The Durfee Conservatory
Durfee Conservatory

History: 1867 - Construction of the Durfee Plant House

Designed by T.A. Lord of Syracuse, the original structure was an elegant group of glass buildings with curvilinear roofs trimmed with wrought iron filigree. It was named after its benefactor and college trustee, Dr. Nathan Durfee, who gave $10,000 for the construction costs, which included the heating and water system. The five independent sections in the conservatory each had separate temperature and moisture levels controlled by a resident caretaker. The caretaker's job included not only watering the plants but also tending the wood-coal furnaces round the clock. The glass sections included: Dry Stove (cacti and succulent plants), Moist Stove (true tropical species), Palm House (larger species of tropical trees and shrubs), Camellia House (cool temperate zone trees and shrubs), and Victoria House (aquatic and air plants). Space was also provided for a potting and work room and two attached propagating pits each 50 by 12 feet.

The ingenious watering and heating system was devised specially for the greenhouses. A reservoir was constructed on the north hill behind Durfee. This provided an abundant source of soft water, which was heated and aerated in a holding tank over the potting room and boilers. From the tank the hot water was conducted in iron pipes to heat the conservatory. It flowed with sufficient force to feed a fountain in the Victorian House and a large exterior fountain, and to shower all the glasshouse plants at periodic intervals. This was a significant engineering feat and the area needing to be serviced was extensive. More than 10,000 square feet, Durfee was the first great glasshouse for hundreds of miles and predated Smith College's Lyman Plant House by nearly 30 years. Men and women came from near and far to see the giant water lily of the Amazon (Victoria regia) or gaze at the odd leaves and fruit of great Monstera deliciosa. This special world under glass quickly became a celebrated place of attention. How often the reclusive poet, Emily Dickinson (1830-86), visited this attraction within a mile of her home can only be conjectured. Her father, Judge Edward Dickinson, was a founding trustee of the college. It seems likely that he brought his daughter to view the pastoral setting of the fledgling school. Her love of gardens and flowers was a frequent them of her poetry. Perhaps it was in Durfee that she wrote:

"We introduce ourselves
to Planets and to flowers."

The Durfee holdings, encompassing 73 acres, were the true heart and soul of the original Aggie campus. Manicured walkways edged the open fields. Coldframes, flower plots, gardens, and fields were cultivated with great care and attention, creating an impressive landscape of beauty and utility.

This is an edited excerpt from John Tristan's book
A History of the Durfee Conservatory 1867-1992
Published by Sara Publishing © 1992
All rights reserved.