Volume 39, Issue 4, April  2004


A House of Glass
Restoring a Victorian Edifice
by Dez Farnady

Maybe what we do is secret or maybe they just don’t know who to ask or maybe they just don’t want to know. Nevertheless, glass designs of all sorts go on all the time and the uninformed continue to blunder through from one bad design option to another. By now you may be wondering whom I am going to pick on this time. Frankly, I don’t know. I don’t know who the culprit or the guilty party was who fumbled this particular design but fumbled it they did and fumbled it badly. 

The Conservatory of Flowers
A very large glass house stands in the heart of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, just as it has stood since it opened its doors in 1879. This glass house is called the Conservatory of Flowers. 

The glass building, covered with thousands of pieces of what I believe was originally 1/8 inch or thinner window glass, lost 40 percent of the glazing in a 1995 storm. It made it through the quake in 1906. Then there was fire damage in 1918. It was shut down due to suspected structural instability in 1933. It was repaired, re-glazed and re-opened again in 1946 and then closed again due to the storm damage of 1995. 

Knowing a little about the repair, replacement, retrofit and restoration business, I can only imagine the structural nightmare the latest repair crew had to face. Restoration issues on historical buildings usually end up involving hysterical issues and the conservatory was probably no exception. 

I am a pragmatist when it comes to construction. I have no attachment to archaic and ineffectual old structures. The structure enables the building to stand, and if our grandfathers built it with wood and silly putty I prefer to fix it with steel and concrete. It is not a woman’s skeleton that makes you do a double take, but rather her exterior. So who cares what holds up the glass edifice as long as the exterior looks the same and replicates the original design? In this case, a lot of effort seems to have gone into the reproduction of the original structural portion of the building in the attempt to restore the wood frame to whatever they thought the old wood frame might have been 100 years ago.

It does not appear that the same amount of thought went into the glazing portion of the job. I can only say that the glazing has definitely retained a 19th century flavor. On brief inspection, all of the glass appears to be clear laminated. Now this is a hot house and with clear glass that means the house will be really hot. So, a 19th century solution was applied—applied with what appeared to be a pretty broad brush, because the entire building was painted. That’s right, the exterior of all the laminated glass was whitewashed—and you don’t have to look very close to see that. When you do look close, the white exterior of the shining jewel looks more like the bathroom wall of a country service station. 

A “White” Idea
Somebody came up with another clever 18th century glass solution by shingling the glazing. That is, each lite of glass overlaps the lite below for exterior drainage without a horizontal mullion. Of course, since this is a greenhouse the interior is very humid and wet. The condensation drips down the inside face of the glass to be trapped between the inside of the upper and outside of the lower piece of glass at the overlap to form a green fungus horizontal about 1-inch wide. This appears to be creating new plant growth that may eventually cover the entire interior surface of the glass with a moss blanket. This could provide more subjects for further botanical research as it slowly turns the interior of the white glass dome green. 

My 21-year-old daughter, who is a plant biology student, loved the place and never looked up above the orchids and the exotic plants that fill it. It’s too bad for you if you happen to be a glass guy who knows what they could have done with contemporary technology—a weeped glazing system and white laminated glass.


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