The gardens complex at Duke Farms consisted of two primary greenhouse components – the Orchid Range, built around 1900, and the 1917 Conservatory – and their related horticultural lands and support structures.
The two components were designed and sited by two different architects some 15 years apart, reflecting the expansion of J.B. Duke’s vision for his estate. Architecturally, the Orchid Range and the 1917 Conservatory, demonstrated how the country house aesthetic transformed utilitarian buildings into lavish, ornamental structures. Although designed by different architects, both the Orchid Range and the 1917 Conservatory were constructed by renowned greenhouse builders Lord & Burnham.
An integral part of the country house ideal at Duke Farms, the greenhouses were the center of horticultural production serving household needs, the requirements of the park, and the marketplace.
Throughout the first half of the 20th century, the greenhouses at Duke Farms were used for commercial production of orchids and flowers for the New York market. As air freight came into its own in the 1950s, the availability of cheaper plant material from abroad undercut the need for traditional greenhouse operations at Duke Farms. In 1958, Doris Duke began planning her vision for the Indoor Display Gardens, housed in the 1917 Conservatory, which she opened to the public in 1964.
The Indoor Display Gardens closed in May 2008 in preparation for the creation of new environmentally-friendly gardens in the Orchid Range.
The Orchid Range was among the first buildings J.B. Duke built at Duke Farms and occupied a site along the New York Central Railroad almost midway between two public roads – Duke’s Parkway West and the former River Road. Its proximity to the rail spur facilitated the large shipments of plant material, soil and manure required to maintain it.
Designed by Boston architects Kendall Taylor & Stevens and erected by noted greenhouse builders Lord & Burnham, it was the first ornamental building constructed at Duke Farms. Fashioned in the form of a palm house, the Orchid Range and its range of propagating houses held palms, potted trees, ferns and orchids.
Before the 1917 Conservatory was constructed (it later housed the indoor display gardens), the Orchid Range came to be as much of an attraction as the park. A 1903 "Town & Country" article describes the Conservatory when it was open to the public:
"In the winter one may visit greenhouses filled with a bewildering display of tropical and sub-tropical fruits; the orange, lemon, banana, melon, strawberry, grape and many vegetables reach a perfection of growth seldom seen in the North. In the palm house the foliage runs riot. The air is laden with the fragrant jasmine, orange blossom and magnolia, mingled with the wild azalea and pond lily; among the trailing veils of moss and tendrils of wild vines swing dainty butterfly orchids. Beneath the palmetto boughs are ferns and cacti, contrasting with the rich reds of the poinsettias. Symphonies in rose bloom – the American Beauty, La France, tea rose and Marechal Neil fill other greenhouses with fragrance and beauty, that is daily gathered for the home. Here, too, are sections filled with white, pink and scarlet carnations and great clusters of azaleas.”
The Orchid Range faces north and consists of the octagonal palm house backed by eight long rectangular houses along a north-south corridor. A domed, rectangular house that once served as an aquatic garden connects the Conservatory and the first range.
The interior of the Orchid Range is characteristic of the appearance of working greenhouses and illustrates how large greenhouses provided a succession of different environments needed for different types of plants. In contrast to the 1917 Greenhouse, which once housed display gardens, the Orchid Range is a working facility.
In 2010-2011, the Orchid Range was renovated to LEED Platinum standards. LEED, an acronym for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is an internationally-recognized green building certification system developed by the U.S. Green Building Council. Today, the Orchid Range is far more energy-efficient and environmentally-friendly, and houses new indoor display gardens with a focus on native plants. In October of 2013, Duke Farms achieved final LEED Platinum certification after a vigorous documentation process.
The Subtropical Display garden demonstrates the diversity of plants found in this environment, including longleaf pines, palmetto and a sphagnum bog teeming with carnivorous plants. Featured is an evolving population of orchids native to this subtropical area. Orchid species introduced from nearby southern regions, are acclimating as a possible result of Climate Change.
The Tropical Orchid Display is filled with a wide variety of orchid species from tropical regions along with some of the magnificent orchids that have been cultivated at Duke Farms throughout its history.
Support greenhouses hold orchid plants in various stages of growth and bloom in preparation for orchid programs, demonstrations, and presentation in the Tropical Orchid Garden. Groupings of individual varieties are showcased, so as to observe the different growing habits within the orchid family.
Horace Trumbauer, the Philadelphia architect who provided plans for the Dukes’ unfinished country mansion at Duke Farms, also developed the plans for the 1917 Conservatory and its associated outbuildings.
Construction of the Conservatory took place in two phases. The first phase was constructed around 1909, and construction of the second phase was not completed until 1917.
The 1917 Conservatory complex is emblematic of the country house aesthetic. It was a center of production essential to furnishing the flowers, ferns, plants and produce required to maintain the lifestyle of the Dukes. Families such as the Dukes often shipped produce and cut flowers from their farms and estates to their resort homes and city houses.
Greenhouses also enabled the wealthy to indulge in the leisure pursuits of plant collecting and competitive flower shows. As steamships and the Panama and Suez canals made foreign lands more accessible, wealthy individuals became patrons for plant collectors who scoured rain forests and exotic locations for new specimens.
And while flower shows placed a premium on the individual specimens, they also rewarded the creation of floral displays. These displays, which were on view for several days or a week, rewarded gardeners who could force the flowers to bloom in unison.
Under Head Gardener Angus MacDonald, Duke Farms’ American Beauty roses won first prize in the cut rose class at the New York International Flower Show in 1917. In 1920, Duke Farms’ orchids, grown under the supervision of Arthur E. Miles, won first prize. In both shows, Duke Farms mounted extensive displays.
More than four decades later, the magnificent flowers at Duke Farms would be displayed in an entirely different way. In 1958, Doris Duke began to transform the 1917 Conservatory complex into the Indoor Display Gardens, which she opened to the public for the first time in 1964.
The Indoor Display Gardens revealed the interests and philanthropic aspirations of Doris Duke, as well as an appreciation for other cultures and a yearning for global understanding.
The Indoor Display Gardens in the 1917 Conservatory closed in May 2008 in preparation for the creation of new environmentally-friendly gardens in the Orchid Range.
Today, the support greenhouses for the Conservatory are home to a native nursery, where plants are grown from seed collected on the property to assist in habitat regeneration efforts at Duke Farms. More than 200,000 plants have been propagated there for planting on the property.