One of my favorite places in Washington, D.C., especially at Christmas, is the United States Botanic Garden, one of the oldest botanic gardens in North America. The core of the expansive glass Conservatory building was constructed in 1933 when the garden moved to its present site southwest of the Capitol. The idea for a national garden and national plant collection supposedly goes back to the nation’s early presidents, including Washington, Jefferson and Madison who all dreamed of a national garden.
But it wasn’t until 1820 that Congress established a garden under the auspices of the Columbian Institute for the Promotion of Arts and Sciences. That first garden was located between 1st and 3rd Streets and Pennsylvania and Maryland Avenues. (where the Reflecting Pool is today). This garden disappeared around 1837 when the Institute dissolved.
In 1850 a small octagonal greenhouse was constructed to house plant specimens collected on the Wilkes Expedition (to the Pacific Ocean). The garden was designed to propagate potentially useful foreign plants. A national garden of some form or another has been open to the public continually since then.
1858 photograph showing the first Conservatory building.
1874 engraving showing finished dome.
In the early 1930s the conservatory was demolished to clear the main axis of the National Mall in accordance with the 1902 McMillan Plan, and the present Beaux-Arts building was erected. It featured a 93-foot high glass house considered innovative for its use of aluminum. The building was closed for a complete renovation from 1997-2001.
Today, the U.S. Botanic Garden includes the Conservatory building, the National Garden which opened in 2006 and sits adjacent to the Conservatory, and Bartholdi Park across Independence Ave.
The Conservatory’s seasonal flower displays provide a breath of spring all year round and Christmas is especially festive with the whimsical Garden Railway and Enchanted Forest, beautiful Christmas tree, and elaborate large models of Washington’s grand public buildings made from all natural materials. The impressive U.S. Capitol building model took more than 600 hours to construct and, like all of the models, is covered in dried plant materials.
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