Bigger and Better Hothouses

HOWARD HAYES has worked on newspapers in Detroit and Paris and now lives in New York. He is a frequent contributor to the Atlantic,


I LOVE hothouses. I love them outside, sparkling in the sun, and inside looking out. I love to wander in a fine big public hothouse (or more politely, conservatory) when an autumn rain or a spring rain is pattering on the glass overhead, or snow is swirling or a winter gale is blowing.

I love to stroll among the tall shooting bamboos and the spreading palms. The steam pounding in the steampipes is music to my ears. So is the gentle plash of unfrozen water in the goldfish-and-lily pool. My chapped skin is soothed by the warm humidity, and the musty moldy smell of humus is pleasant to my nose.

Altogether I think the big well-run hothouse is one of science’s and civilization’s great triumphs over nature. I’ve spent many a pleasant winter hour under hothouse glass and I hope to spend many more.

But I have a double complaint. Hothouses are simply not big enough, and there is no place to sit down. Even in the best of them there is a sort of stinginess, a cramped-up quality that reminds you more of some tiny European principality of the nineteenth century than it does of the wealth and grandeur and generous spirit of America. The walks, for example, arc only a few feet wide — hardly wide enough to walk arm in arm with your girl. The plants (in pots) are jammed in too close together. The taller trees are bumping against the roof. As for a view, a vista, or a place to sit down and rest your feet, they hardly exist.

Public hothouses, it seems to me, should be “reconceived” in a new and modern America spirit. You know what has been done with the zoos. You’ve seen the new zoos where the animals appear to have been let out of their cages and to stare at you with nothing in between. But I’m a plant and flower lover and not a zoo lover. Thus I don’t understand why we plant lovers aren’t entitled to some of the same kind of money that has been going into these big fancy new zoos. Not everybody likes the smell, or the sight, of caged animals. Some of us prefer plants and flowers. At least they don’t make those horrible noises, and they don’t look at you with suppressed rage and hopeless pain, and they don’t dirty their rages.

Well then, how would I “rethink” the great public hothouse? I should begin by imagining a beautiful summer garden — wide walks, plenty of room, trees and lawns and shady nooks, flowers in bloom everywhere — and then I should quite simply throw a high glass or plastic roof over it.

As to size, it shouldn’t be a city block long, nor three blocks, nor even ten, but twenty blocks long. Let’s not be niggardly. No more of these little Monte Carlo conservatories. Think of ourselves. Think of the Russians. Think of Africa. Think of the Grand Canyon. Think of anything, but don’t be st ingy.

As a matter of fact, a simple way to begin such a hothouse or “winter garden” as I have in mind would be to take a good-sized piece of any wellestablished public park and merely put in steam radiators under the trees and a continuous glass roof overhead. Leave the walks and benches and flower beds as they are. Replant steadily with tropical or subtropical material according to seasonal changes.

And now, as a taxpayer, let me ask you this: What could be more wonderful on a January day than stepping into a perfectly air-conditioned public park, checking your overcoat and galoshes, and then strolling for a mile or two among fresh blooming flowers, green lawns, and leafy trees?

For your pleasure and enjoyment I would go further. I would install café terraces and “openair" restaurants. Architects inform me that we shall never have them otherwise, as our climate is simply too windy and brutal and changeable for the outdoor dining of France. Fart of my hothouse could be made to look like a corner of the Rue de la Paix on a spring day with “open-air” tables and waiters and gay crowds strolling by. And all this, mind you, under our own January and February sun, which is so much brighter than anything in Paris. Plenty of steam heat from the radiators scattered all around would make up for the subzero temporatures outside.

I was thinking of little French bookstalls, too, and other things. But then I realized that if I put in bookstalls I’d soon have to admit purfumeries and then department stores.

Anyway, if we Americans are as rich as we say we are, and we’re truly the lovers of all the good things we claim, I see no difficulty over my jumbo-size winter garden. As I see it, we’ve air-conditioned everything else; now why not air-condition a sizable chunk of the open air?