Brooklyn, one building at a time.
Name: Steinhardt Conservatory, Brooklyn Botanic Gardens
Address: 1000 Washington Avenue (mailing address)
Cross Streets: Eastern Parkway and Empire Boulevard
Neighborhood: Crown Heights South
Year Built: Original conservatory built 1917; rebuilt and expanded 1988
Architectural Style: Contemporary
Architect: Original: McKim, Mead & White. New Steinhardt Conservatory: Davis Brody & Associates
Other Work by Architect: McKim, Mead & White: Brooklyn Museum, among many other buildings. Davis Brody: Buildings all over the world, including Waterside Plaza, Portico Gallery at the Frick, New York City, and the Benning and Shaw libraries for the D.C. Public Library.
The story: The Brooklyn Botanic Garden is one of the treasures of Brooklyn. The history of the gardens is a great one, and it is perhaps fitting that the story begins with an ash heap upon which great beauty has sprung. The land that comprises the gardens was part of the purchase the city made for Prospect Park, in 1864. The park was originally designed to cross over the other side of Flatbush Avenue, so as to include the Mount Prospect Reservoir, one of the highest points in Brooklyn. After the Civil War, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvin Vaux took over the project, and redesigned the park so that it ends at Flatbush.
That left the city with a large chunk of land, most of which they sold off for development. But they held on to the portion between Mount Prospect and Grand Army Plaza. Since it wasn’t being used, it literally became a marshy, wet ash heap and dumping ground for many years. There was not real development going on around here yet, and the area was home to small wood framed houses and shanties, which were adjoining the farmlands of Flatbush, just south of here.
By the 1890s, work had begun on the new Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences, the McKim, Mead & White masterpiece we now call the Brooklyn Museum. The entire area was now called Institute Park, and included the site of the 39 acre Garden, which was officially designated in 1897, and was designed by Frederick Olmsted Junior and James Charles Olmsted, the sons of Frederick Law Olmsted. The Garden was placed under the auspices of the Institute in 1910, and opened to the public in 1911.
The first garden was the local flora garden, followed by a children’s garden in 1914, and the Japanese garden in 1915. In 1917, the laboratory and conservatory were dedicated. The conservatory was a large glassed in greenhouse, modeled after the Brighton Conservatory in England, designed by McKim, Mead & White. At least one addition was added, also designed by McKim, Mead & White.
The Garden continued to grow and became independent from the Institute. Over the course of the 20th century, new gardens, new exhibits and programs were instituted. The old laboratory and greenhouse also changed. The laboratory was renovated and turned into the Administration building. The greenhouses were feeling the effects of age, and the firm of Davis, Brody & Assoc. was commissioned to design a new Steinhardt Conservatory complex, a $25 million project which incorporated the old greenhouse with three separate pavilions that shelter plants from three totally different climates; desert, tropical, and temperate. The original greenhouse was redesigned, and is now the Palm House, a glassed-in garden space for special events that still maintains a sense of Edwardian grandness.
Davis Brody’s design was seen as quite modern and in stark contrast to the rounded lines of the old conservatory. The glass and steel shapes are octagonal, and rectangular, with pyramids, triangles, squares and all kinds of shapes joining together. It’s very futuristic, yet perfect for an ever evolving, organic, in all senses of the word, place like the Botanic Gardens. For some great professional photographs, please check out this link. GMAP