A Victorian confection of wood and glass, the Conservatory of Flowers, which opened in 1879, is the oldest building in Golden Gate Park and one of San Francisco’s most beloved landmarks. It houses some 1,700 species of aquatic and tropical plants, many of them rare, including a 100-year-old giant Imperial philodendron, a world-renowned collection of orchids, giant water lilies, and carnivorous plants. Special exhibits have included such popular favorites as the Butterfly Zone and the miniature garden railroad.
The building is situated in Conservatory Valley, where intricately designed flowerbeds bloom from January through September. Palm trees along the stairs leading to the Conservatory provide an elegant frame for the central dome. To the east of the Conservatory are the Arizona Garden, with drought-tolerant species, and the Dahlia Garden, which is in radiant bloom through the summer months and into early fall.
The Conservatory’s story begins with eccentric millionaire James Lick, who ordered the prefabricated building but never had it erected; when he died in 1876, the greenhouse was still in crates. In 1878, several prominent San Francisco businessmen bought the kit and donated it to the city for construction in Golden Gate Park. The Conservatory was an immediate success, becoming one of the park’s most popular attractions. In 1883 the building’s dome was replaced with a slightly taller one after a fire destroyed the original. The Conservatory suffered no serious damage from the 1906 earthquake, and homeless survivors of the disaster camped in Conservatory Valley and throughout Golden Gate Park.
In 1995, a winter storm with high winds severely damaged the aging Conservatory and destroyed some of the collection. A campaign to save the beloved landmark resulted in a five-year, $25 million reconstruction with many needed upgrades. The building reopened in 2003.
In keeping with San Francisco’s policy of reduced pesticide use in all city parks and facilities, the Conservatory uses beneficial insects to control harmful pests, and is home to a population of geckos that keeps infestations by cockroaches and other insects in check.
The Conservatory of Flowers is at 100 John F. Kennedy Drive, in the eastern end of Golden Gate Park.