At the foot of an oak-studded hillside facing Doe Library on the UC Berkeley campus, a team of UC students is hard at work this month unearthing the remains of what was once one of the most prominent and distinctive buildings in the Berkeley landscape.
In the 1890s, the university built a large glass conservatory on the site, just northeast of today’s Moffitt Library. In 1924 the conservatory was torn down but considerable remnants survived, buried under a parking lot.
On Thursday evening there will be an opportunity for the public to visit the excavation site. You can see the remains of the university conservatory first-hand, with the student researchers as guides, and attend a lecture describing the history of the building and what the buried remains reveal about campus and Berkeley life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Similar—although not identical—in style and appearance to the famous and recently restored Conservatory of Flowers in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, Berkeley’s stately glass greenhouse, with two wings and a towering central “palm house” dome, overlooked an outdoor botanical garden where rare and unusual plants were studied by campus scholars and on display for the general public.
Although Berkeley’s conservatory was demolished not long into the 20th century, much of its extensive brick foundation and other elements survived, buried and largely forgotten, for nearly eight decades.
The site is currently punctuated with precise, one-meter square, units or excavation pits, and the archaeological dig is yielding up history in the form of brick foundations, metal steam-heating pipes, terra cotta drainlines, broken slate pavers, fragments of ironwork and wood, and other debris.
The project is being undertaken by graduate and undergraduate students in a summer sessions archaeology field school, led by UC Professor of Anthropology Laurie Wilkie.
The students are learning proper archaeology field techniques, documenting conservatory construction and materials, interpreting the operation and use of the building, and unearthing stray objects from fragments of terra cotta plant pots to broken bottles, dishware, and food remains dropped on the site generations ago. Even the make-up of the special soils that university scientists used inside the conservatory will be studied.
The ornate University Conservatory was emblematic of the Victorian-era passion for collecting, studying, and displaying rare and unusual plants. It was built at a time when significant botanical regions of the world, especially in the tropics, were still just being “discovered” and explored by western scientists. Many exotic plant species were reaching Europe and North America for the first time and were enthusiastically grown and admired in places like the Berkeley and the Golden Gate Park conservatories.
California itself was a horticultural frontier. A first generation of American era farmers and gardeners was exploring what would grow well in the West Coast’s unfamiliar landscapes and climates.
Large conservatories arose throughout the Bay Area on the estates of the wealthy and the well-to-do, who used the spacious greenhouses to nurture their particular collecting obsessions—from orchids to ferns to exotic birds—or simply to provide spectacular ornamental backdrops for equally ornate Victorian-style homes.
Many of the finest Bay Area private conservatories once stood in the East Bay, particularly in Oakland. The university conservatory provided a stately public counterpart to these private plant mansions.
However, it had a relatively brief existence. Erected around 1891, it seems to have fallen into decay and partial disuse in the 20th century and, despite at least one partial renovation, was demolished in 1924 after Haviland Hall was completed nearby.
In that same era, the University Botanical Garden moved to its current site in Strawberry Canyon where it continues to thrive today as an internationally known center of plant conservation, display, and education.
For eight decades, the conservatory foundations remained buried beneath a road and parking lot. That changed when the university was contemplating construction of the C.V. Starr East Asian Library, the first element of the planned Chang-Lin Tien Center for East Asian Studies.
Since the footprint of the new library building would overlap the old conservatory site, a summer session 2003 field school directed by Wilkie was funded to excavated the edges of the parking lot and explore nearby areas. That project also included extensive archival research about the history of the conservatory.
This summer’s second field school was undertaken to follow up and complete the earlier excavation work. When the field school finishes, the site will be turned over for construction of the new library.
UC Berkeley staff member Steven Finacom worked on the planning of the conservatory excavation project and is a board member of the Berkeley Historical Society.
On Thursday, June 16th, 7-8 p.m., students will display the site and the uncovered conservatory remains to the public. At 8 p.m. Professor Laurie Wilkie will talk about the history of the conservatory and what the excavations have uncovered. Tickets, $15. Call 848-0181 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the Berkeley History Center, 1931 Center Street, 1-4 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays to reserve a space.?