The Conservatory - Design and Construction

The Conservatory

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Design and Construction

Andrew Jackson Downing wrote in his 1847 article on Montgomery  Place published in The Horticulturist that “Mr. Catherwood” had designed the conservatory.

This was an exercise in name-dropping. By that time, Catherwood was extremely well known as an explorer of exotic places. The drawing seen here is one of only two surviving documents associated with the design phase of the project. It differs from the structure as built.

Born in England, Catherwood spent nearly a decade in Greece and the Middle East as a young adult. In 1836 he settled in New York where he painted and exhibited panoramic paintings of Jerusalem and Thebes, lectured on Egypt, and worked as an architect. Within a few months of creating the Montgomery Place conservatory plan, he set off for the American tropics with the “father of American archeology,” John L. Stevens. Catherwood provided the lavish illustrations for two books authored by Stevens, Incidents of Travel in Central America (1841) and Incidents of Travel in Yucatan (1843). These popular travel books, which documented the discovery of at least 40 ancient Mayan cities, made both men famous.

It is no accident that the “Age of Steam” which facilitated Catherwood’s travel south coincided with the “Age of Exotics” which brought tropical specimens to New York. Improved transport via steamboat and railroad made it possible for residents of Hudson River estates to acquire plants from foreign climes including Central and South America, and ornamental conservatories generated the warmth that allowed these exotics to survive in a temperate region.

In the late 1830s, Nathaniel Ward developed a glass box for the transport of tropical plants to colder climates. The so-called “Wardian case” evolved into a mini-hothouse on legs for the care of tender plants.  During the mid-19th century, Americans trusted in the value of a natural experience for all, city and suburban dwellers included, and the separation between outdoors and indoors grew less distinct. Bringing nature indoors through the artistic arrangement of plants and flowers contributed to a nurturing and refreshing home environment.

Preliminary design for Montgomery Place conservatory, by Frederick Catherwood. Pencil and watercolor on paper, August 1839. Bard College, Montgomery Place Collection.

A Parlor Fernery, from Window Gardening, edited by Henry T. Williams (1877).

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