A gleaming monument to the ambition and creativity of its age, the world's largest Victorian glasshouse will once again welcome visitors to see some of the world's rarest plants following a lengthy facelift.
"Temperate House" in London's Kew Gardens is large enough to house three jumbo jets, and was home to around 1,000 species of plants from around the world before it was shut in 2013 after falling into a state of disrepair.
"There was rust everywhere, all the paint was falling off, and look now, it's all brand spanking new," project manager Andrew Williams told, as a fleet of diggers and teams of workers put the finishing touches to the £41 million ($57 million, 46 million euros) renovation project.
Robust Victorian engineering
The wrought iron and glass structure was designed by esteemed Victorian architect Decimus Burton in 1860 and opened in 1863. The facelift required the removal of 69,000 individual elements to be cleaned, repaired or replaced and the restoration of 15,000 panes of glass. Enough paint to cover four football pitches was used to spruce up the huge iron columns, and Kew expects hundreds of thousands of visitors to pass through its doors annually after its May reopening.
"A building like this deserves it," said Williams. "I don't think you'd build a building like this now," he added. "Everybody who has worked in here is really proud and now you see the plants going in, it's a fantastic space." With weeks to go before the grand reopening, horticulturalists are hard at work rehousing the plants, many of which were transferred to on-site nurseries during the renovation work. "It's been a really huge operation," Temperate House supervisor Scott Taylor said. Around 1,300 m3 of soil was brought in from off site, which will support around 1,500 species when the replant is complete. The house will be split into geographical areas, showcasing plants from the Americas, Africa, Australia, the Himalayas and Asia.
"Our main drive for the reopening is rare and threatened flora," explained Taylor, shortly before heading off to plant an Australian palm.
World's rarest plants
One of the rarest plants on display will be the South African Encephalartos woodii, a palm-like cycad with leathery, green leaves. Only one such specimen was ever found growing in the wild, and it has long-since disappeared from the natural world.
Signs will inform visitors about the threats to flora, including changing land use, invasive plants brought in from different ecosystems and deforestation. New ventilation and an upgraded heating system, largely fired by nearby bio-mass boilers, have both been installed to help the plants flourish, although some treasured specimens were unable to make the move.
With a new maintenance plan in place, Kew expects to go 25 years before having to carry out any more major work. The Grade I listed structure still benefits from its robust Victorian engineering. "The key columns, the key structure is all original and we haven't had to do a lot of work to it," said Williams. "They'll last for another 100 years. It's a big solid building, it's not going anywhere!"