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The Assiniboine Park Conservatory – From Palm Trees to Diversity

Blog by Cheryl Mann, on behalf of Heritage Winnipeg.

Tucked behind towering trees in a lush natural setting sits the unassuming building that is the Assiniboine Park Conservatory. Located at 15 Conservatory Drive, the quiet demure of the building conceals over one hundred years of history and a plan to make a quantum leap into the present. Born of the Victorian Era and the City Beautiful movement, the Conservatory was a part of the birth of the City of Winnipeg public parks system. Over the years the Conservatory has gracefully withstood the test of time, providing a year round tropical retreat in the midst of the Canadian prairies. Reaching the end of its functional lifespan, the Conservatory is set to be reborn as a modern center for flora education and awareness, where the cultural heritage of Canada will be proudly displayed for all visitors to see.

During the Victorian Era (1837 to 1901), there was an increased interest in public gardens, as these gardens were seen as a means of improving the lower class and dispersing social unrest. In combination with advances in industry, palm houses became a popular installation in gardens. Palm houses allowed for a controlled environment where plants that could otherwise only be grown in the tropics could survive year round. The palm house at the Belfast Botanical Gardens is one of the earliest examples of such curved glass and cast iron buildings, with construction of the Sir Charles Lanyon designed building beginning in 1839.

Belfast Botanical Gardens Palm House as it stands today.
In Winnipeg, efforts to create public green spaces lagged behind European counterparts. The private sector recognized the worth of green space as it increased the value of surrounding real estate. But the prosperous growth of Winnipeg in the 1870s and 1880s made land value rise sharply making the potential profit from selling off green spaces all too tempting. Hence, many of the earliest parks in Winnipeg were lost. By the 1890s, the idea of a public park system for Winnipeg was being discussed. Influenced by the City Beautiful movement, parks were viewed as a solution for many of the social ills that plagued the ever growing crowded, unsanitary and crime-ridden cities of North America. As a result, the Winnipeg Public Parks Board was established in January of 1893.

Although the original mandate of the Winnipeg Public Parks Boards was to build parks in the congested heart of the city, Winnipeggers had many different views of what its role should be. Citizen groups and private business were successful in pressuring the board to fulfill their own agendas, resulting in a variety of green spaces throughout the city. The Park Board itself was heavily influenced by the work of Frederick Law Olmsted, a prominent landscape architect around which the City Beautiful movement revolved. It is conceivable that this influence was central in the creation of Winnipeg’s Assiniboine Park.

In 1904 the Park Board purchased 114.6 hectares of land on the south side of the Assiniboine River, far beyond the bounds of the city for the creation of Assiniboine Park. Canada’s first registered landscape architect, Frederick G. Todd, was commissioned to design the park. Todd was a former assistant of Olmsted, and was similarly interested in English garden design and the City Beautiful movement. To execute the design for the new park, the woodlands were levelled, replaced with large meadows, sprawling lawns, winding roads and paths and thousands of new plantings, all intended to mimic the work of nature. Overseeing the construction of the park was the Park’s Board superintendent George Champion, who previously worked at the Royal Gardens at Kew in England, home to an iconic palm house built earlier in 1844.

The Palm House in the Royal Gardens at Kew was the largest ever built when it opened in 1844.
Source: Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew
Assiniboine Park official opened in 1909, although the area had already been in use as a recreational space and building at the site has continued up to the present day. Five years after officially opening, in 1914, the construction of Palm House inside Assiniboine Park was completed. Located midway on the east side of Conservatory Drive, the large Norfolk Island pine that were planted in the Palm House in 1914 still grow inside today.

This 1967 map of Assiniboine Park shows the location of the Conservatory which has remained unchanged throughout its 103 year history.
Source: The History and Development of Assiniboine Park and Zoo in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada and Wyman Laliberte
Similar to its European predecessors, the Assiniboine Park Palm House was 6000 square feet capped with a curved glass roof. It was designed by the firm Lord & Burnham, who practiced out of New York State. Costing approximately $40,000, the Palm House had been built in the United States and shipped to Winnipeg in sections where it was then assembled. The interior of the Palm House was a stark departure from the glossy, modern exterior. In keeping with the rest of the park, the interior was intended to replicate nature. Lava rocks were used to build hills to display plants growing at a variety of levels. A winding path led visitors through the collection of non-indigenous plants, conjuring images of a tropical paradise. Due to the park’s rural location when it was built, there was no city water servicing the site. In order to water the many plants in the Palm House year round, a large underground cistern was built. Long since retired from use, the cistern still remains buried at the park today.

