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Bloedel Conservatory turns 50 | Vancouver Sun

In 1965, the Vancouver park board unveiled a dramatic vision for the top of Little Mountain: a $1.5-million floral conservatory, forest museum and planetarium.

The cultural centre was pitched as a centennial project for Canada’s 100th birthday in 1967. But council opted for another proposal, a $5-million museum-art gallery complex in Kitsilano.

The park board persevered, and on April 27, 1966, announced that the conservatory and “museum of the woods” would be built, thanks to a $1-million donation from Seattle lumber baron Prentice Bloedel.

On Dec. 6, 1969, the Bloedel Conservatory opened to the public, attracting 11,000 visitors the first day and 500,000 the first year.

Fifty years later, it remains a Vancouver icon. Last year, 180,000 people ventured to the top of Queen Elizabeth Park to check out its amazing collection of 500 species of plants and 150 exotic birds.

On Dec. 6 this year, the park board will hold a gala event to celebrate the golden anniversary. This week sees the release of a commemorative booklet, The Jewel Atop Vancouver: 50 Years at the Bloedel Conservatory.

Still, it hasn’t always been smooth sailing. In 2009, the park board voted to shut the building, which was badly in need of updating. Attendance had fallen to a low of 60,000 in 2006.

But the public was outraged and rallied to save the “tropical wonderland.” The Friends of Bloedel Conservatory staged fundraisers, VanDusen Botanical Garden signed on to help run it, and the park board agreed to keep it open.

In 2014, workers installed 1,488 new Plexiglas panels in the roof, a $2.7-million undertaking that gave the conservatory a whole new lease on life.

“Fortunately they’d hung onto the moulds, because each layer (of Plexiglas) is different,” said the conservatory’s former manager, Stafford Buswell. “They’re all a different size, each row.”


January 20 1970. Bloedel Conservatory. Bill Cunningham / Province

Bill Cunningham / Province /

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The panels form a “triodetic dome,” which is basically half a geodesic dome. The seven-storey structure was built at the highest point in the city, 150 metres above sea level. Part of it covered the city reservoir, which had been open to the air until they installed a cement cover.

Buswell said the reservoir has a big role in the conservatory, where the temperatures are sub-tropical, allowing all sorts of vegetation to flourish.

“I think they keep the temperature around 70 degrees,” said Buswell, 92. “It’s air-conditioned, and cooled by the condensers from the fountains. Under the plaza is where the city water supply is — the water still comes from there.

“If you go in the back door of the conservatory, the service entrance, there’s a place where you can see all the water, and a little boat where the inspectors go in and take samples of the water and stuff like that.”

The conservatory was designed by local architect Herb Wilson, but the behind-the-scenes force in the project was the park board’s deputy superintendent Bill Livingstone.

“Prentice Bloedel became very good friends with Bill Livingstone,” relates former park board communications head Terri Clark. “All these plant people became friends through this plant network. They all used to get together and go to conferences.”


William “Bill” Livingstone of the Vancouver Park Board. Dec. 11, 1959. Dave Buchan/Vancouver Sun.

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Bloedel was a plant person, and when Livingstone told him that council had rejected the park board’s idea for a conservatory and forest hall, he volunteered to put up the money.

Then he sent Livingstone and Wilson on a trip to scope out other conservatories.

“Bill told me Mr. Bloedel — that’s what he called him, Mr. Bloedel — had sent him around the world to look at the best glass houses in the world before we built this,” said Clark. “He became very impassioned about it.”

One of the places Livingstone and Wilson visited was the Bird House at the Bronx Zoo in New York.

“Architect Herb Wilson and myself came away convinced that animated displays are best for holding interest,” Livingstone told The Sun on June 9, 1966. “We must avoid the museum style of static exhibit.”

Thus the jungle of plants gained its birds, which have become one of the main attractions.

“The birds make it kind of special, with all their squawking and everything,” said Buswell. “You have to have a bit of livestock in there, otherwise it’d be dead.”


Lumber baron and philanthropist Prentice Bloedel on March 25, 1971, when he was named a Freeman of the City of Vancouver. Deni Eagland/Vancouver Sun.

Deni Eagland /

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The eventual cost was $1.4 million, all paid by Bloedel. The forest hall was nixed because of the cost, but Bloedel donated a $150,000 sculpture by Henry Moore, Knife Edge, to the project.

Fifty years later, the Moore sculpture is as iconic as the conservatory, Vancouver’s most significant piece of public art. It’s one of only four that were cast: the others are at the Rockefeller estate in New York, outside the British House of Lords in London, and at Moore’s estate in England.

The first manager of the conservatory was another park board legend, Charlie Coupar. His son, John, led the fight to save the Bloedel in 2009, and is now a park board commissioner.


Bloedel Conservatory in Queen Elizabeth Park in 2009, when it was threatened with closure. Ian Lindsay/Vancouver Sun

Ian Lindsay /

Vancouver Sun

Buswell succeeded Coupar in the 1980s. He was the manager when a 17-year-old from Surrey had a few beers and decided to climb the roof.

“One memorable night (in 1986) I got a phone call,” Buswell chuckles. “I was just going to bed, and the watchman said, ‘I don’t know what to do, a guy just fell through the roof.’ He climbing on top, and fell through the Plexiglas.

“The only thing that saved him was the Phoenix dactylifera, a date palm, with all its prickles. He landed in that, (but) he must have had a few sore spots.”

In case you were wondering, Prentice Bloedel was partners with H.R. MacMillan in the forest giant MacMillan Bloedel. MacMillan was also civic-minded: he donated the money for the H.R. MacMillan Space Centre (i.e., planetarium) beside the Museum of Vancouver in Vanier Park.

A third MacMillan Bloedel executive, Whitford Julian VanDusen, gave $1 million to help convert the old Shaughnessy Golf Course to a public garden in 1975.

“So the planetarium became MacMillan’s and the conservatory became Bloedel’s and VanDusen hunkered up a million dollars for the $3-million cost for VanDusen Gardens,” said Clark.

jmackie@postmedia.com


The Vancouver park board’s 1965 plan for a conservatory-planetarium complex atop Little Mountain in Queen Elizabeth Park. It was pitched as a centennial project, but the city opted to build a museum at Vanier Park instead. Vancouver Sun files.

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April 27 1966. An amended plan for the conservatory was adopted after the project received $1 million from the Bloedel Foundation to Sun files. This plan nixed the planetarium from the previous proposal, but still included the forest museum. Sun files.

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Dec. 10 1969. Prentice Bloedel and his wife check out the Henry Moore sculpture Knife Edge at the opening of the Bloedel Conservatory. The Bloedels donated the sculpture to the city of Vancouver at the same time they donated the money to build the conservatory. George Diack/Vancouver Sun.

Vancouver Sun


Prentice Bloedel (L) and H.R. MacMillan in 1974. The two forest moguls merged their companies (Bloedel, Stewart and Welch and the H.R. MacMillan Export Company) in 1951 to form MacMillan Bloedel, the world’s second biggest lumber company at the time.

Vancouver Sun


Prentice Bloedel, H.R. MacMillan, J.V. Cline and J.W. VanDusen, Feb. 10, 1976. B.C. Jennings/Province archives.


Charles Coupar of the Vancouver Park Board, July 27, 1961. Coupar was the supervisor of Sunset Nursery, then the first manager of the Bloedel Conservatory.

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Lumber baron and philanthropist Prentice Bloedel in 1951, when the Seattle resident joined forces with H.R. MacMillan to create MacMillan Bloedel.

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