Glass under glass

TACOMA, Wash. — The residents of Tacoma no longer drive their carriages through Wright Park on a pleasant Sunday, stopping at the Seymour Conservatory to pick a fresh banana or two, like they once did.

Today, they come to smell the tropical fragrances. In the thick humid air they marvel at a hundred shades of red, yellow and pink and more than that of green.

On Sunday, Nov. 16, many came to see Dale Chihuly's glass under glass, his spheres, spikes and freeform whimsies shining beside flowers and plants lit by the sky through a thousand clear panes above.

The W.W. Seymour Conservatory at Wright Park turned 100 years old 14, and the Metropolitan Park Board will continue its centenary celebration through February.

For a $5 donation — more if you want, less if you must — visitors can see the conservatory's permanent collection of exotic flora growing beside a retrospective of Tacoma native Chihuly's "Venetians," "ikebana," "sealife putti," "fiori" and more.

Conservatory manager Mary Anderson and parks superintendent Marina Becker have set up a three-month public show.

"It's something to be proud of," said Anderson.

Only three public Victorian-styled conservatories survive on the West Coast, she said: in Tacoma, Seattle and San Francisco at Wright Park, Volunteer Park and Golden Gate Park.

"It's something from a different era," said Becker.

"It's an icon," she said. "It's something Tacoma can be very proud of. It's a cultural heritage." Over the years, Anderson said, couples have come to the conservatory to be married. People have come to share the conservatory with family and guests from out of town.

In 1988, people came to see the shy bloom of the century plant. They came to smell, and still remember, the plant that had the scent of rotting flesh.

Such is the mission, Becker said: "To connect people with the natural world, and make it accessible." And decades ago, Viola Chihuly would bring her young son Dale.

On Nov. 16 as the doors opened, Sally Messersmith of Tacoma was one of the first people to arrive. When she finished her walk through the exhibit, she nearly wept.

"It's unbelievable," she said. "I'm a Chihuly fan. You can't imagine that an artist can do such things. When I go home I'm going to sit in a chair and re-dream this." Becker noted that an early predecessor in the superintendent's job, Ebenezer R. Roberts, "really tried to connect the common people with horticulture, to let them have that restorative experience." Debbie Price of Tacoma brought her son, Trey, 15.

"I grew up coming here as a child," Price said. "I like the idea of bringing my kid here. The idea of combining glass art with the natural beauty — it's a contrast." "It's cool," said Trey.

Over the past year, the conservatory board has welcomed other artists to display their works. The Hilltop Artists young glassblowers all offered 150 pieces last spring. Through the summer, M-Space Studios offered "Sky Ponds," another collection. Becker said this show — with borders of autumn chrysanthemums soon to be replaced by holiday poinsettias, and with those poinsettias later to be replaced by the earliest azaleas, daffodils and tulips of spring — "is a wonderful opportunity to bring more people in. I think with the Chihuly exhibit, it will help us reach more people who can appreciate the environment, the plants." She said she hopes those who visit the exhibit "take away an appreciation of what we have in Tacoma this building that we hope will be here 100 years from now. It's a special place to many people." Outside, a squirrel was busily digging in a bed of pansies.

Inside, green glass "grass" grew. Orchids the color of creamy bronze stood near the "ice cream" tree. Papyrus waved in the draft of passers-by. The albino catfish, the koi and the goldfish did not seem to mind Chihuly's glass "floats" in their small pond.

Sapphire glass "frogs feet" rose up like a joke near the Brazilian zebra plant. The sweet scent of a subtropical rhododendron drifted above a stand of baby's tears clinging to a chunky baseboard assembled years ago using Asarco slag. Shocking pink hibiscus competed for attention with something carnivorous, while a staghorn fern, its leaf tips brown with spores, waved at the ginger and the palms.

Spanish moss dripped from a limb.

"To me," said Anderson, "it's magical."

Share This Story