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History of the Conservatory

In 1889, the University of Minnesota opened the first of what would be several greenhouses for the study of plant biology in Minneapolis. Built by the Department of Botany, the precursor to today’s Department of Plant and Microbial Biology, this first ‘plant house’ took up 18 feet of the University’s boiler and engine house. 

By 1906, Conway MacMillian, the department’s founding head, obtained $10,000 from the University to build a new, dedicated greenhouse space. This second greenhouse housed the department’s botanical collections along University Avenue on the site of today’s Roy Wilkins Hall. Despite an expansion in 1913, the greenhouse was reportedly leaky and made for wet notebooks and unpleasant classes. 

The Department of Botany Greenhouse, 1908 University Avenue Greenhouse, 1910
The Department of Botany Greenhouse, 1908 University Avenue Greenhouse, 1910

Under the leadership of J. Arthur Harris, the department built a third greenhouse in 1926 along East River Road, on the site of today’s East River Road Garage, southeast of Coffman Memorial Union. 

The new Department of Botany Greenhouse, with Coffman Memorial Union in the background, 1956.The new Department of Botany Greenhouse, with Coffman Memorial Union in the background, 1956.

Nearby, Harris oversaw the opening of a new Botany Building at the corner of Delaware and Church Street, the site of today’s Nils Hasselmo Hall. 

Botany Building under construction in Minneapolis, 1926.

Botany Building under construction in Minneapolis, 1926. 

Inside the greenhouse, different rooms represented different biomes, including a tropical and desert biome as well as a room with ponds. Nearby, an outdoor botanical garden highlighted Minnesota’s native flora. The new greenhouse provided plant material for botany courses, research space for students and faculty, and plants to decorate University receptions and events.

The Botany Building and new Greenhouse, 1928

The Botany Building and new Greenhouse, 1928

As the health sciences facilities on the East Bank began to expand, the footprint of the botanic garden began to shrink, and the Department of Botany had to expand the greenhouse in new directions to keep the collections out of the neighboring buildings’ shade. In 1965, the department joined the new College of Biological Sciences and moved to the new Biological Sciences Center on the St. Paul Campus in 1972.

In 1973, the College built a new, fourth greenhouse space in St. Paul with both research and display facilities as well as classroom spaces. Like the Minneapolis greenhouse, this third greenhouse also contained multiple biomes and was ultimately named the College of Biological Sciences Conservatory. 

Saint Paul Greenhouse, 1977

Saint Paul Greenhouse, 1977

Finally, in 2020, the CBS Conservatory moved to a new, fifth greenhouse attached to the Plant Growth Facility along Gortner Avenue in St. Paul. The new space contains four distinct biomes with both in ground and potted collections and holds 1,800 taxa. It is among the most diverse plant collections in the Upper Midwest. 

None of the older greenhouses still stand today. The boiler and engine house was demolished in 1924; the greenhouse on University Avenue in 1950; the greenhouse along East River Road in 1999; and the first St. Paul greenhouse in 2022. 

Much of the information for this brief history comes from Sheri L. Bartlett’s The History of the Department of Botany 1889-1980. 

View historical maps of the University campus, where you can see the current and historical locations of Department of Botany and Plant Biology greenhouses.

A brief timeline of University of Minnesota plant and greenhouse history:

  • 1889: The University founds the Department of Botany and builds a greenhouse space in Minneapolis.
  • 1906: The department opens a new greenhouse on University Avenue.
  • 1913: The department expands the greenhouse.
  • 1926: The department builds a new greenhouse on East River Road, along with a new Botany Building nearby. 
  • 1950: The greenhouse on University Avenue is demolished.
  • 1952: The University builds a greenhouse in St. Paul on the site of what would become the Plant Growth Facilities. 
  • 1973: The University opens the Biological Sciences Center on the St. Paul campus, the Botany Department moves in. A new greenhouse is also built on the St. Paul campus for the department. 
  • 1993: Botany Building is demolished. 
  • 1999: The greenhouse on East River Road is demolished. 
  • 2020: The current CBS Conservatory opens in the Plant Growth Facilities on the St. Paul campus. 
  • 2022: The older St. Paul greenhouse is demolished.