Going Out

Need a tropical getaway? Soak up the sun inside a century-old conservatory

Oh, to be one of the lucky few with a giant sunroom in your home, an always-warm space designed to make the most of the sun’s rays. But the rest of us need not despair as temperatures plummet and the snow flies. This greenhouse makes the perfect cold-weather retreat for warmth-starved Ottawans — beautiful, calming and, most important of all, open to the public. The sunniest days are invariably the coldest, but you’d never know it in this sun-drenched atria.

Photos: Brendan Burden
Photos: Brendan Burden

Experimental Farm’s Conservatory

Dreaming of palm trees in paradise? Believe it or not, that tropical getaway is just around the corner — in a restored greenhouse in the heart of the Experimental Farm. Originally part of a larger greenhouse complex at Major’s Hill Park, the century-old conservatory was moved to its current location on Maple Drive in 1938, its graceful canopy and entrance an elegant gateway to the exotic flora within.

The beauty of the conservatory at the Experimental Farm is as much about the building as its contents, with a curvy metal-and-glass design that is both sophisticated and delicate. Photography: Brendan Burden
The beauty of the conservatory at the Experimental Farm is as much about the building as its contents, with a curvy metal-and-glass design that is both sophisticated and delicate. Photography: Brendan Burden

This showcase of all things tropical, designed by famed American greenhouse manufacturer Lord & Burnham, is a curvilinear delight — a compact 40-by-40-foot building that evokes a long-ago era when ladies in flowing dresses might fold up their parasols before strolling into the “garden lantern” to marvel at the colourful plants within.

Over the years, the flourishing flora took a toll on the greenhouse, pressing up against glass and metal weakened by years of Ottawa weather. In 2010, the conservatory closed for five years as Watson MacEwen Teramura Architects undertook an award-winning restoration that returned it to its former glory. David Carnegie, a facilities officer with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, remembers that greenhouse regulars would stop by periodically to watch the transformation, ask when it would be completed, and let the conservators know how much they missed the place.

Photography: Brendan Burden
Photography: Brendan Burden

When it finally did reopen, just after Mother’s Day in 2015, the four curved beds within the greenhouse’s perimeter were set back from the edges to keep the flora away from the glass walls. Carnegie explains that many plants were also placed in pots beneath the soil to ensure they didn’t grow too rapidly. Still, some happy trees are already threatening to bust out. A Norfolk pine planted beside a bubbling water feature has sprouted more than six feet in the past two years, Carnegie says. “It obviously really, really likes it here.”

Just a thin layer of glass separates the visitor from the snowy winterscape, and yet the conservatory is a temperate world apart. At night, the elegant canopy glows green as the light filters through the foliage. Photography: Brendan Burden
Just a thin layer of glass separates the visitor from the snowy winterscape, and yet the conservatory is a temperate world apart. At night, the elegant canopy glows green as the light filters through the foliage. Photography: Brendan Burden

It’s no surprise, as the place is tranquil, temperate, light-filled, and cozy. There’s just a thin sheet of glass between you and the sub-zero temperatures and snowy landscape outside, and yet, if you use your imagination, it’s possible to suspend reality. Can’t you almost hear the calls of the tropical birds and smell the warm, salty breeze? Take your lunch and a book — stay awhile.

Open year-round, Monday to Friday 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sunday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Free
Access Maple Drive via Carling Avenue at Irving Place