Table of Contents
Constructed: 1867 and 1954
Partially demolished: 2013
Architects: T.A. Lord, Syracuse, N.Y. Present structure: Lord and Burnham, Syracuse, N.Y.
The original Durfee Conservatory was one of the most striking structures in the landscape of the early college campus. An elegant group of Victorian glass buildings with curvilinear roofs trimmed with wrought-iron filigree, the conservatory was built on a prominence on the east side of campus in 1867, and was completed even before the first students arrived. In 1883, the original wood frame structure was seriously damaged by fire from the wood and coal furnaces that formed its heating system, but Durfee was rebuilt over a period of eight years.
By 1954, however, the conservatory had aged beyond repair and the original firm, Lord & Burnham, was called in to construct the greenhouse that stands today. This new structure was said to be the first aluminum alloy frame conservatory ever to be built and its automatic temperature controls and vents were considered state of the art at the time. Its five sections, or “ranges,” are laid out in a linear fashion, with the only remaining hints of the original building being a single curved glass pane along the eaves and the double door entrances in the central range. The Conservatory is surrounded by an award-winning garden designed by Professor Dean Cardasis of the Department of Landscape Architecture.
1862 — Land Grant Act signed by President Abraham Lincoln
1864 — Original 383 acres in Amherst, Massachusetts, purchased for site of Massachusetts Agricultural College
1864 — Purchase of land for college site, including 73 acres that formed the Durfee holdings
1867 — Durfee Plant House constructed
1875 — Durfee experiment to measure surface pressure of a chili squash received world-wide attention
1878 — First sale catalog of plants issued by Durfee
1883 — Original Durfee buildings seriously damaged by fire
1890 — Durfee received donated Japanese maples from Mount Fuji
1892 — Renovations to conservatory complete
1893 — One-ton century plant (Agave Americana varigata) blossomed
1934 — Part of Harvard plant collection donated to Durfee
1938 — Oak tree downed in hurricane; one entire house destroyed, followed by a steady decline and general state of disrepair
1954 — New conservatory building constructed
1978 — All-American Display Garden designation assigned
1980 — Horticultural therapy program instituted
1992 — History of Durfee Conservatory published for 125th anniversary
1993 — Phase I of Durfee Gardens Project constructed
2006 — Durfee Conservatory transferred to UMass Extension
2007 — Renovations to upgrade conservatory begun
2013 — UMass celebrates 150th year anniversary
2014 — UMass Cooperative Extension celebrates 100th year anniversary
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. Leonard M. Hills and Henry F. Hills of Amherst also donated $10,000 to the botanic gardens in 1867. 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. From the Jan. 1868 annual report: “The museum and plant-houses have been completed, and about 400 species and varieties of rare and interesting plants are now growing under the glass. Among the most valuable of these may be mentioned the choice collection of camellias, presented by Hon. Marshall P. Wilder ; a large century plant with variegated foliage, planted in the open ground of the dry stove, and surrounded by a fine collection of succulent plants, consisting of many large cactuses, euphorbias, aloes, crassulas, and mesembryanthemums, presented by W. S. Clark ; large specimens of latania, pandanus, banana, ficus, hibiscus, crinum, ananassa, passiflora, dracaena, and many other genera ; numerous species of maranta, begonia, alocasia, caladium and other plants with beautiful leaves ; several of the choicest orchids, and numerous ferns and lycopods. This garden will form one of the most attractive as well as instructive features of the College, and has already awakened much interest among the horticulturist of the Commonwealth. If those who have interesting plants would be kind enough to supply the garden, either by way of donation or exchange, it will be of great service to the institution in its efforts to educate in the most thorough manner its students in the delightful occupation of Eden, and to increase among the people the love of the beautiful, and the cultivation of flowers and fruits.” A more detailed list of specimens from 1868.
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.
1883 Winter Fire
One winter night in 1883, a terrible fire shattered the conservatory's tranquility. Durfee's wooden frame and curved arches were always prey to moisture and decay and ultimately to the ravage of its own heating system. Winter was an especially dangerous and arduous time. The laborious job of warming the structure required a constant tending of a great furnace fire with wood and coal. A small room housing a student or two to handle this round the clock duty was maintained at the back of Durfee. In the darkened and frozen skies of one fateful winter night, a frantic alarm rang out, “Durfee is on fire!” An account of the ensuing events was made by Professor Samuel T. Maynard in an annual report to then President J.C. Greenough. It reads:
“About 8 o'clock in the evening of January 23, 1883, fire was discovered in the work room, but it had gained such headway that nothing could save the building. The students were soon on the grounds, and by the use of light snow, which was abundant, the two wings-the lily and store rooms-and the propagating pits were saved, although the plants within them very much injured. At this time the thermometer indicated eight degrees below zero, and as soon as the flames were under control, stoves were procured, by which means, and covering the sides of the houses with mats-the temperature within was kept above freezing until boiler and pipes would be repaired, which was not until the afternoon of the 25th.”
