Arguably the largest of all lost White House treasures, is the Conservatory.
The Greenhouse Concept
Some three hundred years ago, the first greenhouse was built in Colonial America. The concept had been known in Europe for some time: to provide a protected place for plants and similar vegetation to grow. Enclosing an area with glass panes allows for sunlight to reach the greenery; likewise those same panes offer protection from the elements. In the seventeenth century, it was a novelty that caught on.
Of course it was a costly venture, only available to either the very wealthy, or to a small but growing number of early agronomists who liked to experiment with the forces of nature. But it was also relatively easily constructed, and/or dismantled.
Fast Forward: 1850s
Prince Albert of Great Britain espoused the concept of a gigantic greenhouse (encompassing most of Hyde Park!) to showcase his Great International Exhibition in 1851. The “Crystal Palace” as it was nicknamed, was a masterpiece of engineering and ingenuity. It was also a huge success.
Franklin Pierce authorized construction of a “botanical” house, (where the old Jackson orangery had fallen into disuse), but the actual construction began under President James Buchanan, in 1857. Encouraged by his niece Harriet Lane, the structure was located only 12 feet from the White House itself, connected by a glass-enclosed passageway.
It was a wooden structure, but featured a glass roof and sides, making it look light and airy. It’s proximity to the Potomac River assured a water supply. It was one large room, with green painted tables filled with potted plants and flowers.
The Conservatory had grown considerably by the time Abraham Lincoln became president. He seldom visited it, but Mary Lincoln loved it, and was said to walk through almost daily. Not only did she personally select the fresh flowers and tropical plants for White House décor, but sent bouquets of various sizes as modest gifts, courtesy of President and Mrs. Lincoln. At least one documented bouquet (sent to Senator Sumner) was sent as an “apology” for losing her temper.
Select White House guests were often escorted through the Conservatory, with Mrs. L. or one of Lincoln’s staff as tour guides . Matthew Brady photographed the lovely setting on the occasion of a delegation of Indian Chiefs from the Oklahoma Territory.
In 1867, the Conservatory burned.
The Grant Glory Day
By the time Ulysses S. Grant became President (1869-77), the Gilded Age had begun.
The Grants were neither opulent nor showy, but they definitely understood their position and prominence. The burned conservatory was now replaced by an iron and glass building twice as large as before. Additional buildings were built over the next few decades, gerrymandered wherever there was room. Now, in addition to the usual plants, ferns, flowers and fruits, exotic flora, such as delicate orchids, were imported – and thrived.
In 1874, when Grant’s daughter Nellie was married in an elaborate White House wedding, the conservatory was tasked to provide massive amounts of decorative plants and flowers, The walls and staircases of the White House were twined with lilies, tuberoses, and spirea. White orchids and orange blossoms (especially sent by rail from Florida) had been sent for the bride’s tiara.
In the East Room, where the ceremony took place, the large window draperies were closed. In front was a raised platform, with a wedding-bell fashioned in pink roses. Four large columns draped in red, white and blue supported the girders. Flowers and potted palms were everywhere. The floral bounty spilled over into more sub-sections of the White House, decorating the State Dining Room for the wedding breakfast, and in the other public rooms for the buffet.
For the next three decades, the Conservatory was a place to entertain selected guests, as well as a private retreat for the First Family’s relaxation – whoever they may be. Many FLOTUSes used it to relax or take tea with friends.
Lucy Hayes (FL: 1877-81) claimed that after every formal White House dinner, dessert was followed by a guided tour through the Conservatory. Her idea for a dessert set featuring the exotic plants along the path from the White House to the conservatory eventually grew into an extensive, expensive and avant- garde dinner service showcasing the flora and fauna of America the beautiful and bountiful. Pieces from the service are in museums today.
When POTUS Grover Cleveland married 21-year-old Frances Folsom in a White House wedding, the conservatory obliged with all the floral decorations. But it was a tiny wedding limited to less than 50 guests – and absolutely no reporters or photographers!
Caroline Harrison (FL: 1889-92) was arguably the most domestically talented mistress of the White House, and it was said that the conservatory was never more beautiful or lush. Bouquets of fresh flowers, usually personally selected by Mrs. H. were sent to most of Washington officialdom for birthdays, anniversaries, illness, and condolences.
Frail Ida McKinley (FL: 1897-1901) sent bouquets generously, and loved entertaining selected guests in the Conservatory.
Repurposing the Conservatory
It wasn’t that Theodore Roosevelt did not like or appreciate the conservatory. Our nature-lovingest POTUS certainly understood its value to Presidential graciousness. However…
The White House was in serious need of remodeling and expansion by 1902. The accommodation needs for family and guests had grown enormously. The greatly enlarged presidential staff required far more room than the building-proper could contain.
The conservatory was expendable. Flowers and plants could be obtained elsewhere. The POTUS premises had priority, and needed the proximity.
So in 1902, the conservatory was dismantled and demolished, replaced by what is known today, as the West Wing.
Conroy,James B. – Lincoln’s White House: The People’s House in Wartime – Rowman and Littlefield, 2016
Cross, Wilbur & Novotny, Anne – White House Weddings – David McKay Company, 1967