Glass sculpture by Dale Chihuly at the Franklin Park Conservatory
I have a thing about botanical gardens, arboretums, and conservatories. I try to visit one in every city I travel to–although that’s often unrealistic given that I only ever take short trips and the purpose is usually to visit friends or attend a conference. Also, winter. And also, because of what botanical gardens literally are, they tend to be located wayyyy outside of the city center (hi, New York) and inaccessible by public transit (looking at you, Chicago).
Nevertheless, I’ve visited some sort of Plant Thing in many of the major cities I’ve been to: Chicago, New York (Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx), Milwaukee, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, and Dayton. I haven’t made it happen in Boston, DC, Philadelphia, or Minneapolis, and I also haven’t visited that many other cities because I have no money, but I’m still pretty proud of that.
So it’s kind of surprising that I’ve been living in Columbus for over a year and a half and that despite the fact that I own a car and the local botanical garden is 15 minutes away, I hadn’t gone there until yesterday.
The land on which the conservatory (and the rest of Franklin Park) sits was the site of the first Franklin County Fair in 1852, opened as a public park in 1884, and was redesigned as a conservatory in 1895. The main glasshouse of the conservatory was inspired by the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 and by the City Beautiful movement. It continually fascinates me how much this event and this movement have influenced American architecture, urban planning, and politics. The landscapes and building styles associated with it pop up in basically every city I’ve ever been to.
There’s a lot about the City Beautiful movement that’s pretty obviously bullshit–for starters, the idea that urban beautification (or, as we’d probably now call it, gentrification) somehow improves “morals,” like some sort of reversal of the broken windows theory. Even at the time, progressive reformers pointed out that this seemed like a convenient way to avoid instituting actual social reforms by focusing on making cities pretty.
On the other hand, it’s difficult and fascinating for me to imagine a time when urban beauty–massive white buildings with columns, perfectly landscaped parks, wide promenades lined with trees and statues–was actually a priority. Victorians may have been wrong about a hell of a lot of shit, but I appreciate the fact that they understood that aesthetics matter, that life is better when you’re surrounded by beauty. And although people need living wages, safe housing, affordable healthcare, and freedom from oppression a lot more than they need pretty parks and buildings, I like this movement’s idea that beautiful spaces shouldn’t just be reserved for the rich. They should be public.
And although conservatories and botanical gardens generally charge admission, many of the other remnants of the City Beautiful movement, such as public parks and monuments, do not. One of the cool things about living in New York and visiting places like Central Park and Prospect Park was getting to see folks who clearly don’t come from a lot of privilege out and having fun with their families. It may not magically fix inequality, but at least it makes life a bit less miserable.
Speaking of making life less miserable–I can’t possibly overstate how rejuvenating botanical gardens and conservatories are for me. I have such painfully fond memories of visiting the gardens in New York and Chicago. Those two are massive and feature acres and acres of outdoor gardens, which feel so incredibly peaceful to wander through (especially when you’re lucky enough to come at a time when it isn’t crowded).
But even indoor gardens, with their narrow paths and excessive amount of children, have some of that effect for me. I love the heat and humidity of conservatories, especially the tropical plant exhibits. (Yes, I love humidity, I’m weird.) The air inside glasshouses feels heavy and soothing, like a warm comforter on a cold night. I love the smell–not just the flowers, but the soil, the vegetation itself. I love the feeling of turning a corner and finding a waterfall, a flower the size of my head, or a cactus the size of a small room.
Conservatories all tend to be pretty similar in terms of content–there is usually a tropical exhibit, a desert exhibit, a temporary butterfly house, a holiday train show, a seasonal orchid collection, and a Japanese-style garden with bonsai trees and a koi pond. I’m usually not, like, surprised or shocked by anything I find inside a conservatory. And that’s totally fine. Somehow I still feel a strong urge to stick my camera lens into an orchid and make babytalk at the dorky-looking koi.
The Franklin Park Conservatory did have a few things I haven’t seen at the others I’ve visited–a glassblowing pavilion where you could watch a gaffer (that’s what professional glassblowers are apparently called) do the glass thing, an adorable fairy house exhibit, a pair of macaws in a cage that get let out when the conservatory is closed, and an exhibit about stumperies. I learned that a “stumpery” is a type of garden feature that uses tree stumps or other dead tree bits as props. The more you know!
Since I was with a friend and we were talking the whole time (which I do not regret whatsoever), the visit wasn’t quite the near-meditative experience I usually have at botanical gardens. (As an aside, it’s weird to think that when I lived in New York, the norm for me was to do things like this alone.) But it was cool to see the things that she pointed out as interesting, things I might’ve otherwise not noticed or been interested in.
Someday I really want to go to the conservatory, find a bench, and just read or write. It feels silly to spend $15 on admission just for that, but something tells me it would be worth it.