Praising Horticultural Hall in Fairmount Park

Horticultural Hall – Floral Hall – East End, September 15, 1875. Centennial Photographic Company ( Library of Philadelphia.)

“In just under two years,” John Maass explained in The Glorious Enterprise, his book about the Centennial Exhibition in 1876, “architects Hermann J. Schwarzmann, assistant Hugo Kafka and five engineers transformed 285 acres of fields of West Fairmount Park, mostly “swamps and ravines, into building lots, gardens and landscaped grounds.” Schwarzmann’s team “moved over 500,000 cubic or yards of earth; graded and surface 3 miles of avenues and 17 miles of walks; build a railroad with 5 1/2 miles of double track; corrected 16 bridges; put up 3 miles of fence with 179 stiles and gates; constructed 7 miles of drains, 9 miles of water pipes, 16 fountains, and water works with a daily pumping capacity of 6 million gallons; laid 8 miles of gas pipes; installed three separate telegraph systems with underground cables; planted 153 acres of lawns and flowerbeds, and over 20,000 trees and shrubs. Every one of 249 large and small structures was completed; Schwarzmann had designed 34 of these himself, including the two permanent buildings,” Memorial Hall and Horticultural Hall.

“Horticultural Hall was the smallest of the Centennial’s five principal buildings, but it was the largest conservatory built up to that time, bigger than the famous hothouses in the Botanical Gardens of London and Paris. Schwarzmann begin to prepare plans on April 11, 1874… On June 11, 1874, the Committee on Grounds Plans and Buildings approved his plans. Construction began in December 1874, and the elaborate building was completed on April 1, 1876. The City of Philadelphia bore the cost of $367,073.47.”

Horticultural Hall, Interior, 1876. Centennial Photographic Company. ( - Free Library)
Horticultural Hall, Interior, 1876. Centennial Photographic Company. ( Library of Philadelphia.)

According to Schwarzmann, “the design is in the Moresque style of architecture of the twelfth century, the principal materials externally being iron and glass. The length of the building is 383 feet, width 193 feet, and height to the top of the lantern 72 feet.”

“The east and west entrances are approached by flights of blue marble steps from terraces 80 by 20 feet, in the center of each of which stands and open kiosk 20 feet in diameter,” Maass tells us. “The angles of the main conservatory or adorned with eight ornamental fountains. The corridors which connect the conservatory with the surrounding rooms open fine vistas in every direction.”

“No such building and no such horticultural display had been seen in an International Exposition before.  The visitors passed under horseshoe arches of black, cream and red bricks to enter the grand hall, flooded with light and filled with tropical palms, trees and shrubs. Spectacular chandeliers glittered above and in the center played a marble fountain, designed in Rome by the American sculptress Margaret Foley.”

“Horticultural Hall won the praise of professionals and public, of Americans and Europeans alike. The international jury gave Schwarzmann and award for its architectural design.”

Horticultural Hall, Autochrome by Emil P. Albrecht,  ca. 1910.  (The Library Company of Philadelphia)

“The building was surrounded by flowerbeds and the trees grew up around it. Horticultural Hall was a fine sight in the moonlight, gleaming by its reflecting pool. The interior was magic: Victorian statuary nestled in the moist tropical foliage, the stillness only broken by the drip of water on the floor of patterned grill work. The Park Commission skimped on proper building maintenance; in 1911 its engineers reported that the iron, glass, brick and woodwork were all in a hazardous condition of disrepair, but Horticultural Hall was still standing 43 years later when it was slightly damaged by a hurricane.”

According to some accounts, Hurricane Hazel broke hundreds of glass panes. According to others, the number was only 29. In either case, Hazel’s impact was considered a “death blow” to the meant-to-be-permanent, once-treasured Horticultural Hall.

[Sources: “Hazel Death Death Blow to Horticultural Hall,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, October 22, 1954; John Maass, The Glorious Enterprise: The Centennial Exhibition of 1876 and H. J. Schwarzmann, Architect-in-Chief (American Life Foundation, 1973).]