You build a home to have a place to live. You add a conservatory to have a place to dream. When wealthy European Victorians traveled the world, they brought back living souvenirs: Exotic flowering plants, tall palms, fragrant orange trees. To protect their tropical plants from harsh winters in London and Paris, they commissioned elegant conservatories, solariums, and orangeries.
Soon, affluent Americans jumped on the trend, erecting public solariums from Golden Gate Park to Philadelphia’s Horticultural Hall for the Bicentennial. For all of his salty, down-home wit, Mark Twain had his own private solarium, as did Doris Duke. And the vintage board game Clue famously incorporates a mysterious conservatory as a prime site for murder.
Originally constructed as free-standing structures with tall, palladian windows, over the years conservatories evolved into glass palaces and now serve as decorative additions that lend beauty and warmth to any home. Whether you use yours as a dining area, reading room, music room, or a place to grow rare orchids, a conservatory offers a unique quality of light and enchantment.
Chances are you have a vision in your head of the perfect conservatory for your home. Perhaps it is an idea you saw in a magazine or during a trip abroad. Whatever your concept, it is important to choose a qualified architect who will work with you to determine the best possible placement, design, and materials to complement your home. “We start by going to our clients” home and finding out why they want a conservatory in the first place,” says architect Alan Stein who, along with his wife Nancy Virts, is co-founder of Tanglewood Conservatories in Denton, Md. “We try to understand what our clients like about a particular design and try to gain insight into what is important to them.”
Viewing the design options on Tanglewood Conservatories” Web site is like opening a two-pound box of Godiva chocolates. The choices are overwhelming. A “Lakeside Classic Victorian” conservatory appears to float between water and sky, with a glass cupola that washes the 1,100-square-foot room with sunlight. The high ceiling hovers over palm trees and Victorian wicker furniture, and encourages reading by natural light even on cloudy days. The biggest room in the house, the conservatory provides a natural setting for entertaining. Across the lake, facing the conservatory, a matching octagonal gazebo draws the eye to a magical view of drifting swans and lush gardens. “The owners were concerned that with such large amounts of glass, the conservatory would be difficult to heat and cool. The solution was to make the lower portion of the roof out of solid panels instead of glass,” explains Stein.
Their “Classic Victorian” conservatory was a conversion of a large estate’s old carriage house. Designed to function as a sitting room, the 19×15-foot space comfortably holds a sofa, two wing chairs, and an old-fashioned card table.
“The owners wanted something that looked like it came with the house,” says Stein. “The columns and cornice work were exact replicas of the original construction.” The six-sided glass conservatory is linked to the main house by a glass walkway which floods the adjacent kitchen with light. A brick base wall visually connects the new custom conservatory with the main structure.
Within its own gated garden, a “Brick and Stone” conservatory, set away from the main house, provides a romantic setting for a hidden spa, wet bar, and fireplace. “The clients wanted a retreat that could be used as a magical getaway,” says Stein, who designed a vaulted copper roof, gabled entryway, and curvilinear entry steps.
“I fell in love with conservatories 15 years ago when I received my first commission to build one,” he says. “I was appalled by the poor quality that was being imported so I decided to build them myself.” Tanglewood Conservatories does not use any pre-fab design kits. “We not only design, but we build, getting deeply into detail, using cast-bronze hardware, stained glass, Honduras mahogany, and hand-carved capitals.” After the conservatory is custom built in Stein’s shop, it is taken apart and rebuilt on site. The entire process takes up to one year.
“Creating a beautiful structure is primary,” says Stein, “but we also try to make it as energy-efficient as possible, taking into account shading, orientation, using high performance glass and weather stripping.”
“Sensitivity to proportion and scale is what an architect brings,” says Peter Zimmerman, head architect of a full-service residential design firm located in Berwyn, Pa. Originally from the Main Line, Zimmerman returned from his graduate studies in architecture at Harvard to do what he loved—restore historic properties and design new homes that integrate historic elements. A Chester Springs resident, Zimmerman says, “I grew up surrounded by old stone farmhouses and I understand the culture and history of the area. In designing a conservatory, you aim for authenticity versus faux architecture.”
When designing conservatories, Zimmerman strives for a seamless allusion between the original structure and the new addition. A “Bryn Mawr” conservatory in a Georgian stone mansion opens the entire side of the house to a light-filled corridor with marble floors, hanging candelabra, and exotic orchids, opening to a garden patio. The design for his “Villanova” conservatory includes lattice-work ceiling trim, French doors and a beamed arch ceiling. In “Paoli,” Zimmerman wanted to create the look of an enclosed porch. He achieved this by designing a second floor balcony on the conservatory’s roof and repeating design elements that appear on the main house, such as white pillars and a red brick base.
Architect John Toates, AIA, a principal with Peter Zimmerman Architects, says, “It is because of the long tradition of craftsmanship in southeastern Pennsylvania that our firm is fortunate enough to have retained access to a limited number of skilled craftspeople who are able to execute our designs.”
Peter Zimmerman Architects
828 Old Lancaster Road
Berwyn, PA 19312