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Rescuing A Greenhouse Gone to Seed

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By Adrian Higgins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 22, 2000; Page H01

George Carter's 1810 greenhouse is functional and plain. So why did the plantation owner place it so prominently next to his mansion at Oatlands, south of Leesburg?

To make sure it would be seen by arriving guests. Working greenhouses might be commonplace today, but in the young republic they were rare, expensive and symbolic of uncommon luxury, even for a wealthy wheat farmer like Carter.

Almost lost to decay, the historic structure at Oatlands is in the midst of a restoration that will also showcase its 1903 renovation. Once finished--next year, if funding levels continue--the greenhouse promises to provide a fascinating look at how greenhouses evolved, socially and technologically, as America matured as a nation.

Aesthetically, the stylish neoclassical orangeries at Dumbarton Oaks or at Mount Vernon might be finer. But those were built as conservatories, to house potted tropical plants during the winter.

Carter's greenhouse was a working hothouse, where plants were started and raised year round, providing rare and choice fruit, vegetables and cut flowers for the table. And because glass was expensive and heavily taxed, Carter's model, with its long, sloping glazed roof, was an extravagance indeed for all its utilitarian appearance.

Experts have determined the structure to be the second-oldest surviving propagating greenhouse in America. The oldest, in Waltham, Mass, is still used as a commercial greenhouse.

Nineteenth-century accounts speak of the Oatlands greenhouse generating two kinds of oranges, plus grapes, lady apples and grapefruit. Perhaps its most cherished fruit, however, was the banana. As late as the 1880s, at a church fund-raising event, visitors paid to see the children of the estate eat bananas raised in the glasshouse. This was a special event, wrote former house manager Lois Krumwiede, "because most of the local people had never seen bananas."

The mansion and grounds, which include terraced formal gardens and magnificent old trees, have been owned since the 1960s by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Carter is believed to have copied the design for the greenhouse from a pattern in a magazine of the period, the American Gardener. Viewed from the side, the greenhouse has a large central wall. On one side, a lean-to greenhouse slopes gently, like a gigantic cold frame--a box-like glass-covered structure for protecting young plants. On the other side, a two-story masonry building housed the heating apparatus, storage space and, for a period, apartments for estate workers.

Experts are studying whether Carter copied a key element of the greenhouse in the magazine: a large bark pit in which the decomposing mulch became another source of winter heat as well as a growing medium for plants.

But the restoration contractor, Millstone Restoration Inc. of Philomont, Va., has unearthed an ingenious horizontal brick flue, a heated shelf on which pots were placed. The greenhouse was heated by an open fire in the back building, a system that probably required round-the-clock monitoring during the winter to prevent a disastrous drop in temperature.

At the turn of the 20th century, Oatlands' subsequent owners, the Eustises, updated the hothouse using a system furnished by Lord & Burnham, the major supplier of greenhouses to American institutions and estates during the gilded era of the early part of the century.

The new system used the existing brick wing walls but relied on a new knee wall at the bottom of the sloping glass roof. The greenhouse roof consisted of hundreds of sashes framed in thin cypress and supported by a network of iron rails and posts. Vertical windows set on top of the knee wall, as well as the uppermost sashes high in the roof could be opened to vent hot air. On sunny days, even in winter, the solar heat could get too hot for the plants.

At the same time, the old open fire was replaced with a boiler and hot-water pipes that provided heat that could be sustained and regulated far better than the original system.

The current restoration project will cost almost $300,000, said David Boyce, Oatlands director. More than half of the funds have been raised, through two galas, in grants from charitable trusts and the Virginia General Assembly, and from Loudoun County residents.

The restoration so far has concentrated on dismantling the hothouse components, rebuilding the knee wall, repairing failing masonry, and replacing posts, beams and rafters in the back building. Workers are using lumber milled from old trees that were blown down on the estate in a gale last year.

The ornate entrance, a lovely Victorian assemblage of wooden brackets, timber pediment and leaded glass, will be rebuilt, too, although the presence of two magnificent but now oversized Japanese threadleaf maples obscures the entrance. It would cost an estimated and unbudgeted sum of around $100,000 to have them moved, said spokeswoman Vicky Bendure.

The greenhouse will be used as a historic exhibit, displaying the original heating system and the later Lord & Burnham design, said H.M. Baker, Oatlands manager of restoration projects.

Boyce noted that to produce fresh, exotic fruit in that period "was quite extraordinary," although the accomplishment is lost to the modern mind. "It's kind of 'Well, why didn't he just go to 7-Eleven?' " said Boyce.

Come summer of 2001, if all goes according to plan, the question will be answered. "From a historical and architectural viewpoint, as well as agribusiness, it's a phenomenal building," he said.

© 2000 The Washington Post Company

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