Historic city treasures: Palm House

At Play Cultural Heart Sustainable City People of Adelaide

Glistening in the light of a blue-sky Adelaide day, the exquisite Palm House in the city’s Adelaide Botanic Garden is thought to be the only surviving German-built glasshouse from the Victorian era. Opened to the public in 1877, the Palm House is now a State Heritage and National Trust listed city treasure with a fascinating history all of its own.

Palm house exterior 2

Adelaide Botanic Garden Palm House on a sunny day.

In 1874, Dr Richard Schomburgk, the second director of the Adelaide Botanic Garden, was reading a horticultural magazine containing a detailed account of a glasshouse designed by architect Gustav Runge and fabricated by Johann Friedrich Höper. This glasshouse was erected on Alexander Wilhelm Rothermund’s estate a few miles from Bremen in Germany. Dr Schomburgk was so taken with the description that he wrote to Rothermund to find out more.

We should pause here for a moment to reflect on how the pace of communication has changed since the Victorian age. If we look at a photo of the beautiful Palm House today, it’s easy to see why Schomburgk pursued this project. After all, a picture tells a thousand words. However, remember that his motivation was inspired by the written word alone. When he sought more detail, it wasn’t as simple as firing off a quick email; nor could he receive photos on his phone to see the detail and scale. Correspondence in the 1870s was slow and laborious, with letters hand-written in ink and delivered from Australia to Europe via ship.

Thankfully Schomburgk did hear back from Rothermund and, excited about the prospects of a replica glasshouse in Adelaide, successfully applied for funding to the Governors of the Botanic Gardens. Working with the same architect and fabricator that Rothermund had used in Germany, Schomburgk ordered the ironwork components and 3,808 panes of glass to be shipped to Adelaide for construction locally.

Glass panels of palm house

The glass panels were broken in the first delivery.

Today there are entire websites, both serious and comical, devoted to the frustrations of purchasing flat pack furniture: schlepping through the in-store maze, writing down product codes, finding the matching boxes in the warehouse, getting everything into the car and, finally, bringing it all home to start the build – fingers crossed for clear instructions and no missing pieces!

Now - back to October 1875. Consider the time Schomburgk devoted to correspondence and ordering, the wait through the long voyage of delivery – literally ‘shipping’, a term that no longer necessitates a ship – and then imagine the Victorian-equivalent of our flat pack furniture frustrations when the glass panels arrived broken! A determined Schomburgk gathered his resolve and waited until 1876 to receive the replacement panels, continuing with construction around the glass panels in the meantime.

On January 22 1877, the Adelaide Botanic Garden Palm House was officially opened.

“The workmanship both of the wrought and cast iron used for the house is admitted on all hands to be almost, if not altogether, faultless.”
The Evening Journal newspaper

The detailed newspaper report described the plants and other features inside the Palm House including the grotto, the stone for which was imported from Germany’s Black Forest.

Palm house grotto

Stone for the grotto was from Germany's Black Forest.

When the Palm House first opened it contained palms, ferns and other tropical plants but, over time, the mix has changed. As early as 1887, plants grew to the point where they broke the glass ceiling. By 1975, the number of tropical plants outgrew the Palm House.

In the early 1980s it was recognised that a major restoration was required, but proposals were cost prohibitive. Instead of renovating the Palm House, a new, larger structure – the Bicentennial Conservatory – was built. In 1986 the Palm House was closed to the public and plants were moved to the new Conservatory which was launched in 1988. Sadly, the Palm House was neither replanted nor open to the public.

In the early 1990s the Palm House finally received the recognition and attention it deserved with a program of incredibly extensive restoration work. It was reopened to the public in 1995. Recently, the Botanic Garden undertook renovations for eight months to again safe-guard its State Heritage listed building.

Palm house ironwork glass detail

Detail of the Palm House ironwork and glass.

When you visit the Palm House today, you’ll find a collection of plants from south western Madagascar, many of which are at risk and endangered in their native habitat due to environmental degradation. The Government of Madagascar and International agencies including the Botanic Gardens are cooperating in these rescue efforts.

Director of the Botanic Gardens and State Herbarium, Dr Lucy Sutherland, says, “The restoration has conserved the Palm House for the benefit of future generations who can enjoy and learn about the botanical collections, wonderful architecture and South Australia’s history.

“The climate inside the Palm House replicates that of the arid regions of Madagascar from which the plants originate. Maintaining this special glasshouse allows us to protect and nurture the threatened biodiversity of a selection of Madagascan plants right here in Adelaide.”

Be sure to explore this shining jewel of the Adelaide Botanic Garden on your next visit and spare a thought for the efforts to assemble – and maintain – the Palm House for our enjoyment today.

Article by

Rebecca Moyle-Croft

Rebecca Moyle-Croft

Bec has always been a passionate Adelaidean. Living abroad for six years she took every opportunity to explore, from big cities to national parks. She is chuffed to be living in Adelaide again, enjoying being a tourist in her home town with a long, ever-growing “must see and do” list.