The Durfee Conservatory
Durfee Conservatory

History: 1954 - The Renovation of the Durfee

By early 1954, the Durfee Conservatory structure was beyond disrepair. Glass panes fell randomly and unexpectedly, wooden members were cracked and swayed, plants were overgrown and in desperate need of attention. The demolition of this so-called university relic—the college had become the University of Massachusetts in 1947—was unceremoniously announced by Collegian reporters: "The old Durfee range, with its broken glass, rotting frame and exotic flora struggling for survival, is no more." The chapel bells tolled a mid-day knell.

The appropriation of funds to build a new, improved structure at the same location had wisely been made well in advance of the removal of the old plant houses. The Floriculture Department, under the direction of Professor Clark L. Thayer '13, selected a new structure of modern design that would provide ideal growing conditions and allow for continuity of the historical sections of the old Durfee. The previous builder of campus greenhouses, Lord and Burnham, was again chosen to construct the new conservatory. It was billed as "one of the first all metal alloy frame conservatory ever built."

Incorporating all the most recent innovations in greenhouse technology, the blue-ribbon structure had automatic temperature controls and vents. The greenhouses were erected only a few feet from the site of the old houses at a cost of $69,684. The aluminum alloy frame rose securely from a poured concrete foundation. Bolted and braced, solid and true, this was a structure built to last. A single curved glass pane along the eaves and double door entrances in the central house was the only architectural touch from the past. The past curved roof lines and arches were replaced by the straight slope of an even span roof.

Utilitarian features stressed function and strength. Metal pipes and transite were used exclusively for bench construction. Walkways were poured concrete and walls separating the houses were made of glass panes. Light and visibility were maximized. The only wood used was redwood in the doors linking the houses throughout the structure. The five sections—really, separate houses—of the conservatory were laid out in a straight line. Each was provided with its own automatic ventilation and steam heat controls. These sections totaled 4,820 square feet of floor area and 7,000 square feet of glass, and were intended to function botanically in the same manner as the original Durfee layout.

The west end section was a cool temperate house to display camellias, gardenias, and flowering shrubs. The west-center section housed war tropicals: orchids, anthuriums, and flowering vines. The large central section was the equivalent of the great octagon house of an earlier day. Its 30-foot ceiling could accommodate large palms and tropical trees. A 40-foot-long shallow pool with showering fountain was edged with plants and a perimeter walkway. This impressive jungle room was the heart of the new Durfee.

Adjoining this area towards the east wing were two more houses: one for small tropical potted plants such as begonias and geraniums, the other for cacti and succulents. A small propagating bench, potting area, and storage closet were also contained within the last cacti section. Overall, it was a clean, efficient structure designed for low maintenance.

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.