The soaring glass dome of Tacoma’s Seymour Conservatory is as impressive today as when it was built in 1908. Flanked by three wings, it gracefully arches up from the green of Wright Park, filled with exotic orchids, aromatic spice trees, spiky succulents.
But some historic parts of the Victorian conservatory aren’t so impressive these days: There’s an ancient boiler, no restrooms and barely room to turn around.
Thanks to a 2014 bond issue, however, Metro Parks Tacoma is planning a multimillion-dollar renovation and expansion that will see the Seymour blossom with more plants and a better experience for visitors.
And with four possible designs on the table, officials there are looking for community feedback.
“This is one of only three Victorian conservatories on the West Coast,” said Metro Parks natural resources manager Joe Brady. “How many other cities have something like this? And how many opportunities do you have to do this kind of restoration?”
But, added public information officer Michael Thompson, “we don’t want to mess it up. We want to do what people want.”
So, through January, Tacomans can look at four possible design plans for a future conservatory and give feedback that will be incorporated into the final design.
Funded initially by $3 million from the $198 million parks bond passed in 2014 and part of the park’s master plan of 2005, the work will begin with repairs to the existing building as soon as 2017.
Then, once grants and fundraising efforts have secured the rest of the budget, work will begin on new buildings that will extend from the original and complement its character while at least doubling its size.
“Metro Parks is consistently hearing from the public that nature and programming is important to them,” Brady said. “People want to experience nature activities more often, and this is a major hub for that.”
Still, not everyone is enthusiastic about plans to double or triple the size of the conservatory.
“Tripling the size is really an immense intrusion into the park,” said architectural historian Michael Sullivan. “It comes at a high cost.
“Wright Park, like Central Park in New York, is the lungs of the city, of that neighborhood, which is the densest part of Tacoma. And the design of the park itself is on the National Register of Historic Places.”
Sullivan also points out intrusions into the park space not shown on existing schematic diagrams: work areas, sewer lines, overhead utilities.
“This is going to make a big difference to the park,” he said.
Victorian conservatories are dotted all over America.
They were part of the Victorian craze for nature and all things exotic, and inspired by the new technology of the 1848 Palm House at England’s Kew Gardens.
Public conservatories offered people who might never travel a chance to wander around tropical, desert and temperate plants, basking in warmth and color during cold winters.
A hundred years later, though, the challenges of maintaining an old structure of glass, wood and metal are facing conservatories everywhere.
In Seattle, the Volunteer Park Conservatory — built four years after Tacoma’s — just finished a 25-year renovation that involved replacing the entire wooden frame with aluminum and replacing old panes with energy-efficient glass.
The same thing happened at San Francisco’s 1878 Conservatory of Flowers (the other West Coast Victorian conservatory) in the 1990s.
In Rochester, New York, the 1911 Lamberton Conservatory had to be disassembled down to the foundation, as the original steel had suffered from the high humidity and temperatures.
The Phipps Conservatory in Pittsburgh was renovated, complete with high-tech green engineering including natural gas fuel cells and “earth tubes” to cool the forest floor inside.
At the Seymour, the structure has held up fairly well, although Metro Parks is just beginning a complete analysis of its condition.
A renovation in 2003 replaced some of the glass panes and supported the metal frame with braces. Computer-programmed ventilation was added as well.
The upcoming renovation will include glazing, painting, a new boiler and possibly constructing replicas of the original ornate door facades, which were removed in the 1950s when the wood rotted.
The biggest problem at the Seymour, however, is space. There’s just not enough of it.
“We can’t have concurrent programming in there right now,” Brady said. “If there’s a class of school kids, you can’t access the gift shop.”
The gift shop, like the staff office, takes up valuable conservatory space.
Lead horticulturalist Tyra Shenaurlt is constantly pruning the big ice-cream bean tree so it doesn’t hit the top of the dome, and she has to be very selective about her other plants.
When a staff member moves a potted chocolate plant, everyone has to squeeze to one side. And when visitors need a restroom, they must trudge outside to the middle of the park.
Working with SHKS Architects of Seattle, Metro Parks has come up with four possible solutions to the Seymour space challenge.
