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America's Botanic Garden Makes a Comeback

Once a monument to horticulture, today's U.S. Botanic Garden is boarded up and waiting for a facelift. This time of year, visitors normally flock to the granite and glass building at the base of Capitol Hill to enjoy the lush greenhouse full of thousands of chrysanthemums and salvias, a verdant island in the middle of the city. But too many years of wear and tear have taken their toll. Now, with the help of Congress, the Botanic Garden will be restored to its former glory, says The Washington Post.

Lord & Burnham Company of New York, a leading greenhouse builder of its time, designed and built the conservatory in 1933. The institution itself was founded in 1820, making it the oldest botanic garden in the U.S. and a monument to famous horticulturists like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Unfortunately, it had fallen into such disrepair that the Architect of the Capitol, Alan Hantman, ordered it closed in September, 1997. It got so bad that the glass and steel ceiling alternately dropped water or glass onto visitors in the conservatory. Hantman decided to make restoration a priority. Rep. Robert Livingston (D-LA), chair of the House Appropriations Committee and others helped to secure an Emergency Appropriation to fund the project.

Most of the plants have been waiting to return from storage at the Garden's growing greenhouses in DC Village. Others will be replaced from various gardening institutions around the country. The conservatory's exterior will appear much as it did in 1933 but with many more modern features inside. New additions include improved handicapped accessibility, as well as high-tech irrigation and climate control systems. The Palm House, an urban, tropical oasis, will be returned to its original Deco style but redesigned as a jungle. Visitors will scale an elevated walkway up to the plant canopy. Wandering outside, they will encounter the National Garden, an outdoor botanical park which is slated for a $10 million replanting and restoration, paid for with private funds.

The whole thing is expected to take 24 months and 27.9 million dollars. At an October 1 groundbreaking ceremony, Sen. Robert Bennett (R-UT), chair of the Senate legislative branch subcommittee, explained how the roots of the Botanic Garden run deep in our American Heritage. "It's part of...the curiosity that the Founding Fathers had about everything. There wasn't anything that didn't interest them."