The History of Conservatories
Originally conservatories were designed for horticulture, with some believing they date as far back as the Roman era. Roman Emperor Tiberius ordered construction of a “specularia” to grow melon and cucumber fruits year round on his Island, using frames glazed with mirror-stone to protect the plants from the cold.
However, the first conservatories like the ones we know today came along later on, around the 16th century. Still used to cultivate fruits, these were mainly used by Europeans to grow citrus fruits from the Mediterranean. These “Orangeries” didn’t have a great deal of glass compared to our conservatories now but they grew more and more extravagant throughout the 16th & 17th Centuries.
19th Century - The Golden Age of Conservatories
Conservatories soon began to be constructed for the wealthy to enjoy at their stately homes.
In 1825 John Nash designed four for Buckingham Palace (one later moved to Kew Gardens).
In 1837, Joseph Paxton, Head gardener at Chatsworth House, (working with the Kew Gardens’ Palm house Architect Decimus Burton) designed the Great Conservatory. This immense 84m long, 37m wide and 19m high glass construction took four years to build and was home to palms, ferns, mosses, tropical plants and flowers as well as ponds full of aquatic plants.
Queen Victoria - "the most stupendous and extraordinary creation imaginable"
Paxton also designed The Lily House for Chatsworth house, to cultivate an Amazonian Lily that outgrew the conservatories in Kew Gardens.
The Lily House at Chatworth was home to Lilies with leaves that grew to 12 feet wide; Paxton was even able to float his daughter on one
The Crystal Palace
Unfortunately, both conservatories were demolished in 1920, however Paxton did go on to design the Crystal Palace.
Paxton’s design for the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, using prefabricated parts, meant that it was erected in only 22 weeks and has shaped the way we build conservatories today.
The main body of the Crystal Palace was 563m long, 124m wide and 33m tall and housed The Great Exhibition of 1851.
The Great Exhibition of 1851 saw 14,000 exhibitors and more than 6million visitors.
The Crystal Palace was then moved to Sydenham Hill where it hosted shows, exhibitions, concerts and football matches before being destroyed by a fire in 1936.
Following this, conservatories influenced by this British design began to emerge around Europe, from Vienna (Schonbrunn Palace Park Palm House Conservatory) to Czech Republic (The Chateau Lednice Conservatory) and as far as Madrid.
America also began creating “garden rooms” using the British conservatory model – building their own Crystal Palace in 1853 as well as building glass houses in Baltimore, Chicago, Pittsburgh and San Francisco.
Palm House Conservatory at Schonbrunn Palace Park
Modern Domestic Conservatories
Although some wealthy families would have conservatories erected as additions to their grand homes, most early conservatories were mainly used for the cultivation and conservation of plants for university and medical research.
It wasn’t until much later in the 19th century when the ‘Glass Tax’ was lifted, that conservatories began to gain popularity as additions to homes. However, they would’ve been hard to heat, with single glazing and low-quality sealant. Often these early conservatories were made with cast iron frames that would’ve rusted or succumbed to the cold and frost.
In more recent times, with the development of new technology such as double glazing, uPVC frames, underfloor heating and insulating roofing panels, conservatories have become extremely popular additions to homes. Now much more comfortable and usable, homeowners can now use conservatories as garden rooms, recreational/lounge room, dining rooms, home offices and even bedrooms.