The designs are still in the schematic stage, and can combine or interchange elements. They’re posted on the agency’s website and in the building itself.
The community is encouraged to give feedback on what works and what doesn’t.
The four solutions, Brady said, were designed with some overall goals in mind:
▪ To retain historic views of the park from the west, south and southeast.
▪ To have minimal impact on the park’s layout.
▪ To improve pedestrian flow on paths.
▪ To improve visitor experience and practicality while honoring the original building.
(The Seymour and Wright Park are on the National Register of Historic Places, and any expansion must conform to those guidelines.)
All the designs call for structures to sit on the hillside immediately behind the conservatory, not going beyond the next line of trees and lower path.
(A few trees would be removed: the Chinese spruce crowding the dome, and some Douglas firs and rhododendrons abutting the wing.)
All the designs include a tall Palm Room (which will hold tall trees) and a Display House, plus the gift shop, restrooms, congregating space and support rooms below grade.
They would at least double the existing 3,500-square-foot area, and possibly triple it.
The “Center” design is the least visually intrusive. With one low-lying building immediately behind the original that echoes its dome and elongated wing, it also retains the current entrance.
“There’s an architectural conversation between the existing dome and the newer,” Brady said. “It’s an interesting play.”
He also likes the stairway that leads down to the central Palm Room, a feature in several of the designs that adds visual interest.
The “North” design also has just one building, a long shed-like structure connected to the northern end of the original by a transparent “gasket” entranceway.
While it looks clunky from the outside, Brady likes one element: a “promontory” from the staircase jutting into the tree canopy of the Palm House.
“That’s totally different from any other horticultural experience,” he said.
The “G Street” design was submitted by the architects later in the process after some initial public feedback. It sits on the northern side of the existing building and includes two buildings side by side along G Street, connected to each other and the original by glass walkways.
One of the glass bridges allows for a large outdoor terrace, which would be filled with botanical planters.
Brady said he’s “not in love with the competing views from G Street,” but likes the terrace as a gathering place for park visitors.
Finally, the “Split” design creates three buildings behind the original.
An entrance near the existing building’s northern door would lead down to an underground lobby area with a skylight roof, which in turn would lead down to the separate Palm Room and Display House.
This is Brady’s favorite, as it diverts the current outer-loop walking path away from the front driveway between the conservatory buildings and includes outdoor patio space.
All of the designs are still in the idea stage, as are the materials to be used and the extent to which the project will make use of green technology.
After gathering public input, Metro Parks will ask for a final plan from the architects before moving on with funding and initial work.
No one knows what the eventual cost will be (the bond’s $3 million will cover repairs and some expansion), but Brady said he was confident of the budget and feasibility.
While the expansion project is still in the idea stage, conservatory staff members are already dreaming of the possibilities.
Tyra Shenaurlt would love a bigger collection of epiphytes (plants that don’t root, like air plants), a new aquatic feature with water plants, a collection of medicinal plants and more carnivorous plants — the crowd-pleasers.
She’d like to expand the current programming with more classes for children, maybe even a children’s garden for ongoing education, and a concert series with more styles and bigger bands.
The Palm Room will allow for taller plants, like a rainbow eucalyptus, and once the gift shop is moved, the cactuses can thrive in that cold-in-winter, hot-in-summer southern end.
Other possibilities include more labeling for education, more extended botanic plantings outside to complement the arboretum of Wright Park, potential parking collaborations with nearby churches and just a better gathering place in general.
“I came here all the time as a teenager. … I loved it,” Shenaurlt said. “It relaxed me, everything smelled good. It was my retreat… .
“I want the conservatory to be Tacoma’s ‘third place’ for people. I would love to have a location where people could sketch, read, bring laptops, all surrounded by nature, because I think it would make people happy.”
Seymour Conservatory feedback
You can give your thoughts on the possible designs for the Seymour Conservatory expansion in three ways:
In person: At a public meeting at 6 p.m. Jan. 21 at Metro Parks Tacoma offices, 4702 S. 19th St., Tacoma.
On paper: At the conservatory, 316 S. G St., Tacoma (open 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays).
Online: At conservatoryfuture.org.