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Built in 1982, the Lucile Halsell Conservatory is a complex of five separate greenhouses, each designed in a futuristic style and containing its own display of plants from across the globe. The plants on display range from rare orchids and tropical palms to desert cacti and ancient rainforest ferns. Located on the grounds of the San Antonio Botanical Garden, the Lucile Halsell Conservatory was designed by Emilio Ambasz whose pyramidal designs reach skyward while containing underground rooms below the earth. The Palm and Cycad Conservatory contains an Exhibit Room with a display of tropical plants, while the conservatory also surrounds an inner courtyard with a lush fern grotto with limestone cave walls, a waterfall, and pond.

Lucile Halsell Conservatory Complex

Plant, Building, Tree, Terrestrial plant

Aerial view

Property, Green, World, Blue

Fern Garden

Plant, Plant community, Terrestrial plant, Shrub

Lucile Halsell Conservatory, twilight

Sky, Water, Building, Afterglow

Lucile Halsell Conservatory, dusk

Water, Purple, Triangle, Sky

Lucile Halsell Conservatory, night

Sky, Building, Tower block, City

Whereas most greenhouses that are located in cooler, northern climates are designed to maximize sunlight by directing light and warmth towards the plants contained within, the Lucile Halsell Conservatory complex is located in the excessively hot, arid climate of South Texas. Because of this, the greenhouse design company that was hired by the San Antonio Botanical Garden in the early 1980s had to try to protect the plants from exposure to too much light and heat. As an innovate solution, Emilio Ambasz created a unique design that utilizes the earth as a container. This method has historically been used in other structures such as root cellars. Ambasz' design succeeded in keeping the plants cooler by preventing excessive exposure to high temperatures and sunlight, while limiting the areas of glazed glass to only the upper roof peaks.

As a result, the Botanical Garden was able to avoid having to install expensive, high-energy mechanical systems to artificially cool the plants, by instead working in harmony with the earth's natural cooling capacity through underground rooms. Underneath each of the five greenhouses in the Lucille Halsell Conservatory complex, offices and storage areas are located below ground. The 40,000-square-foot complex, with its five futuristic pyramidal greenhouses, won a Progressive Architecture Award in 1985, a National Glass Association Award for Excellence in Commercial Design in 1988, and a Quaternairo Award for First Prize in 1990. Since then, the Lucile Halsell Conservatory complex has been expanded to 90,000-square-feet, combining both human-designed and natural landscapes.

The striking Palm and Cycad Pavilion soars sixty-five feet upwards, leaving a permanent impression on the San Antonio skyline. Inside, a Fern Grotto and water garden have been dug into the ground, extending twenty-three feet below the surface of the earth. Ferns are some of the world's most ancient plants. By decomposing slowly over the millennia, they have also become part of the oil and coal deposits that humans have historically relied on for energy. The palms, cycads, and other tropical plants in this pavilion also reflect a range of human uses, providing food, shelter, shade, clothing and fuel in the locations where they typically grow. Cycads are hardy, cone-bearing plants with evergreen foliage, described by the Botanical Garden as "relics of the Carboniferous Age," when dinosaurs were still roaming the earth. A species known as 'Queen Sago' is the tallest cycad on display here.

The Exhibit Room features the Botanical Garden's collection of exotic orchids, bromeliads, and other tropical plants associated with dense rainforest canopies, including epiphytes (plants that naturally grow around other plants, yet are not harmful to the host plant). Cacti and succulents from the deserts of Mexico and South America are showcased in the Robert and Helen Kleberg Desert Pavilion. Due to their thick, waxy stems and leaves that can store water until it is needed, cacti and succulents are able to withstand the intense heat and arid climate of San Antonio and South Texas. The Gretchen Northrup Tropical Conservatory features plants that grow in the world's tropical rainforests, where half of all plants and animals reside. This pavilion highlights the coffee, cocoa, and rubber trees that have long been cultivated and harvested as commodity crops. Because light is limited in rainforests, trees must grow tall to access the sunlight that is only available at the top of the canopy.

Catalano, Julie. "Back to the Garden", Home Design and Decor. February 28th, 2023. Accessed April 14th, 2023.

Featured Attractions, San Antonio Botanical Garden. Accessed April 14th, 2023.

Lucile Halsell Conservatory, Ambasz. Accessed April 14th, 2023.

Lucile Halsell Conservatory, San Antonio Botanical Garden. Accessed April 14th, 2023.

Image Sources(Click to expand)


San Antonio Botanical Garden

San Antonio Botanical Garden