The Volunteer Park Conservatory blends together a lot Seattle must-sees: It’s in an Olmsted park, it’s a stunning piece of Victorian architecture, and, of course, it’s full of plants. For more than a century, this ornate greenhouse has been welcoming visitors to its peaceful displays of warm-weather flora. Admission is just $4 for adults, and there are plenty of events and workshops to really squeeze the most out of your visit.
While it’s a fine destination in any condition, it’s especially welcome here thanks to our notoriously unpredictable weather—and thanks to its large selection of tropicals, it’s certainly one of the most Instagrammable spots in the city, although professional photographers might want to check in with Seattle Parks and Recreation before packing up a camera.
There’s plenty of history to explore here, too. Here’s 15 facts to get you started.
- The Volunteer Park Conservatory stands out from its surroundings with its elaborate Victorian greenhouse design—but it was built up from a prefab kit by Hitchings and Company of New York. Construction, including assembly, cost less than $20,000 (the bond was $25,000), and the whole project cost about $50,000. To be fair, that was a lot more money in 1912, but it was just a tiny portion of the $2 million bond secured to beautify the park.
- The facility was built for both plant preservation and deep relaxation. As it was nearing completion, Ferdinand Schmitz, then the parks commissioner, told the Seattle Times that in addition to just being a pretty place, it’s “an old folks’ playfield”: Young people, he argued, had plenty of recreation space in city parks, but places to sit and rest were in shorter supply.
- After multiple renovations, the only wood-and-glass part of the original prefab kit that remains is the lunette window, or peacock window, above the main entry. That was restored in 2000.
- The conservatory has five “houses”: the bromeliad house, the palm house (which is the tallest one—it lives inside the top dome), the fern house, the cactus house, and a seasonal display house. The whole area is more than 6,000 square feet.
- The design includes a whopping 3,426 glass panes. That’s a total of more than 15,000 square feet of glass.
- It’s really warm in there—perhaps avoid wearing a bulky coat—but the temperature varies depending on the house. It’s typically about 72 degrees, but it can get up to 80 degrees in the cactus house.
- The heat and humidity are maintained with a computer-controlled system. Natural gas-heated water is pumped into pipes below the display benches. Vents above and below help regulate the environment.
- Another important part of regulating the house is a white wash. During the spring and summer, the glass is treated with a chalky paint to help temper the sun a little. It’s washed off once the days get colder and shorter.
- That statue out front is William Henry Seward, Secretary of State under President Abraham Lincoln. He negotiated and signed the purchase of Alaska from Russia. He ended up here after the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition ended in 1909.
- By the 1970s, the building had developed a tilt, causing gaps between the frame and the glass—meaning the conservatory had to be closed during high winds. It closed for 10 months starting in 1979, reopening in 1980 after the first major remodel it’d had since 1912.
- The 1980 remodel was also the start of the formal relationship between Friends of Volunteer Park Conservatory and the city. The Friends would lead the building through five more years of smaller renovations, and currently provide educational programming, volunteer support, fundraising, and other management for the facility.
- The conservatory is home to two plants that are more than 75 years old: A sago palm (in the palm room) and a jade tree (in the cactus room).
- The facility is also home to multiple carnivorous plants. The Friends say they’re “usually found in the boggy planters flanking the pool in the Fern House.”
- Some of the plants are kind of rescue plants—because it’s an official US Fish and Wildlife Plant Rescue Center, the conservatory sometimes takes in plants that are confiscated by customs.
- While you can’t lift plants right out of the displays or anything, if you get inspired by all the displays, there are some plants available to purchase in the gift shop.
Credit for this story idea and headline goes to former Curbed Seattle writer Elizabeth Tudor, who wrote the original version of this article in 2014.