a close up of a pink orchid with a yellow and red orchid in the background

Navigating Our New Orchid House

By Greg Griffis, on

If you’ve been to Longwood Gardens before you’ve probably seen our historic Orchid House. But if you come to see it once it has reopened on February 26 as our first expression of Longwood Reimagined it will be an experience like never before. Our Orchid House has been completely restored in the same way our founder Pierre S. du Pont would have done it himself—with excellence. The original concrete aggregate was matched so well that you’d never even know it wasn’t the original. The bronze window framing was cleaned, repaired, and replaced. The tunnels below the space were reworked and a brand-new floor poured. Novel ways to improve the display itself were created, allowing our guests to view our orchid collection like never before. From the moment you walk into the space, you’ll see that the house contains the same bones, character, and brilliant designs as before, but in the explication of those foundational pieces there has been great innovation.

The historic bronze cases, first added in 1929 and then restored in 1966 to display the orchid collection, have been returned to their original position at the north end of the house. Before they existed, there was a glass wall in their place, which has now been added to the top of the cases to create a vestibule on the north side of the house, creating the perfect transition from the Acacia Passage now, and the Waterlily Court and West Conservatory in the future. The cases themselves have had all of their original pieces restored and are now double-sided. You’re now able to see orchids on both sides of the gates; from the main view inside the Orchid House, and from the vestibule. The same wrought iron gates that have always been there stand in the middle of the cases yet they’ve been completely restored, and their intricate details, once hidden under layers of paint, are appreciable once more. Brand new gravity rings now hold our orchids in place, allowing the plants to be admired as always, but with better functionality and structural integrity.

As you turn around from the cases, the Orchid House unfolds before you, with a display capacity of 300 to upwards of 500 plants bursting off the walls like never before! The gates that hold the rings and orchids have been completely redesigned by Longwood’s design team to play off of Longwood’s iconic rosette, and have a truly artistic and historic nature. Not only that, but they were also fabricated by master ironsmiths, making them stronger and enabling us to put more orchids on the walls than ever before. They also extend all the way to the floor, creating a cohesive aesthetic across the height of your viewshed. When the West Conservatory is completed, you’ll also be able to walk around the outside of the Orchid House, which will allow you to observe these beautiful gates from behind, uninhibited.

Another game-changing innovation on the gates is the rings themselves. The rings now slide into holders that are affixed to the gates. This means that the rings can be changed by simply lifting them out of one holder, and placing them into another. This innovation has made our display more flexible than ever before. Not only will the orchids be changing day by day, but the very arrangement of the rings that hold them will be constantly changing too. This will mean that the diversity of our collection can be accommodated with greater ease, offering more programmatic possibilities and narrative surrounding the collection.

To accommodate all of the new flexibility and creativity possible in the display, we’ve expanded our orchid display team too. One member of our team runs the daily display changes and with her 15 volunteers prepare the orchids for display by cleaning and staking them, changing out the display itself, and replacing orchids with fading flowers with orchids just coming into bloom. Our volunteers are already spending a collective 8,000+ hours per year on the display, and that number will only increase as our team continues to grow! Previously, we only changed out the display three days per week but now, because the collection has grown so substantially and is flowering so well, we will do display changes every weekday. This also allows the display team to have more time to arrange and rearrange the display each day, transforming the display into a dynamic work of art—and allows you to see something new and different each time you visit!

To help facilitate the daily display changes, and to help move our orchids from our growing houses through the outdoors to the display, our amazing in-house metalsmiths have built us aluminum-framed, insulated tracking carts that are towed behind a tug, safely moving our orchids through the seasons to the new orchid display. These carts can hold up to 50 or more orchids, and protect our plants from the heat, cold, and sun, allowing us to get as many newly flowering orchids as possible safely on display.

There are numerous functional innovations in our display as well. We’ve renovated all of the ventilation, which now runs automatically on thermostats, which will keep the air in the space buoyant and comfortable. We’ve added snow-melters to the roof for snow-event mitigation and renovated the heating system for the space while adding extra heat on the exterior sides for protection in the winter. There are new trench drains in the floor, right under the orchids themselves, which will keep your feet dry even after we’ve watered the orchids. The roof has permanent shade, which will help protect the plants year-round, and also helps to keep the display cooler in the summer. We’ve also added new lighting that will make the orchids more appreciable at night, especially during A Longwood Christmas. The gates are able to swing out from the wall, once they are empty, for easy access to the glass behind them, and to the backs of the gates themselves, for maintenance and cleaning.

Aside from the Orchid House proper, the vestibule itself is a marvel. With three air-curtains protecting the orchids from the winter cold, and floor heat designed to heat the space to 50 F even in the dead of winter, even with doors opening, it will be a warm and welcoming place, full of beautiful foliage plants, admirable in their own right.

Can you tell by reading this that I’m exhilarated to be the curator of this collection? In short, the Orchid House has become a kaleidoscope of color, size, texture, history, horticulture, and stories! The new display is ever-dynamic, and yet always refined, balanced, and exquisite, true to the nature of the orchids themselves. The reimagined space allows the collection to grow and expand and gives us the ability to proudly show you every wonderful and intriguing orchid we grow. You will experience the impact of the bright floriferous quality of the display, while still being able to appreciate each orchid individually. All in all, this project, from start to finish, is a marvel of Longwood imagination, innovation, and collaboration, a project worthy of Mr. and Mrs. du Pont’s legacy, and an incredible opportunity to experience our orchid collection anew … and again and again.

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