What should we save?


Today, I saw¬† a short bit on Atlas Obscura about the really cool looking horticultural domes of Milwaukee’s Mitchell Park Conservatory. Like many old things, they need some help. In fact, they need quite a bit of help. That might not be available. And then what? To some extent, this is simply one more case of the hard questions around historic preservation. What do we preserve? How do we preserve it? What happens when we decide not to preserve something?

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A stitch in time saves nine. It sounds like routine maintenance has been delayed over the years until the domes are in serious disrepair. Lest I sound critical, this is a really common problem for many of us (I speak only for myself, but perhaps you can relate!), particularly for large, public properties. It raises another issue that isn’t captured in a comfortable aphorism: the bottom line. We all face budget constraints and must make hard decisions about how money will be spent. Some beloved project seems always to be on the chopping block.

While the city acknowledges the problems and claims not to have the money for all the needed repairs throughout their Parks system, they also seem to be proactive in saying, the conservatory and its plants are important. “How should we move forward?” they seem to be asking. I found this interesting website with that conversation. I wish all the citizens of Milwaukee, as well as all the people over time, who have enjoyed the gardens success in finding a way forward.

I’m convinced they will. Reading a bit about the history of the Conservatory, the Domes are already a reconstruction to remain current and relevant, while keeping the plant heritage in place. The original Conservatory dates to 1899, when it consisted of a large glass house patterned after the British Crystal Palace, then the latest thing in plant collection housing. (The US Botanic Garden collection is still housed in such a building.) In the 1950s, noticing flagging attendance, the Conservatory was taken down and replaced with the then very cutting edge geodesic domes that are in trouble today. It will be interesting to see how Milwaulkee moves forward in a new architectural adventure.

As a historic preservation issue, it sounds like there will be no attempt to preserve the domes in their historic construction. From an architectural perspective, the dominant perspective in the historic preservation world, the buildings will not be restored. They will be replaced with something contemporary. Interstingly, and not a core piece of historic preservation, it sounds like what will be preserved is the plant collection. And, to me, that’s an important effort and a valuable service to the people of Milwaulkee and those who come visit the Conservatory. And, no doubt, to researchers who study the plant collection.


National Houseplant Appreciation Day

January 10th. Did you miss it? I nearly did. But not to worry. You can mark your calendar for next year and plan a proper day of celebration for your houseplants. And, besides, it’s always the right time to appreciate your houseplants.

National Today has a very short timeline for houseplants that mentions “terrariums” (actually Wardian boxes) in the banner year of 1836 for transporting those plants across the oceans and around the world for the plant collectors. The plant hunters themselves apparently had a very hard life, were paid poorly, and often died violent deaths. They didn’t do it so you could have houseplants, but that certainly has been one result. So, look on your houseplants with awe for the men who gave their lives so these plants could enter our non-tropical lives.

The Nettle Dress

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A contemporary tale of a textile artist, Allan Brown, who spun nettles and then wove a cloth of the thread as he lived through the deaths of both his father and his wife, this hour-long documentary was released in 2023. At the moment, it seems only to be available “in person” in the UK. Fingers crossed that it will be available in the US one day.
An October 2023 review in The Guardian details how he came to choose nettles and how the preparation and spinning of the fibers helped him be present when he needed to be present. The idea to make a dress came later when someone told him of the Hans Christian Andnersen fairy tale, The Wild Swans. Brown envisioned a devotional dress in honor of his wife that could be worn by one of their daughters.

If you don’t know the fairy tale, Wikipedia has a summary here. Basically, to free her eleven brothers from a spell, the princess must knit shirts for each out of stinging nettles.

The Guardian article is certainly worth reading and the approximately two-minute trailer is definitely worth watching.