We arrive at the iconic Palm House, one of the Adelaide Botanic Garden’s most exquisite treasures. Palm House is a rare surviving example of a large mid-19th century glasshouse designed for public purposes, a feat made possible by the technological developments of the Industrial Revolution. Designed by German architect Gustav Runge, the building’s prefabricated parts were shipped from the German city of Bremen in 1875.
In 1874, Adelaide Botanic Gardens director Richard Schomburgk was reading a horticultural magazine containing a detailed account of a glasshouse designed by architect Gustav Runge and fabricated by Johann Friedrich Höpe, erected on a large estate a few miles from Bremen in Germany. Dr Schomburgk was so taken with the description that he wrote to Rothermund to find out more. Thankfully Schomburgk did hear back from Rothermund and, excited about the prospects of a replica glasshouse in Adelaide, successfully applied for funding to the Governors of the Botanic Gardens. Working with the same architect and fabricator that Rothermund had used in Germany, Schomburgk ordered the ironwork components and 3,808 panes of glass to be shipped to Adelaide for construction locally. The new building was opened to the South Australian public in 1877.
The second oldest glasshouse in Australia, Palm House is now the only known surviving example in the world of a mid-19th century German manufactured glasshouse; all other examples in Germany having been destroyed during the Second World War. The prefabricated glass and steel elements of the building are held together by a sophisticated and cleverly designed tensile structure, displaying Gustav Runge’s skilled application of new and developing structural technologies to produce a building that is light, robust, simple and elegant.
When the Palm House first opened it contained palms, ferns and other tropical plants, though plantings have changed over time. As early as 1887, plants grew to the point where they broke the glass ceiling. By 1975, the number of tropical plants had outgrown the building. In the early 1980s it was recognised that a major restoration was required, but proposals were expensive. Instead of renovating the Palm House, the Bicentennial Conservatory was built. In 1986 the Palm House was closed to the public and plants were moved to the new Conservatory which was launched in 1988. Sadly, the Palm House was neither replanted nor open to the public at that time.
In the early 1990s Palm House finally received the recognition and attention it deserved with a program of extensive restoration work. It was reopened to the public in 1995. Recently, the Botanic Garden undertook renovations for eight months to again safe-guard this rare and highly significant Heritage listed building.