Wintet Light Wonders: A Reflection on Houses of Glass

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The light reflecting through a glass window on a winter day is different than summer light. Its tones are cool, clear, almost blue. Behind the glass window we are warm, protected against the January cold. Now imagine a whole room made of glass and iron filled with winter light nurturing a verdant garden within. A glass room such as this was impossible before the invention of sheets of glass over 250 years ago.

The early architects of glass houses wanted to create a setting of beauty and protection for their gardens by bringing the delicate and exotic plants indoors away from the frost. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the wealthy Italians and French created stately orangeries made of the first sheets of glass to display the beauty of their citrus trees indoors. The orangery, or greenhouse, was usually of masonry construction with light exposure on one side, to the south or west, where light passed through large windows with movable frames.

During the 19th century, greenhouse design rapidly rose in England to extraordinary levels. First there were the great constructions of Joseph Paxton, who created grand greenhouses called conservatories made of predominately lightweight iron and glass. These conservatories were capable of maintaining temperature controls. The English aristocracy and government used the conservatory initially to protect their plants in botanical gardens from the cold. Later, the concept of the English conservatory expanded into an extension of the living space, thus bringing in the flowering winter garden into glass rooms attached to the homes. Enormous public spaces made of glass and iron paved the way to some of the most extraordinary architecture of this century.

Although conservatories are not found in abundance in the South due to our mild winters, they are becoming more and more popular in new home construction. The Botanical Gardens of New Orleans’ City Park is an inspirational setting with examples of a European-designed glass conservatory and orangery.

This spectacular glass conservatory offers a place for reflection during the winter months. In the early morning light, the magnificent 40-foot glass dome of the garden’s Conservatory of the Two Sisters glistens like a beacon on the grounds. The glass doors of the conservatory overlook the sleeping lily pond and tropical rainforest. At the opposite end of the garden’s axis are the long banks of arched glass windows of the Pavilion of Two Sisters. Modeled after a traditional French orangery, this winter retreat is the centerpiece of the 12-acre garden. Lush tropical foliage and native fauna thrive throughout the year inside the warmth of this light filled garden room. This is the setting for many a wedding and festive celebration.

Throughout the Botanical Gardens are the strong and sensuous sculptures by New Orleans artist Enrique Alferez (1901-1999), including one dating from the WPA days. The alluring “Fluteplayer” fountain by Alferez seems to serenade the camellia garden with its water tunes. Alferez’s compelling sculptures make a winter walk through the Botanical Gardens worth bundling up for. For information on renting City Park’s pavilion or conservatory, call (504) 488-2896.

The inspiration for most of the world’s great conservatories came from the design and installation of the Crystal Palace, which housed the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London’s Hyde Park. Created by Paxton, the success of the Crystal Palace led to an outpouring of standardized conservatories for the Victorian middle class. The discovery of easier methods of manufacturing lighter, stronger iron for the frames enabled larger sheets of glass to be supported. With this discovery came a rise in popularity of conservatories.

During the Edwardian period, the conservatory became more ornate as tastes changed, and the glass room setting became popular for formal tea parties and lovers’ trysts. By the end of the 19th century, conservatories were scaled down for middle class homes and were no longer just for the rich.

The popularity of conservatories diminished in the 1920s because of the high cost of maintenance; they were susceptible to damage from frost and rust. During the dead of winter, the glass rooms were much colder than inside the main portions of the home. Few conservatories were built during this period.

It was not until the 1970s that conservatories regained popularity in home construction. It was then that new developments emerged in materials such as float glass and sealed double-glazing that made conservatories a practical option once again.

Today, there are many selections to choose from to create a conservatory or sunroom addition for a home. The classic designs of Georgian, Victorian, and Edwardian, as well as numerous contemporary designs, are available in materials such as aluminum, PVC, hardwood, and treated softwood; many styles and materials are readily available through online companies. Prices begin at around $2,000 and climb upward to $100,000 and beyond, depending on the size and style chosen.

Conservatories have now become a natural extension to homes offering a warm and sunny place to bask in the light of a wintry day. In a world filled with technology and flat screen televisions, a room made of glass offers a peaceful place to close your eyes, feel the warmth of the sun, and connect with nature.

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