Three conservatory manufacturers discuss the enduring appeal of glass structures.
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Since the days of the Chinese and Roman empires, conservatories have connected people with nature. They were originally used to grow and store plants, particularly exotic varieties that would perish in winter. The concept spread throughout Europe to 19th-century Britain, where the Industrial Revolution popularized grand public conservatories and indoor gardens, among them the Crystal Palace in London’s Hyde Park (1851). On a smaller scale, conservatories became something of a status symbol among the upper and middle classes, who used them to entertain.
Conservatories fell out of fashion during the first half of the 20th century, but the desire to reconnect with nature, renewed interest in traditional styles and a market that offers more materials and options than ever before have spurred a contemporary revival. And at the forefront are Tanglewood Conservatories, Solar Innovations and Oak Leaf Conservatories.
Allan Stein and Nancy Virts of Tanglewood Conservatories began in the remodeling business but changed tack in the early ’90s when a client showed them a picture of a conservatory and asked, “Can you build something like this?” Without hesitation Stein – a trained architect – said yes and began researching conservatory producers. Most of the companies he came across were based in England and catered to that environment. “I decided that they didn’t really fit the American standard in terms of climate and building construction,” says Stein. “We just didn’t feel comfortable, so we thought we would try building it ourselves. We did, and the project went very smoothly.”
This brick and stone conservatory with a vaulted copper roof, gabled entry and transom-style windows was designed by Tanglewood Conservatories. Photo: courtesy of Tanglewood Conservatories, Lt
No sooner had Stein and Virts finished their first conservatory than a second client asked for the same. This time, the couple decided to change their business focus entirely. “By halfway through we thought, 'This is a really fun business.’ And at the time, very few people were doing it in the United States,” says Stein. “So we changed the remodeling company and renamed it Tanglewood [after the Lenox, MA, summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra].”
From its base in Denton, MD, Tanglewood custom designs and manufactures each conservatory from scratch. There are no standardized models, sizes or architectural details. This approach has proven so popular that the company doubled the size of its production space in 2000 and again in 2004. “I think our business niche is very specialized products,” says Stein. “People ask us for things that they really can’t find elsewhere. For example, we do a lot of work with copper cladding. We do all our own in-house copperwork, domes, roofs, copper-clad roofs, steel conservatories, plus a lot of exotic, unusual projects.”
Among these was a recent project at the Rockefeller Center’s Flower and Garden Show in New York City. Tanglewood designed and built three conservatories, one of which was 20 ft. tall with ornate beveled and leaded glass, motorized roof blinds and its own reflective lily pond.
Despite their distinguished portfolio, Stein and Virts approach each new project with the same curiosity that they did the first. As a result, the design phase is usually very collaborative. “We delve very deeply into it and try to understand not just what the client likes and dislikes, but all of the other factors that they may not have thought about,” says Stein. “So by the time we get to the end – after working together so intensively – it’s as much the client’s as it is ours.”
Solar Innovations can trace its history back to the early 1950s and the founding of Everlite Greenhouses of Maryland. Following that company’s purchase in the early 1980s by a Maryland sunroom manufacturer, the Everlite name was used by dealers for the distribution of replacement parts and machinery designs.
This conservatory by Solar Innovations features a true-radius dome and decorative cupola. Photo: courtesy of Solar Innovations, Inc.
One such dealer moved its operations from Maryland to York, PA, in 1993, where it manufactured wood and aluminum products. Competition was stiff, and the business struggled until Greg Header – then a consultant – was hired in 1997 to evaluate the company. Reorganization – and intense research by Header – followed in 1998, after which Solar Innovations was born, with Header as president. “I was convinced that I could create a company that would be able to compete and thrive in the marketplace,” he says. “As we grew, we found some of our vendors to be less reliable with regard to meeting deadlines necessary in creating custom window and door products. So we began to develop our own accessories for our structures, and over time, people found them to be very competitive and desirable.”
More than 10 years later, Solar Innovations now designs, manufactures, installs and distributes custom conservatories, greenhouses, pool and spa enclosures and sunrooms, as well as skylights, doors, windows and entryways. Custom pre-fabricated conservatories are available in any size, design and color. In addition to virtually maintenance-free aluminum, the company offers aluminum exterior-wood interior options featuring solid mahogany, Spanish cedar and laminates of southern yellow pine, western red cedar and Douglas fir. Redwood and cherry can be integrated into designs by request.
Solar Innovations custom manufactured this penthouse conservatory with decorative raised panels, divided transom, ridge cresting and finials. Photo: courtesy of Solar Innovations, Inc.
To reduce lead times, Solar Innovations has developed a large inventory of more than 200 extrusion designs. “Our product line is one of the most complete in the industry today,” says Header, “and although we have a nationwide dealer network, we also have the capability of supervising and installing our products, which gives us an unsurpassed knowledge of how our products perform in extreme environments.”
From a team of just eight in 1998, Solar Innovations has grown to more than 90 employees and enjoyed a constant growth rate of no less than 25 percent a year. Header attributes this growth to the company’s flexibility. “The level of our involvement is completely controlled by the customer,” he says. “The end goal is always to bring their ideas to reality, be they simplistic or complex and unique works of art.”
Oak Leaf Conservatories combined modern technology with Victorian design principles to create this conservatory with a glass dome. Photo: courtesy of Oak Leaf Conservatories Ltd.
Oak Leaf Conservatories Ltd., established in 1986, has its roots firmly planted in the historic city of York, England, where it began as a family construction company. As it grew, the company began to specialize in custom hardwood conservatories and from the early ’90s exported to the U.S. and continental Europe.
It was around this time that Amy Magner of Atlanta, GA, purchased an Oak Leaf conservatory for her own residence. Magner was so inspired by the results that she devoted herself to the expansion of Oak Leaf’s presence in the U.S. market. Today, she heads up the U.S. division of Oak Leaf in Atlanta. “It very quickly became my full-time passion,” she says. “At that time, conservatories were not well known in the United States, and it became our vision to expand the market. ”
This garden room by Oak Leaf Conservatories of York, England, features timber columns, an inset glazed roof and clerestory windows. Photo: courtesy of Oak Leaf Conservatories Ltd.
Oak Leaf continues to manufacture all of its conservatory parts in York, from where its artisans travel overseas to install them. Much of the company’s portfolio is residential and includes projects carried out at several significant estate homes, including a restoration of the conservatory at Broughton Hall in Yorkshire, England, which dates from 1853.
Typically, customers specify a West African mahogany species and designs that are inspired by the Victorian tradition. “We are extremely proud of all our projects,” says Magner, “but I would say that our most unique projects are those with glass domes. It’s a specialty that Oak Leaf developed years ago, and they are just magical works of art.”
As climate, conditions and building regulations differ dramatically in the U.S., England and continental Europe, Oak Leaf places great importance on harmonizing its designs with their surroundings. The site and the house are studied methodically before any proposal is made and it is an open-ended process. “It is the most important phase,” says Magner. “It is not unusual to explore several different schemes with different options, and as everything is custom, we must consider the existing architecture, be it historic or new construction. Many new homes that we work on are built in historical styles, so the right conservatory is a very appropriate addition.”
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