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As the majestic 745-acre Druid Hill Park celebrated its 150th anniversary in October, Margaret “Peggy” Stansbury published a new book about its magnificent glass pavilion first known as the Conservatory in Druid Hill Park, later as the Baltimore Conservatory and, since 2004, as the Howard Peters Rawlings Conservatory and Botanic Gardens of Baltimore.

Before Stansbury tackled Druid Hill Park and the conservatory, she cut her teeth on Federal Hill Park. Soon after she and her husband moved into the neighborhood in 1984, they got a wholesaler to come into the neighborhood with a truckload of mums and distributed fliers urging neighbors to purchase them at cost to beautify the neighborhood.

Margaret StansburyThat simple effort prompted Stansbury, a 53-year-old former marketing professional who once specialized in financial and technology industries, to start the Federal Hill Garden Club and organize the effort to restore Federal Hill Park. Before she knew it, Mayor Kurt Schmoke had asked her to serve as a commissioner on the Baltimore Parks Board. Its meetings were held in Druid Hill Park. “I would drive past the decaying conservatory,” she says, “and decided then that it would be my next civic project.”

In 1997, Stansbury founded the Baltimore Conservatory Association and organized the plans, begun two years earlier, to restore the last of four glass houses that had graced Carroll, Clifton, Patterson and Druid Hill parks from the late 1880s until after World War II. Because of deterioration from lack of funding and maintenance during the Depression and the war, all but the one in Druid Hill Park was demolished.

BCA’s mission was to restore to its former glory Baltimore’s remaining metal and glass palace. Designed by George Aloysius Frederick and built in 1888, the original conservatory featured the Orchid Room and Palm House with 175 windows and a 90-foot roof. It provided visual entertainment to parkgoers as well as education and contact with nature.  “Glass houses were the rage in Europe then,” says Stansbury. “America also became interested in this new architectural phenomenon… as parks were being developed to create sanctuaries from urban industrial life.”

With support from the Federated Garden Clubs of Maryland, Stansbury spearheaded the six-year, $5 million combined effort of BCA, the Baltimore City Department of Recreation and Parks and the state of Maryland to restore this urban sanctuary. After being closed for two years, in 2004 the Baltimore Conservatory reopened as the Howard Peters Rawlings Conservatory and Botanic Gardens.

The original Palm House, Orchid Room and production greenhouses were renovated. Two smaller additions, similar in style to the Palm House, were built to connect the original buildings and provide space for meetings, special events and education. Five distinct areas feature Mediterranean, desert and tropical plants as well as palms and orchids.

The conservatory in Druid Hill Park now stands as one of the most beautiful buildings in Baltimore, as well as the second oldest glass conservatory still standing in the United States. (The other is the Conservatory of Flowers in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.)

Stansbury long wanted to thank the many volunteers and city workers who made the restoration possible. Now living with her husband and two sons in northern Baltimore County, Stansbury is a member of the Rotary Club of Hunt Valley. 

At a meeting last March, photographer David Simpson lectured on his book “Loch Raven” (which was featured in the December 2009 issue of Style).  Afterward Stansbury spoke with him, and he encouraged her to write a book on her experience with the conservatory. Within two weeks, the two were collaborating, the result of which is “Glass House of Dreams: Baltimore’s Victorian Glass Palace in the Park,” a book of history and photographs. Although currently at work on a book about an 1800s land grant college, Stansbury hopes to publish a series of books on other glass houses in America.

“And my passion for this glass house isn’t finished,” she says. “I really want to see horticulture in the classroom. It is a multi-
billion-dollar industry. Students could take many different career patterns with this simple connection to nature.”

Margaret Stansbury will sign copies of “Glass House of Dreams” on Dec. 5, from 1 to 3 p.m. at Greetings & Readings in Towson; and on Dec. 12 at 2:30 p.m. at Enoch Pratt Free Library. An exhibition of photos from the book will be displayed at the Pratt from Dec. 6 to April 11. Purchase copies at local bookstores, at http://www.glasshouseofdreams.com or by calling 410-527-0463.

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