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Franklin Park Conservatory cultivates plan for major growth

Inside an arching glass building, green leafy plants grow. To one side, there is a bench. On a white elevator partially obstructed by the greenery, the words "The Dorothy M. Davis Showhouse," are printed.
Allie Vugrincic
The Dorothy M. Davis Showhouse is one of the oldest parts of Franklin Park Conservatory and would be among the first areas to undergo renovations in the conservatory's new plan for growth.

Visitors to Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens stop at the front desk then head up the stairs to the right. Then, they are presented with options: the north or south greenhouse, the gallery, the gift shop or the café.

It takes a bit more exploring to find the Dorothy M. Davis Palm House. From the outside, the elegant building looks like a glass castle. Inside, it’s filled with big, leafy, green plants and a fountain.

But Franklin Park Conservatory President and CEO Bruce Harkey says sometimes, visitors miss it entirely.

“They never see this really amazing, iconic building, which is one of the oldest significant architectural masterpieces in the city,” Harkey said.

Under the conservatory’s new North Star Master Plan, the Palm House would be one of the first places visitors see. The plan lays out how the conservatory hopes to grow in the next 25 years.

One major change listed in the plan is building a new entrance on the west end of the gardens. That way, visitors could enter from Franklin Park. Coming out of the center, they’d find themselves in what is now the grand mall way, looking at the historic palm house.

A computer generated image shows people looking out a window at a large garden with a fountain. In the distance there is a sprawling glass building.
Franklin Park Conservatory
A rendering shows the view from a planned visitors center at the west end of Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens. It shows the conservatory's historic Palm House in the distance.

Planting the seeds

The Palm House was built in 1895. At that time, wealthy Victorians often had greenhouses in their backyards. Inspired by the City Beautiful movement, an urban reform of the late 1800s, Columbus built the public glasshouse.

“And it became a place for people who live in Columbus to kind of go on a trip around the world by coming to the conservatory,” Harkey said.

Today, Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens sees around 400,000 visitors a year. They can still travel the world, as they walk from the cool, rocky Himalayan Mountains, through the dense rainforest, and into the arid desert.

Those geographic biomes are expected to change under the North Star plan, but visitors will still see plenty of the world. Harkey said the walls between greenhouses will be removed, creating a larger biome focused on plants from dry environments all over the planet.

"It became a place for people who live in Columbus to kind of go on a trip around the world."
- Franklin Park Conservatory President and CEO Bruce Harkey

Harkey said the palm house, after renovations, would also have rare and endangered palms from all corners of the globe.

“Our vision is a world that celebrates nature as essential to the human experience,” Harkey said.

The conservatory last broke down walls between biomes to create the large Pacific Island Water Garden on the south side of the building.

The North Star Plan also calls for the creation of two new greenhouse areas. One would house a permanent butterfly exhibit. The other would be combination gallery, garden and “hot shop” for glass blowing. It would showcase the conservatory’s collection of Chihuly sculptures.

Dave Chihuly is an American artist known for large, colorful glass artworks that spiral and flair. Franklin Park Conservatory owns more of his work than any other botanical garden. Harkey said the conservatory’s collection is also one of the top five Chihuly collections in the world.

A plant-like glass sculpture spirals and stretches upward inside a glass building filled with cacti and rocks.
Allie Vugrincic
A glass artwork by American artist Dale Chihuly is on display in the desert biome at Franklin Park Conservatory on East Broad Street. The conservatory has the largest private collection of Chihuly's sculptures at a botanical garden.


The Chihuly collection hasn’t always been here, of course. Neither has the children’s garden nor the community garden.

Until the 1990s, the conservatory was just the Palm House and the Show House. It underwent a $14 million expansion for Ameriflora ’92, a six-month-long international horticultural exhibition. When the event was over, the modern Franklin Park Conservatory bloomed with more additions over the years.

One of those is a water area where kids – and adults – can take off their shoes and splash and play in the waterfall and faux rocky pools.

“My daughter absolutely loves the water area here. And now that the butterflies are out, she loves coming to see the butterflies,” said Leah Korman.

Korman has been a member of the conservatory for three years, but she also remembers spending time there as a child.

“This whole area is new,” Korman said, speaking of the Children’s Garden. “When I grew up, it was just the indoor, exhibits that we came to.”

“Our vision is a world that celebrates nature as essential to the human experience."
Franklin Park Conservatory President and CEO Bruce Harkey

Feeling nature

On a field trip with Dublin’s Chapman Elementary, 9-year-olds Estelle Pina and Claire Tiefenthaeler said the Nature Play Zone and Canopy Walk in the Children’s Garden are their favorite parts of the conservatory.

“And we’re just, you know, looking around, feeling nature!” Pina said.

“We can, like, be kids, run around, and play with things that you normally don’t get to play with and experience,” Tiefenthaeler said.

Bianca Aiub and Amreen Karim – 9 and 8-years-old respectively – seconded Tiefenthaeler’s thoughts. They said they can’t play with sticks at school.

Aiub and Karim think the conservatory is already pretty perfect, but they might have a few additions to suggest. Aiub wouldn’t mind a movie theater that showed movies about nature, and Karim wants to see a bird area.

Those things are not in the current plans, but the North Star Master Plan does include more gardens, including formal European gardens and underground parking.

Big changes may still be far off, though. Harkey guesses that the restoration of the Palm House and the attached Dorothy M. Davis Showhouse may begin in 2026 and would take about a year and a half to complete.

Other aspects of the North Star Master Plan would follow.

Allie Vugrincic has been a radio reporter at WOSU 89.7 NPR News since March 2023.