Seattle Now & Then: The Volunteer Park Conservatory, 1938

(click to enlarge photos)

THEN: In 1938, one of 10 trainee gardeners waters large hybrid Florist Cyclamen in the Cyclamen House (now the Seasonal Display House) at the Conservatory. Historian Brent McKee has scanned thousands of photos documenting and celebrating the history of the New Deal. Many more can be found on his blog at and at (National Archives, Courtesy Brent McKee)
NOW: Gardener Emily Allsop waters poinsettias in the Conservatory’s Seasonal Display House. The future looks bright, says Friends of the Conservatory President Claire Wilburn. “We hope to reopen in 2021 and will seek to restore connection with all of Seattle’s varied communities.” (Lou Daprile)
The Volunteer Park Conservatory on a rainy day this winter. (Jean Sherrard)

(To be published in the Seattle Times PacificNW Magazine on Feb. 14, 2021)

Grounded in work, hope continues to flower at Volunteer Park
By Jean Sherrard

In the hothouse of our civic life, voices and temperatures keep rising. Resonating for many today is President Ronald Reagan’s  famous sentiment: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help’ ”

However, the gardener watering orchids in our 1938 “Then” photo might have begged to differ.

That decade’s Great Depression, devastating the nation with a 25% unemployment rate, provided fertile ground for the landslide 1932 election victory of visionary new president, Franklin D. Roosevelt. His New Deal programs sparked a revolution, providing millions of federally subsidized jobs for desperate Americans through the Works Project Administration (WPA), the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and other agencies.

“For Roosevelt,” says New Deal historian Brent McKee, “work relief was preferrable to cash relief. He believed that given the opportunity, most people would choose to work.”

As a result, the Pacific Northwest blossomed with sizeable infrastructure projects, from trails, roads and highways to dozens of schools, libraries, post offices and other public buildings. By itself, an acknowledged granddaddy of New Deal projects, the Grand Coulee Dam in Eastern Washington, ensured many thousands of construction jobs between 1933 and 1942.

But smaller efforts also eased joblessness. Innovative projects offered work to historians, artists and musicians, acknowledging their vital cultural contributions. And in 1938, with WPA sponsorship and a nod to the beauty and solace nurtured by nature, 10 unemployed women were hired by the Volunteer Park Conservatory on Capitol Hill as assistants to head gardener Jacob Umlauff.

“Among their jobs is the task of helping care for [10,000] orchids,” The Seattle Post-Intelligencer noted. The women were “light of touch and long of patience … very handy around such delicate plants.”

After four seasons of intensive training, the program offered each worker “a certificate as a Gardener, with a specialty in orchid culture.” Such a vocation could not have taken root in more fertile grounds.

Modeled after the 1851 Great Exhibition’s Crystal Palace in London, the Conservatory was a jewel in the crown provided by the Olmsted brothers-designed Volunteer Park.

London’s Crystal Palace, 1852

The Seattle Times acclaimed the $50,000 glass-paned structure as “a thing of joy and beauty” and the finest greenhouse west of Chicago.

Still operated by Seattle Parks, the Conservatory has been closed since last April due to the pandemic. But workers keep up its vast orchid collection, donated in 1921 by philanthropist Anna Clise, also founder of Children’s Orthopedic Hospital. It remains one of the nation’s finest.

Thus, while our national debate rages on, inside the steamy glass of the tropical Conservatory, hope continues to flower.


We are blessed with a selection of extras this week. For our 360 video featuring the Conservatory, click right about here.

Next, more of historian Brent McKee’s generous contributions, scanned at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.  The following photos are all from the late 1930s and feature the WPA horticultural training program at the Conservatory.

Lou Daprile, Marketing Coordinator for Friends of the Conservatory, took the selection of lovely “now” photos below to accompany the column. Thanks, Lou!

The Cactus House of the Volunteer Park Conservatory.
A holiday display in the Seasonal House of the Volunteer Park Conservatory
Red anthurium blossoms in the Fern House of the Volunteer Park Conservatory.
Emily Allsop works in the Bromeliad House of the Volunteer Park Conservatory.
The Seattle P-I indulged in flowery, somewhat condescending prose.

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