Conservatory Greenhouse closes over safety concerns

After 79 years of use by plant science faculty, students, staff and the public, the Liberty Hyde Bailey Conservatory Greenhouse was closed last month by the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences due to health and safety concerns.

Built by greenhouse architects Lord & Burnham Co. in 1931 for Liberty Hyde Bailey, the first dean of the College of Agriculture and a prominent palm taxonomist, the facility has deteriorated, with internal and external falling panes of glass, rotting wooden glazing bars and peeling asbestos-laden glazing putty. The college decided, based on advice from the Department of Risk Management and Environmental Health and Safety, to close the Conservatory Greenhouse until a long-term solution can be found.

The college has already moved the conservatory's plant collection to temporary homes.

In 2008, the college sought to restore the Conservatory Greenhouse. An architectural firm specializing in preservation and restoration and specialists in greenhouse and conservatory preservation were retained, funds were set aside and bids requested. The bids received were dramatically higher than the college's original estimate of $1 million or even the consultants' revised estimate of $1.8 million, coming in at around $2.3 million -- or more than $600 per square foot.

Currently, CALS has a critical need to renovate or replace 65 percent of the college's greenhouses, and the college's administration is considering how to meet the need for a conservatory in the context of CALS' overall greenhouse needs.

"CALS has been working on a plan for the past four years to ensure the presence of appropriate, sustainable greenhouse facilities to ensure our teaching, outreach and research needs, as part of a greenhouse renewal initiative," said Kathryn Boor, the Ronald P. Lynch Dean of Agriculture and Life Sciences. "Financial resources have been set aside for a conservatory greenhouse and are secure. However, these resources are not unlimited and, therefore, must be used wisely and effectively to ensure CALS' ability to meet the needs of our mission into the future."

Greenhouse meeting
A meeting with Senior Associate Dean Jan Nyrop to discuss the teaching functions of Cornell's greenhouses will be held Nov. 17 at 4:30 p.m. in 404 Plant Science Building.

It is likely that the conservatory greenhouse will be demolished since its renovation would cost substantially more than a modern greenhouse of the same size and would not be as energy efficient.

Marvin Pritts, chair of the Department of Horticulture, said that while he would prefer to see the current "character-filled" structure restored, he understands that it is financially not feasible and sees opportunities for increased engagement with students and the public with a new, more accessible structure and expanded opportunities for more diverse research.

"It is difficult to show anything to a large group of people in the Liberty Hyde Bailey Conservatory Greenhouse, as the current configuration is not conducive to more than just a few people gathering around a particular plant," he said. "It is also difficult to maintain optimal environments for plants from different biomes (e.g. deserts, tropical forests) that really should have different temperature and humidity regimes."

Although the building may eventually come down, CALS is committed to maintaining the botanical collection and the teaching and outreach activities that surround it. Faculty in the affected departments are involved in the discussion about the conservatory greenhouse and the conservatory function in CALS.

"There will be a conservatory in CALS, and there will be continued support for the educational mission of the Liberty Hyde Bailey Conservatory Greenhouse," said Jan Nyrop, senior associate dean. "The conservatory function may be provided via a new greenhouse or by modifying and updating an existing structure. Either way, the college is mindful that any solution needs to be sustainable."

Ellen Leventry is co-interim director of communications and web communications specialist in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

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Claudia Wheatley