The frantic efforts of students were instrumental in saving many of the specimen plants housed in the badly damaged structure. Throughout the summer and fall of the next year, repairs were made and the bulk of the original collection remained intact. Over the course of the next eight years, renovations and new structures were added. By 1892 the Durfee Plant Houses were almost completely rebuilt, with two entirely new propagating houses. These changes gave the conservatory a new ornamental look.
The structure still contained the remains of one of the original sills in the first octagon, built in 1867. Upright posts replaced the old curved roof and the glass surface area was increased by over 2,000 square feet. Larger glass panels were used, and sash bars made of cypress installed. The whole building was heated by two new Furman hot water heaters.
New storage, tool, and work rooms allowed for areas to be kept to their legitimate purposes. Improved efficiency and less clutter near the boiler were no doubt a consideration in this new scheme of operations. The catastrophic fire of 1883 would not be soon forgotten-or repeated.
1893 Bloom of the Century Plant
One of the most fascinating structural additions to the new Durfee was the celebrated glass tower. Constructed to accommodate the flower stalk of a venerable specimen of Agave americana, the structure rose from the center of Durfee like a lighthouse keeping watch over a sea of glass and plants. The plant it admirably displayed had an interesting lineage and its Victorian caretakers took great pains to do it justice. Originally propagated in 1825 at the old Ames homestead in Chicopee, Mass., it was given to Mrs. Edward Hitchcock about 1838 by Mrs. James J. Ames. Eventually it made its way as a gift to the college into the Durfee palm house in 1867. Here it grew for the next 26 years until just before its 68th birthday.
Then to the delight of many, it began to show signs of flowering, its reputation of a 100-year lapse between blossoms not withstanding. The plant was moved and a tower rose above the greenhouse in anticipation. The interest this event aroused was considerable. The observation tower was provided with a staircase going up and around the flower stalk and had several viewing platforms. It may have been the only greenhouse ever constructed for a single flower stalk. The curious came in droves.
The plant was weighed — nearly 2,000 pounds — had its more than 3,000 buds counted, and was viewed by countless visitors. Perhaps the thought of experiencing the 'very intoxicating but offensive smelling juice' rendered from the cutting out of the central bud was too exciting for the tourists of the day to miss. The century plant had its glorious day and its own glass high tower courtesy of an appreciative college. In 1893 M. A. C. would also win a Grand Prize at the St. Louis World's Fair for its Agricultural Exhibit.
At this point the rebuild of the greenhouses destroyed in the 1883 fire were complete. The Jan. 1895 annual report describes the new construction: “They consist of a large octagon, forty by forty feet, with sides twelve feet high and a central portion over twenty feet high, for the growth of large specimens, like palms, tree ferns, the bamboo, banana, guava, olive, etc.; a lower octagon, forty by forty feet, for general greenhouse plants ; a moist stove, twenty-five by twenty-five feet ; a dry stove, twenty-five by twenty-five feet, a rose room, twenty-five by twenty feet ; a room for aquatic plants, twenty by twenty-five feet ; a room for ferns, mosses and orchids, eighteen by thirty feet ; a large propagating house, fifty by twenty-four feet, fitted up with benches sufficient in number to accommodate fifty students at work at one time ; a vegetable house, forty-two by thirty-two feet; two propagating pits, eighteen by seventy-five feet, each divided into two sections for high and low temperatures, and piped for testing overhead and under-bench heating ; a cold grapery, eighteen by twenty-five feet. To these glass structures are attached three workrooms, equipped with all kinds of tools for greenhouse work. In building these houses as many as possible of the principles of construction, heating and ventilating, etc., have been incorporated for the purposes of instruction.”
1954 New Building
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.
Naming of the building
The structure was named after Dr. Nathan Durfee, trustee of Massachusetts Agricultural College, and donor to the original conservatory.
- Tristan, John. A History of the Durfee Conservatory 1867-1992, (Amherst, 1992)
- Three Architectural Tours: Selected Buildings on the Campus of the University of Massachusetts Amherst (Amherst, 2000)
- For additional information, consult the University Archives (RG 36/101).