The Victorian-era glass palace immediately catches the eye when driving through midtown Baltimore, and its floral flourishes and offerings nourish the soul and fill one with a sense of wonder and awe. Some would even dare say it’s one of the city’s best-kept secrets, although a familiar site to most Baltimoreans.
Nestled along a narrow stretch of Swann Drive on the western edge of expansive Druid Hill Park — near the Maryland Zoo and across the street from Shaarei Tfiloh Synagogue and the stately homes of Auchentoroly Terrace — the Howard Peters Rawlings Conservatory and Botanic Gardens is a lush world unto itself.
First, there’s the striking historic facility that houses the conservatory, greenhouse and botanical gardens. Designed by George A. Frederick, architect of Baltimore’s City Hall, the framed steel-and-glass structure opened to the public on Aug. 26, 1888, nearly three decades after the opening of the park itself. It was an era when botanical gardens were all the rage in late 19th-century America.
The Rawlings Conservatory is arguably one of Charm City’s most iconic buildings, right up there with City Hall, the Washington Monument, the B&O Railroad Museum, the Bromo Seltzer Tower and the Patterson Park Pagoda. The conservatory is on the National Register of Historic Places and the Maryland Inventory of Historic Properties. It’s the nation’s second oldest surviving glass botanical conservatory.
Originally known as the Druid Hill Conservatory and modeled after London’s famed Kew Gardens, the Rawlings Conservatory today includes three greenhouses, two display pavilions and outdoor gardens.
In the early 2000s, the conservatory was renamed in memory of the late state legislator and underwent a major renovation and expansion, which added two new side-wing pavilions. The structure now includes the 1888 Palm House, the Mediterranean House, the Tropical House, the Orchid Room and the Desert House. Meanwhile, the surrounding 1.5 acreage features 35 flowerbeds, with more than 30,000 floral species, 100,000 registered hybrids, and a veritable kaleidoscope of rich and vivid colors from early spring to late fall.
The conservatory offers a visual feast of the world’s flora — from China to Africa, the South American rainforests to the world’s deserts — with which casual visitors and horticultural enthusiasts alike have an opportunity to examine and enjoy plants, exotic or otherwise, in their natural environments.
A stone plaza at the conservatory’s entrance features a mosaic tile of Druid Hill Park created by local artist Joyce J. Scott. Meanwhile, don’t miss the granite-and-bronze sundial in the garden — created by Guilford resident Peter Hamilton and the Waltersville Granite Co. of Baltimore County — which records the times for Baltimore, Rio de Janeiro, London, Pitcairn Island, Sitka, Honolulu, Calcutta, Cape Town and Jerusalem.
“The mission of the Rawlings Conservatory & Botanic Gardens is to foster an appreciation and understanding of plants from around the world and the vital roles they play in our lives,” states the website (rawlingsconservatory.org) for the conservatory, which hosts major flower displays throughout the year, including the spring Flower Show and the fall chrysanthemum and holiday poinsettia displays.
More than 130 years after its dedication before approximately 300 Baltimoreans with a zeal for flora and horticulture, the conservatory remains one of Charm City’s natural wonders.
“It’s magical because we work so hard to make this place beautiful, to make it sort of like a transporting experience,” says Ann Green, the conservatory’s executive director. “To see the look on people’s faces when we’ve succeeded, it’s thrilling.”