Under a clear morning sky, with brilliant sunshine glinting off its polished panes of glass, Como Park’s Marjorie McNeely Conservatory looked every bit like the precious gemstone of the St. Paul parks system.
Not too shabby for a place that just hit 100.
The conservatory’s centennial celebration kicked off Friday with a ribbon-cutting at its new Centennial Garden and serenading by the SummerTime a cappella quartet. The day was scheduled to end with a movie and the conservatory’s dome bathed in purple light.
In between, parking lots quickly filled and T-shirt-clad children’s groups in red, green and blue swarmed through the building and into the zoo, part of an estimated 2 million annual visitors to the Victorian-era structure and its neighboring zoo. The celebration will continue with six more months of events.
All of which had officials and conservatory friends expressing optimism for the next 100 years.
“Como Park is the centerpiece of our park system, and the conservatory is the crown jewel of that centerpiece,” said Mike Hahm, St. Paul director of Parks and Recreation. “To continue, it requires each generation to take its turn in building and improving it.”
Greg McNeely remembers his mother, Marjorie, packing him and his five siblings into the station wagon for wintertime respites in the conservatory’s heated, humid Fern Room, Sunken Garden and Palm Dome. After Marjorie McNeely died in 1998, Greg McNeely and his father wanted to create a memorial to the onetime president of the St. Paul Garden Club.
In 2002, the McNeely family made a $7 million gift, money that spurred continued improvements and giving. Over the past 15 years, Como Friends — a merger of several nonprofit groups dedicated to the park — has contributed more than $35 million in improvements to the conservatory and the zoo.
The conservatory opened on Sunday, Nov. 7, 1915, drawing 3,000 visitors through its doors that first day. It would later become home to the city’s Holiday Flower Show and Spring Flower Show. In June 1962, a hailstorm left the conservatory’s glass walls and dome in shards, prompting extensive repairs.
In 1974, Como Park Conservatory was placed on the National Register of Historic Places but, by the 1980s, the jewel had lost a bit of its luster when its plexiglass windows became nearly opaque.
Major renovation began in 1987 and was completed in 1992, including replacing all the glass and updating the heating and lighting systems. In 2005, the Fern Room and Orchid House were added; in 2006, Tropical Encounters. And in 2011, an Edible Garden was established to raise fruits and vegetables for zoo animals. In April 2013, the $2.5 million Ordway Gardens was added.
The Marjorie McNeely Conservatory is open year round. Park officials say it and the zoo are the most visited public cultural attractions in Minnesota.
On Friday morning, Cory and Reyna Samp, of Fergus Falls, Minn. — with little ones Sydney, 4, and Sully, 1 — paid little attention to the history. Like many of the visitors streaming into the new Centennial Garden, they were simply drawn by word of its beauty as part of a weekend trip to the Twin Cities.
“I really like it,” Reyna Samp said of a visit that included rides in Como Town and a visit to the zoo. “The kids enjoy it. We’d heard it was a fun place to do things, with kids especially.”
Phyllis Casper, of St. Paul, sat on a nearby bench, admiring the new garden and its classical European style. She volunteers at the conservatory, helping visitors find their way around the Japanese Garden. In the winter, she and her husband volunteer every other Wednesday in the North Garden.
“It looks like something from long ago, but still contemporary,” she said of the Centennial Garden. “It’s lovely.”