Palm House history

Even in the midst of a cold winter, there is a place you can visit for a taste of tropical jungle or hot desert. Couples date there, teachers hold biology classes, parents bewilder their children there with the sight of translucent fish and colourful parrots. The place, the Poznan Palm House, is celebrating its 110th anniversary this April!

Black and white photo of the Palm House and people walking in front of it. In the foreground some plants and a palm tree. - grafika artykułu
Poznań Palm House in the early 1960s, courtesy of cyryl.poznan.pl

It all began with a plant nursery set up on the site of today's Wilson Park. Then, in 1903, it was replaced by a public botanical garden. A year later, the garden was expanded by the addition of greenhouses and a Japanese house. While the complex was not quite yet a fully-fledged conservatory, it was certainly headed in that direction.

The first conservatory building was erected in 1910-1911 on the occasion of the East German Exhibition. It was opened on 1 April 1911, exactly 110 years ago. As the Exhibition began in early May, visitors descended in droves on the Palm House. At the time, its main building was a pavilion topped with a domed glass roof, with adjoining greenhouses that featured a collection of cacti.

Much like Poznan's numerous other early-20th-century buildings, the edifice was briefly used by the Germans. In 1919, immediately following the Wielkopolska Uprising, it ended up in Polish hands. During the Interwar Period, the Palm House was expanded, its plant collection increased significantly. Soon afterwards, in 1922-1924, it acquired exotic animals and constructed its alligator aquariums. Pools with tropical water plants were added along with a terrarium and an insectarium with butterflies.

Another major reconstruction began in 1927, ahead of the General National Exhibition. To house it, the famous Poznan-based architect Stefan Cybichowski designed a brand-new "Second Palm House". It was comprised seven glass pavilions of various sizes with a total area of ​​1694 square meters. The entire complex was constructed by the German building company Höntsch & Co., using what was then the latest technology of placing large glass surfaces over an iron frame. Automatic misters and sprayers were installed to provide the plants with artificial moisturisation and rain. The facility was officially opened on 15 May 1929, a day before the commencement of the General National Exhibition.

Regrettably, World War II, which broke out a decade later, left the Palm House thoroughly devastated. The building was first damaged in September 1939 by German air-force raids. Later, in May 1941, a bomb dropped by a British Halifax bomber on the ​​ul. Śniadeckich area added to the destruction. Although this was only a single bomb, its impact was powerful, breaking windows in the whole Łazarz district. With the large glass panes of the Palm House damaged by the blast, many exotic plants did not survive the cold.

Another wartime disaster that befell the Palm House occurred during the Łazarz district street fighting of 1945. It involved the Soviet 27th Rifle Guard Division advancing towards the city centre to drive out the Germans, who put up a fierce defence. The battles wreaked havoc with the Palm House buildings. Sixty percent of window surfaces and most of the plants, including a vast collection of orchids and the alligator breeding facility, ended up destroyed. Despite the devastation, the Palm House reopened as soon as April 1946. Its damaged plants were replaced with others, brought in from landed estates repossessed by the new authorities.

In 1961, the Palm House was further expanded. A new "aquarium" section was built, bringing the total exhibition area to 2,528 square meters. Unfortunately, by 1978, the facility fell into disrepair leading to its eventual closure. This followed after years of neglect and resulted from the poor quality of building materials. It was not until 1982 that a decision was made to rebuild the conservatory, or in fact to construct a completely new facility while recycling parts of the old one.

The construction dragged on for an entire decade, ending in 1992. In the intervening years, communism collapsed, freeing Poland to establish a market economy. The timing could not be worse for a large public project of this kind. As Poznan began to run its own affairs, it faced severe underfunding on all fronts. And yet, one of the first decisions of the then Mayor Wojciech Szczęsny Kaczmarek was to continue Palm House restoration. This turned out to be a reasonable choice as the works were already very advanced.

On 1 October 1992, the Poznan Palm House was officially opened for the third time, this time in the form we know today. The complex consists of ten exhibition and two service pavilions. It extends over an area of ​​4,600 square meters and has a volume of 46,000 cubic meters. Through a minor alteration in 2003, the Palm House gained a small education and visitor-amenities pavilion, which currently houses the atmospheric "7 continents" café known for the smell of flowers and tropics.

The Palm House is one of Europe's oldest and largest facilities of its kind. Its collections feature 11,000 plants representing 1,100 distinct species. These include tropical, subtropical, aquatic, and temperate climate and desert plants as well as many others. Most visitors are astounded by specimens from other climatic zones, including citrus and palm trees, epiphytes, cycads, breadfruit, date and fig trees, cacti, orchids and ferns. Pavilion III features a European olive tree that survived the turmoil of 1945. Do not miss Pavilion VI with its pepper and ebony trees. The Palm House's oldest plant is the 400-year-old Australian cycad.

The central feature of Pavilion VII is a pond with its Amazonian Queen Victoria's water lily (Victoria regia), whose floating leaves reach 2 meters in diameter, giving the plant enough buoyancy to support the weight of a child. The pond's banks are overgrown with pandans, a species native to tropical swamps. It is the place to go to smell the air of the Amazon jungle without leaving Poznan, not to mention warm yourself up during a cold winter. Few people know that the Palm House is home to a coconut palm that actually bears fruit.

A major draw of the Poznan Palm House is its aquarium, made up of 37 reservoirs with capacities ranging from 1,000 to 14,000 litres. The reservoirs are home to 170 species of fish from various parts of the world and about 40 species of aquatic plants.

Interestingly, the Palm House takes part in the annual, wait for it, Poznan Fortress Days. The reason is that Palm House is the official custodian of the Wilson Park air raid shelter.

Scheduled for September is the online conference event: 110th anniversary of the Poznań Palm House. The conference is an excellent opportunity to discuss nature education as it is today and as the Palm House might offer it going forward.

Szymon Mazur

translation: Krzysztof Kotkowski

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