Restored Harkness greenhouse eagerly awaited
Waterford - Glimmering behind the orange plastic fencing, torn down greenhouse wings and overgrown grass patches is a nearly refurbished central greenhouse at Harkness Memorial State Park.
There are a handful of renovation items to be completed in the next month or two before the central part of the greenhouse is up and running as a modern yet historic-looking facility.
"I am telling you, we have been waiting 20 years, Friends of Harkness have been saving money for 20 years on this project so another six months is like nothing to us," said Mark Darin, the park supervisor at Harkness. "It did go over quite a bit but as long as I am getting what I bargained for I am pretty happy."
The reason the central greenhouse of about 15,000 square feet wasn't completed in November, as planned, is that it was harder to match historical parts of the greenhouse such as old-fashioned gutters to the modern aluminum frame than anticipated, Darin said. Once the greenhouse is finished, the park will be able to grow many of its gardens' flowers to be more self-sufficient.
"It took a lot of them (Kronenberger & Sons Restoration of Middletown) coming out, of redesigning it, looking at it, going back, making pieces, trying to make them fit, to the point where we finally got it to where it looked like the old greenhouse with the new frame," Darin said.
The original owners of the 230-acre property, Edward and Mary Harkness, used the greenhouse to grow flowers, fruits and vegetables plants for their gardens in the early-to-mid 1900s. Lord and Burnham, a notable American greenhouse manufacturer, designed the greenhouse in 1910.
So far the main projects that have been completed include a new aluminum frame to replace the old steel one, historic items such as cranks and heating pipes cleaned and reinstalled, a temporary wooden grape vine, old-fashioned gutters attached to the aluminum frame, cleaned and reinstalled large bluestone tiles and shade blankets.
"We are nearing the end and it's been you know, it's been a tough go as far as being patient because it is a really difficult job and not many people have the ability to work with historic greenhouses," said Eileen Grant, member of the Friends of Harkness board of trustees and horticultural co-chairwoman.
The project, known as Phase II, is costing around $950,000 and the 800-member Friends of Harkness volunteer group raised about half the money. The other half came from rental fees for weddings and receptions held at the mansion. Harkness makes about $350,000 annually from these events, Darin said.
Tom Tyler, director of Connecticut State Parks, said the department anticipates that Phase II will be within budget.
Phase I, which was completed in 2009, cost roughly $395,845 and renovated the potting shed next to the greenhouse. Darin said they there are Phase III and IV plans in mind for each greenhouse wing which are for the most part demolished at this time.
In total the project was estimated to cost $2.4 million so Grant said she anticipates Phase III and IV to cost $750,000 to $1 million.
The Friends of Harkness has planned several fundraising activities. The Gatsby Gala, which will have food, drinks and dancing, is Sept. 28 from 5:15 to 10:30 p.m. and tickets are $130 per person or $250 per couple.
"We could conceivably do one of the wings at least in the next couple of years and by the time we completed that we would raise enough money with the matching situation (wedding fees) to do the other wing," Grant said.
The Friends of Harkness want to spend an equal amount as the state because the funds from the weddings are not only for restoration but also for maintenance of Harkness, Grant said.
Before the group gets to the next phases there are still a number of components to Phase II to complete.
There are 15 benches that need to be laid with old reddish clay tiles and put into the greenhouse, Darin said. The benches will go along the side and middle of the greenhouse. The contractors also need to install several doors between the different greenhouse rooms in the central building. The rooms will be able to be kept at different temperatures by way of a computerized weather system that still has to be installed. The system has sensors to direct the windows when to close and open in order to respond to changing weather temperatures outside.
The full-time gardener at Harkness, Eric Hansen, said it will be nice to finally have the greenhouse because right now the park grows Mary Harkness' signature heliotropes, tall purple vanilla smelling plants, near the maintenance building.
When it gets too hot the plants turn dormant, yellow and sticky, he said.
"It will be done; I won't put a time frame on it," Hansen said.
Besides the heliotropes, the park and Friends of Harkness plan to grow many of the annuals it uses in the Harkness gardens each year.
Currently the state pays about $15,000 a year for annuals.
The greenhouse will also be used for interpretive or educational programs, Darin said.
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