Como Park’s Marjorie McNeely Conservatory: Serving St. Paul, preserving nature

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The “Jewel in the Crown” of Saint Paul’s Como Park celebrated its hundredth year in 2015. The Marjorie McNeely Conservatory grew from makeshift greenhouses that protected Como Park’s popular tropical plants during the winter into the much-loved, magnificent building that adorns the park today. Over the years it’s endured much adversity to survive, and now it thrives: more than two million people visit the Como Park Zoo and Conservatory each year.

The story of the conservatory is interwoven with the story of Como Park itself. Saint Paul’s early leaders had the foresight to purchase land for a large city park in 1873, emerging victorious over some rather strong opposition that arose because of an economic recession. Supporters argued the land should be purchased and set aside before it was developed and before acquisition became prohibitively expensive. Some 300 acres of land around Lake Como was bought for $100,000, but the park’s development did not start for 14 years.

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In 1887 Saint Paul allocated funds for the park and hired Professor Horace Cleveland to create a design for Como Park. Cleveland was a nationally known landscape architect who had visited St. Paul in 1872, when he proposed the creation of a city-wide park system.

The force behind the development of Como Park and the creation of the conservatory was Frederick Nussbaumer, Superintendent of Parks 1891 to 1922. Nussbaumer was born in Baden, Germany, and learned landscape gardening at his father’s greenhouse, then trained in mechanical and civil engineering, botany and landscape architecture in Freiberg, according to “Planning St. Paul’s Como Park.”

Nussbaumer emigrated from Germany in 1876, came to Saint Paul in 1878, and was hired at Como Park in 1887. He likely knew Horace Cleveland, and Cleveland may have encouraged him to come to Minnesota. He moved up quickly and was promoted to Superintendent of Parks in May 1891.

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“Nussbaumer strongly advocated for a wide variety of free or reasonably priced recreational facilities, services and educational opportunities for all park visitors,” says the City of Saint Paul website about Como Park. “The park as we know it today continues to carry out this original vision.”

In addition to the conservatory, Nussbaumer added floral gardens, gravel walkways, pergolas, fountains and ponds to the park. He generally aligned with Cleveland’s plans and belief in “naturalistic” gardens, but felt the public deserved and wanted something more. In his “An Ideal Public Park,” written in 1902, he said (and is often quoted for saying): “The great mass of people enjoy flowers. They also pay for the parks.”

Before the conservatory, the park had “hothouses” to provide winter protection for tropical plants like bananas and palms that were outdoors during the warmer months. “Making History: Como Park Conservatory” says, “The first ‘conservatory’ was a small wooden greenhouse attached to the Park Superintendent’s house, constructed in 1892. It did not take long for these hothouses or greenhouses to be filled to the brim with plants from all over the world.”

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Matters came to a head in 1913, with the realization that the conditions in the greenhouses were endangering the plants. Nussbaumer worked with Toltz Engineering to design a new greenhouse, and in 1914 funds for building it became available. For just under $59,000, King Construction Company of New York erected the building. Labor was provided by inmates of the nearby workhouse, and the parts were pre-fabricated in New York and sent to Saint Paul, where King Construction crews oversaw their assemblage. The 60,000-square-foot conservatory took two years to build. Nussbaumer, who had long wanted a first-class conservatory, saw his dream come true. The conservatory opened November 17, 1915, to much fanfare.

The Marjorie McNeely Conservatory is one of the few remaining Victorian-style glass-domed gardens in this country. Its model was the Palm House in Kew Royal Botanic Gardens in London, and it is similar to numerous other conservatories built in big cities around the country during the early 1900s. Architecture expert Larry Millett notes it was built in “the golden age of Minnesota architecture, between about 1910 and 1920, where you had the rise of the Prairie School, along with these grand public buildings. Architecture of that period tends to be really monumental and well built, and the public has a great deal of affection for these buildings.”

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Flower shows have been featured at the conservatory since its beginning. When the conservatory opened in 1915 it hosted Saint Paul’s annual chrysanthemum exhibition, all in one place for the first time. The Holiday Flower Show and the Spring Flower Show began in 1925.

Two mid-century events were significant to the conservatory, according to “Making History.” First, a hailstorm in 1962 caused extensive damage to the glass panes and plants, though fortunately less damage to the park visitors who had gone inside seeking shelter from the storm. The golf-ball-sized hailstones caused the conservatory to close for the first time ever, and gardeners wore headgear to protect themselves from glass slivers that continued to fall for days. Second, in 1963 the century plant bloomed unexpectedly. From the 20-year-old plant emerged a spear-shaped flower bud that grew roughly nine inches a day. When it grew through the roof, the staff created an enclosure to protect the flower stalk, but that had to be removed when the plant grew even larger.

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The conservatory was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1974, a status which helped preserve it six years later, when it was in such a state of decay that without renovation it would have to be closed. Plus, fiberglass installed after the 1962 hailstorm had become opaque and kept sufficient light from reaching the plants, according to “Making History.” The Metropolitan Council approved a renovation plan in 1984, and the city hired Winsor/Faricy Architects to do the work. The firm had significant experience in restoring old buildings, but even so, this was a daunting undertaking that required extensive research and took 10-12 of the firm’s staff nine years working full time to complete.

The family of Marjorie McNeely donated $7 million in 2002. Marjorie raised five children with husband Donald McNeely, an entrepreneur who was a co-founder of Control Data and co-owner of the Minnesota Vikings, and who helped bring the Minnesota Twins to the state. Marjorie McNeely was a member of the Saint Paul Garden Club, served as its president and taught classes in flower arrangement for it. She also was active in reading for the blind. She was a lifelong fan of the conservatory, and her children fondly remember going there with her, especially during winter months. She died in 1998 at the age of 82. Her family’s donation in her name was the largest-ever private gift the city had ever received for a public structure, according to the book Jewel of Como; $3 million went immediately towards needed improvements, including construction of a new wing, and $4 million was allotted over 20 years in an endowment to assure the conservatory had operational funding.

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Support for the conservatory comes also from Como Friends, a merger of several nonprofit fundraising groups that incorporated under one banner in 1999. Over the last 20 years, Como Friends has invested more than $41 million in improvements, best practices and free admission at the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory and Como Zoo.

The Marjorie McNeely Conservatory is open 365 days a year, and comprises the Ordway Garden with its Bonsai gallery; the Enchanted and Excedra Garden; the Fern Room; the outdoor Japanese Garden, which celebrates Saint Paul’s relationship with its sister city, Nagasaki, Japan; the North Garden, which features plants useful to humans in various ways; the central Palm Dome, 64 feet high and 100 feet in diameter, which displays orchids and bromeliads in addition to 150 species of palm; and the Sunken Garden, where five seasonal flower shows are offered, virtually year-round. In the Visitor Center, Tropical Encounters features animals and plants from Central and South America. The conservatory annually manages over 40,000 plants from 3,800 species.

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Admission to Como Park Zoo and Conservatory is free but voluntary donations are encouraged.

June 2015, revised December 2016 and July 2019

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