The Palm House in Assiniboine Park circa 1924.
Source: Virtual Heritage Winnipeg and the University of Manitoba Archives Souvenirs of Winnipeg's Jubilee 1874-1924 RBR FC 3395.3.S68 Collection, item 181
An undated postcard showing the Palm House in Assiniboine Park.
Source: PastForward and the Rob McInnes Postcard Collection
In 1964 a coffee shop was added to the Palm House, before undergoing extensive changes starting in 1969. A new, bigger Palm House was to be constructed with an additional glass roofed area to be used for rotating flora displays, and increasing the square footage by 8000. To maintain the more than 8000 plants growing in the original Palm House, the new one was built overtop, reaching ten feet higher than it predecessor. Once the new Palm House was finished, the old was removed, allowing all the original lava rock hill and plants to remain unfazed. The glass roof of the new Palm House now reached 42 feet into the sky and provided better light conditions for the plants growing beneath it.

The Assiniboine Park Conservatory as it stands today.
Source: Panoramio and ben policar
The interior of the additional glass roofed area in the Assiniboine Park Conservatory used for rotating flora displays, seen here in summer 2017.
Source: Assiniboine Park Conservancy
Opening in 1970, the newly expanded building, the Conservatory, was designed by Winnipeg firm Pratt Lindgren Snider Tomcej and Associates. Costing $650,00 to build, it was a stylistic departure from its Victorian predecessor. Variegated brown bricks were used to evoke a natural aesthetic on the unadorned façade, which is only broken up by narrow windows. The roofline of the Palm house is decorated with a simple modern take on a cornice. The variegated brown brick continues on the interior walls with the only variation being the pierce-brick lattice pattern used inside the Palm House, designed to be in harmony with the flora overlying over it. The small amount of ceiling space within the Conservatory that is not glass is exposed concrete in a waffle pattern, in line with the modern aesthetic of the building.

The modern cornice decoration along the roofline of the second Palm House.
Source: Winnipeg Architecture Foundation
The pierce-brick lattice pattern used for the interior walls of the second Palm House.
Source: Winnipeg Architecture Foundation 
The exposed concert waffle pattern ceiling inside the Assiniboine Park Conservatory.
Source: Winnipeg Architecture Foundation
In 2003, a building assessment study of the Conservatory completed by the City of Winnipeg concluded that it needed to be replaced, in particular the greenhouses which were deemed unsafe and closed in 2015. Instead of simply replacing the existing structure, it was decided to move the Conservatory to the southeast corner of the park, at the head of the Formal Garden and transform it into Canada’s Diversity Gardens. This will be the final part of a ten year redevelopment plan for Assiniboine Park which started in 2009. As a result of moving the Conservatory, up to 40 of the large trees growing inside, some over 100 years old, will be cut down. Additionally, much of the plant collection will be changed to better meet the goals of the new facility. The greenhouse and Palm House will be closed and there are no current plans for the portion of the building that will remain. The new Diversity Gardens is expected to take 18 months to plan and then two years to build, hopefully opening in 2019 and costing $30 to $50 million.

The site plan for the new Canada's Diversity Gardens in Assiniboine Park.
Source: Assiniboine Park Conservancy
Canada’s Diversity Gardens will be a 56,000 square foot LEED Gold certified facility with exterior gardens. It will be composed of four areas, The Leaf, The Indigenous Peoples’ Garden, The Cultural Mosaic Gardens and The Grove. The focus will be on the timeless connection between people and flora while exploring the many cultures that have come together to make the Canada we know today. Architect firms Architecture49 and KPMB Architects have been commissioned to carry out the project, along with landscape architect firm HTFC Planning and Design. Lord Cultural Resources was also hired as the interpretation and visitor experience consultants. Together, the intentions are to create a modern conservatory seamlessly integrated into the exterior landscaping that will draw people in, foster a love of botany, and a greater understanding of the environmental issues that impact and connect us all.

A rendering of what The Leaf and surrounding gardens of the new Assiniboine Park Conservatory will look like.
Source: Assiniboine Park Conservancy
A rendering of the Tropical Biome in the The Leaf portion of the forthcoming Assiniboine Park Conservatory.
Source: Assiniboine Park Conservancy 



Assiniboine Park Conservancy

Assiniboine Park: Enriching One of Winnipeg’s Signature Destinations

Belfast City Council

Britain Express

CBC News

City of Winnipeg Historical Report – Assiniboine Park Pavilion – long

Encyclopedia Britannica

Manitoba History: “The Most Lovely and Picturesque City in All of Canada:” The Origins of Winnipeg’s Public Park System



Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew

Toronto Metro

Virtual Heritage Winnipeg

Winnipeg Architecture Foundation

Winnipeg Free Press

Winnipeg Real Estate News
“Assiniboine Park: A Popular Retreat” by Amy Gailis, October 16, 1992, p. 4-5

Winnipeg Sun

Wyman Laliberte