History of the Conservatory

The Department of Botany at the University of Minnesota was created in 1889, with Conway MacMillan as its sole faculty member. In its early years, those associated botany research used greenhouse facilities of the Minnesota Agricultural Experiment Station on the St. Paul “Farm Campus,” but in 1889, the first “plant house” for the department was built on the Minneapolis campus with 18 square feet of usable space. In 1905, the department used $10,000 to expand the greenhouse near Sanford Hall, and it was again expanded in 1913 as the Department of Botany grew. Unfortunately, the greenhouse roof often leaked, making notebooks damp and classes in the greenhouse difficult.  

When J. Arthur Harris became the chairman of the Botany Department in 1926, he led the creation of the Botany Building and a new (the second) greenhouse southeast of where Coffman Memorial Union stands today.  At the same time, the College of Pharmacy moved their plant collections into the first greenhouse, moving their medicinal plant garden to make room for the construction of Northrop Auditorium. Near the second botany greenhouse, a botanical garden was planted as well, to showcase species that thrived in many different Minnesota biomes. Inside, the rooms of the greenhouse were also arranged to showcase biomes, with a pond room, tropical area, and desert room. This had both educational and practical purposes, as climate was controlled on the room level.  Over its sixty-five-year existence, this second greenhouse served a variety of purposes, providing plant material for botany courses, space for professor and student research, tours for guests from across Minnesota, and plants to decorate for University of Minnesota receptions and events.

In the meantime, change came to the Botany Department, particularly as the health sciences buildings to their east expanded and Botany joined the new College of Biological Sciences in 1965. With the expansion of the health sciences in the 1940s, the footprint of the botanical garden began to shrink and additions to the greenhouse had to be made to keep it out of the shade of its tall neighboring buildings. Meanwhile, the Botany Department itself began to outgrow its building. In 1972, the department moved to the new Biological Sciences Center on St. Paul Campus, and by 1973, a new (the third) greenhouse for the department was built on St. Paul Campus.  In many ways, this greenhouse was similar to the Minneapolis greenhouse, with rooms organized by biome, classroom space for coursework, and a division of space for research and teaching purposes.  Indeed, until 1989, both the second and third greenhouses continued to be used as a resource to biology courses taught on both campuses. This third greenhouse continues to stand today and is known as the CBS Conservatory. It can be found at 1534 Lindig Street. Similarly, although renamed the department of Plant Biology, the Botany Department lives on at the University of Minnesota.

Much of the information for this brief history comes from Sheri L. Bartlett’s The History of the Department of Botany 1889-1980. University of Minnesota, 1989. Historical maps of the University campus, where you can see the current and historical locations of the Department of Botany and Plant Biology greenhouses can be found here: https://www.lib.umn.edu/apps/campushistory/. Other sources include Charles V. Netz’s History of the University of Minnesota College of Pharmacy 1892-1970. University of Minnesota

Conservatory timeline

1906 – The Department of Botany opens a botanical plant house is built on University Ave near the intersection of 13th Ave SE. 

1913 – The College of Pharmacy moves into a new space in Old Millard Hall (today Wulling Hall) and converts the burned out old anatomy building (razed 1986) into a plant house. Pharmacy and Medical Chemistry maintain medicinal plant gardens on the south side of Old Millard/Wulling Hall and to the east of Wesbrook Hall (razed 2011) on the site of today's Northrop Auditorium.

Mid-1920s – Medicinal plant gardens removed in order to prepare for Northrop construction Pharmacy moves some plants to share space in the botanical plant house. 

1926 – New building constructed for the Department of Botany (razed early 1990s) at the site of today's Hasselmo Hall with newly constructed plant house (razed 1999) along East River Rd near today's East River Rd Garage. 

Late-1920s – Pharmacy is sole occupant of the plant house on University Ave after botany moves into its new space. 

1973 – Biological Sciences Greenhouse built on the St. Paul campus.

2019 – New CBS Conservatory & Botanical Collection built in the Plant Growth Facilities on the St. Paul campus.

2020 – 1979 Greenhouse demolished.

Where life flourishes in defiance of winter

A short article from the 1978 alumni newsletter about the Conservatory.