’re looking at is making it a charged admission…like most of the nonprofits, he said. He is also looking into rearranging the existing facilities to create more space for large groups and events. His plan, which he will present to the parks department within the next two weeks, is proof that the city has a serious interest in keeping the conservatory operating.
“It’s widely known around the country and widely respected. A lot of people are cheering for it to remain open and viable,” he said.
“Certainly the Friends of the Conservatory would do whatever we could do to not allow it to close,” says Stephen Hall of the FOC. Standing in the East support greenhouse, under a broken windowpane closed by a torn plastic covering, he says the group has considered a partnership with private supporters.
The deterioration is not immediately apparent upon entering the conservatory’s Palm house. Within the areas generally accessible to the public, there are only a few spots where the unknowing eye would find a discrepancy. For one, tucked away in a corner of the cactus room, behind the reaching arms of spiny desert dwellers, the uniform white framing gives way to a blackened cavity of rotten wood. Due to the constant warmth and moisture in the building, this would be common throughout the conservatory if not for the renovations of the last two decades.
Over three phases, the wooden ribs were replaced with aluminum bars that are the same size and shape of the original pieces, Van Horne said. “You stand across the street and you can’t tell which ones are falling apart.”
The modern, up-to-date structures have automated climate control and electrically driven shades that spread across the glass ceiling. If the East support greenhouse was in similar shape, Helgeson said, it would be used for orchid clinics, hands-on education and community activities. “Right now, we don’t really have a space to do that,” he said.
Right now, the structure looks like it might implode. A night and day contrast from the operating West support greenhouse, the silent, overgrown eeriness of the East house appears as though it was recently transplanted from Chernobyl. Without some help, the others may follow suit.
Visit http://www.volunteerparkconservatory.org/support-the-conservatory/save-the-conservatory/ to lend a hand.