, Muskogee, OK


April 17, 2013

Glasshouses are something to see

— Glasshouses have been used for growing plants in a controlled environment since Roman times, but the most famous glasshouse was designed by architect Philip Johnson in 1949 as his home. Today it is a national landmark, open to the public.

Another glass residence, the Farnsworth house in Chicago, was designed by Lugwig Mies van der Rohe in the 1940s for Dr. Edith Farnsworth. It also is a national landmark open for tours.

Steven Holl’s addition to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art ( in Kansas City, Mo., consists of five interconnected frosted glass boxes. At night the Block Building resembles paper lanterns in the grass.

Glasshouses for plants rather than for people and art date back to ancient Egypt, where they were used to grow grapes as early as 4,000 B.C.

By 300 B.C., glasshouses were heated by manure pits, and by 92 B.C., Sergius Orata of Italy invented a heating system, in which heat rose through flues in the floor.

One of the first structures for growing plants was built for the Roman emperor Nero. At the time, the specularium, glazed with mica, was made for the cultivation of cucumbers during winter.

By A.D. 380, Italians were using trenches filled with hot water to grow roses indoors. In the 1600s, Europeans were using southern-facing glass, stoves and manure to grow winter crops of citrus fruits. The growing sheds, called orangeries, later were heated with carts filled with burning coal.

One of the earliest greenhouses was built in Holland by the French botanist Jules Charles de Lecluse in 1599 for the cultivation of tropical and medicinal plants. By 1720 the first U.S. structures of all glass were built in Boston and Chicago.

In European glasshouses, the favorite crops were pineapples, peaches, and grapes. The glasshouses were built against masonry walls, and heat came through flues in the walls.

The first American greenhouse with glass on all sides was erected by a Boston merchant, Andrew Faneuil, before 1737. A complete history of greenhouse development is online at and

Today, glasshouses are rarely used for vegetables, but those meant for tropical fruit are fairly common. Most, however, are filled with tropical ornamental plants and flowers.

Many of these plant glasshouses are open to the public.

The Tulsa Garden Center ( has a 1923 Victorian-style Lord and Burnham conservatory that houses many plants in the winter.

Crystal Bridge Tropical Conservatory at Myriad Botanical Garden in Oklahoma City ( is made of 3,028 acrylic panels. It boasts 13,000 square feet of plant display area.

Missouri Botanical Garden ( has the Climatron, a geodesic dome glasshouse with thousands of tropical plants.

The Jewel House in Forest Park in St. Louis ( was designed by William C. E. Becker and built in 1936.

The Palm House at Franklin Park Conservatory ( in Columbus, Ohio, holds Chihuly glass art as well as tropical plants.

The Corbin Conservatory in Akron, Ohio, has 4,322 panes of laminated glass. The conservatory, which was originally used by the Seiberling family to grow produce, has been replicated. It is open for tours (www.

Seattle’s Volunteer Park Conservatory ( has more than 3,000 glass panes. It was designed by J.C. Olmsted and built in 1910.

The Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Coral Gables, Fla., ( has the Windows to the Tropics Conservatory.

Melbourne Australia, has a tropical glasshouse ( that was built in the early 1900s. It still has portions of the original tile floor.

The Royal Horticulture glasshouse in Wisley, England, ( is the size of 10 tennis courts.

Traveling to glasshouses around the U.S. and around the world would make a fascinating tour.

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