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Home > Publications > Historic New England Magazine > Fall 2004 > Greenhouse Bicentennial

Greenhouse Bicentennial


ABOVE  The 1804 greenhouses, adjacent to the McIntire barn.

In 1793, Theodore Lyman, a Boston merchant in the East India and China trades, acquired thirty acres in Waltham, Massachusetts, for a country seat, which he called The Vale. Owning a country house was very much the fashion among Boston’s elite around the turn of the nineteenth century. The Massachusetts Society for the Promotion of Agriculture had been founded in 1792, and gentlemen indul-ging in agricultural pursuits could take pride in the belief that they were bringing improvement to the new nation.

Lyman hired Salem architect Samuel McIntire to build the house and an English gardener, William Bell, to lay out the grounds. Bell designed an estate in the Picturesque style as advocated by the English landscape designer Humphrey Repton, with a lagoon and a white granite bridge, specimen trees, and a deer park. The estate also had a kitchen garden and a 425-foot-long brick wall used to grow espaliered fruit. In 1804, Lyman erected a three-part greenhouse in which to grow a variety of hard-to-obtain fruits, such as pineapples, figs, lemons, limes, and bananas. These two-hundred-year-old greenhouses, part of a large complex, survive today as some of the oldest examples in the country still in operation.

ABOVE  Details of the original heating and ventilation systems.

During the 1870s, one of Theodore Lyman’s sons changed the 1804 green-houses into a grapery. To accommodate the vines, three-and-a-half-foot-high ground beds were constructed of brick to hold the soil for the roots. Trellises were strung along the glass roof, and the walkways in the second and third sections were built up. Grape cuttings were obtained from the royal greenhouses at Hampton Court in England. The two Mediterranean varieties still being grown here today are the Black Hamburg and the Green Muscat of Alexandria, popular table varieties used a great deal during that time. The Black Hamburg is a black-purple variety that has a complex wine-like flavor and usually ripens in June. The Green Muscat, which ripens a month later, is golden-green in color, sweet, and rich in flavor. Both varieties have seeds and are borne on very large clusters.

Much care went into the cultivation of the grapes. The vines needed to be trained and pruned each year and monitored constantly for pests and diseases. Maintaining correct moisture levels was crucial: small fires were built to reduce excessive humidity, and the grapes would be syringed if the air became too dry. When the grapes ripened, they were carefully cut and brought to the mansion, where it is said they were so highly prized that only the adults were allowed to eat them.

The grape houses themselves are a marvel of engineering. They are lean-to in style, with the glass roof facing southeast to capture the maximum amount of sunlight. The brick wall on the north side, up to thirteen inches thick, buffers the greenhouse from the wind. In this brick wall, also known as a “hot wall,” there is a series of original flues, whereby air heated by a large wood stove in the basement was drawn through the brick, heating it up and then radiating it out during the evening. There were originally thirteen arched “pass throughs”—passages leading from the basement into the main greenhouse—which both bore the load of the wall and allowed heat from the stove to flow into the growing space. Gear mechanisms control vents on the front and along the roof line, which may be opened to permit excess heat to escape. Today few changes have been made to the original structure, and the original heating system may still be seen.

-Lynn Ackerman

ABOVE  A profusion of grapes, bougainvillea, and a Ponderosa lemon grow in the house today.

The greenhouses are open year round, Monday through Saturday, from 9:30 am until 4 pm. Please watch your newsletter or check online for information on a holiday open house to celebrate the greenhouse bicentennial on December 4th and 5th.

Greenhouse Bicentennial