When the pandemic closed the conservatory doors, the gardeners opened a window.
Through the cold, gray spring, as the virus spread and Minnesota shut down, people trekked across Como Park in St. Paul to the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory. If they were lucky, some of the windows in the glasshouse would be open a crack, and they could catch the scent of the flowers blooming in the Sunken Garden.
"People would tell me, 'I just need to smell the flowers,' " said Michelle Furrer, director and campus manager of the Como Park Zoo and Conservatory, who can finally offer visitors more than a whiff of what they've been missing.
The conservatory reopened its doors this week, with care. Visitors book an appointment online, mask up and follow a one-way path: through the Japanese gardens, inside the soaring glass structure, through the palm fronds, to the Summer Flower Show in the sunken garden, around the ferns and exit through the gift shop.
The zoo next door is still closed and there are signs everywhere reminding people to stay at least 6 feet — or several penguin-lengths — apart.
It's not like it used to be. But as you step inside, the scent of green growing things seeps under your mask and the tension melts out of your shoulders.
Making something good out of 2020's nothing-good has been a monthslong labor at Como Park.
Every time Furrer leaves her office, she can feel eyes on her. Giraffe heads turn. Bears sit up and take notice. Bored penguins troop through her workspace.
"When I walk through the grounds, it seems like a ghost town," she said. Then, "all of a sudden you have the full attention of the giraffes or the gorillas, or the orangutans will all of a sudden notice you."
The zoo's been closed for four months and it probably won't reopen soon. The city-owned park hasn't faced the layoffs and cutbacks of other facilities. The plants are tended, the animals are fed and entertained — toys, puzzles, videos. The penguins, used to going on field trips to area schools, galas and weddings, take strolls through the conservatory and around the grounds instead.
"We miss doing what we normally do," Furrer said. The animals "miss people too."
Staff who normally interact with the public have been reassigned to other duties. Every trash can and railing in the facility has been repainted.
"All of our spaces have had the best cleaning they've ever had," she said.
Summer camp is canceled this year, but families can order "Camp in a Box" to bring some of the lessons and activities home.
Every Wednesday at 1:30 p.m., zookeepers, horticulturalists and other experts host a Facebook chat. This week it was a show-and-tell of some of the fruits and spices growing in the conservatory.
They made something out of nothing. It hasn't been easy.
"Their training and passion is to educate the public," Furrer said of her staff. "They're grieving a little bit of the loss of what they used to do."
Admission to the park is free, although there's a suggested donation of $3 for adults and $2 for children. If you can't afford it, no worries. But if you can drop a little more in the donation box, those polar bears in the still-closed zoo next door aren't going to feed themselves.
Como Park will also host a virtual fundraiser July 16. Anyone can tune in for free to the event, which will feature Zoom-bombing animals and talks from zookeepers and horticulturalists from the Charlotte Partridge Ordway Japanese Garden. Visit comofriends.org/events/sunset-affair for details.
Follow Jennifer on Twitter: @stribrooks