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SAN FRANCISCO -- It's been almost eight years since a rogue wind blew the flower power out of Golden Gate Park. The Conservatory of Flowers, a gingerbread-and-glass palace that has stood in the park's northeast corner for 125 years, was reduced to slivers by the December 1995 tempest, its graceful arches splintered, almost half of its 16,800 glass windowpanes smashed, rare plants ripped to shreds. For a while, the city feared it had lost an icon.

Rescue came, as it often does, from unexpected sources. The fund-raising campaign that quickly took root attracted about $10 million in public funds and $15 million in private donations -- enough to make the conservatory whole again.

After years of painstaking labor, the Victorian-era confection has been both rebuilt and reimagined, with results that are sure to please the plant-loving public. The grand reopening, set for Saturday, comes with what Scot Maybury, the institution's director, calls "a big hoopla."

As well it should.

"This is the oldest public conservatory in the United States -- and it's here, not in New York or Boston or wherever else it might have been," he said of the building's significance.

Set on a grassy knoll framed by acres of symmetrical flower beds, the 12,000-square-foot greenhouse with a gumdrop-shaped dome is an eye-catcher with a mysterious past.

The mystery began when the wood-and-glass components of what was to become the conserva- tory were discovered, in crates, on the Santa Clara estate of James List, a Bay Area real-estate baron and agriculturalist who died in 1876. A group of wealthy businessmen bought the greenhouse kit and offered it to the city of San Francisco, which eagerly had the building erected in Golden Gate Park, then a fledgling urban preserve. The fanciful white structure opened to the public in 1879.

"It's a civil engineering landmark -- and one of few examples of a Victorian-era prefabricated building still in existence," Maybury said. "Its foundation contained some of the earliest concrete poured in the West. ... But we still have no idea where it came from."

More than one San Francisco guidebook states with certainty that the greenhouse, modeled after one at Kew Gardens outside London, was shipped to California from England or Ireland.

Maybe so -- but probably not, Maybury said.

As the building was dismantled and its parts and construction techniques examined in preparation for the recent rehab, clues began to surface. Most important was the determination that most of the structure's intricate wooden frame was made of old-growth redwood.

"Certainly the ability to mill redwood locally existed in the 1870s," Maybury reasons. "But at the same time, California was exporting redwood to Europe and to the East Coast. So it could have gone and come back. ... Yet to make a greenhouse out of wood at this time was kind of weird: Since the 1840s, most had been made of iron.

"The weight of the evidence," he concludes, "suggests local manufacture."

Whatever its origins, the conservatory was a hit with Victorian-era San Franciscans, who flocked there to admire potted tropical plants installed under the graceful wooden arches supporting the 49-foot-tall central dome and 93-foot wings extending from either side.

The structure survived several near-tragedies over the years, including an 1883 boiler explosion that set the central dome on fire, burning it to the ground.

"When it was rebuilt, they added a section that raised the dome 6 feet, forced the perspective and made the building seem bigger," Maybury said.

The gingerbread greenhouse, in its current proportions, survived the 1906 earthquake with only a few broken windowpanes, and bore witness to the tens of thousands of homeless who camped out in the park over the following months.

As the years flicked by, its structural integrity began to weaken. A series of misguided repair efforts in the 1950s and 1970s created problems with water seepage. By the time the big storm of 1995 blew in with 100 mph winds, the conservatory had been identified by the World Monument Fund as one of the world's 100 most endangered historic structures, Maybury said.

Public support for repairing the landmark was strong and immediate. As the money trickled in, a "vision team" set about conceiving the conservatory's place in 21st century San Francisco.

"This is not a renovation -- it's a rehabilitation and seismic upgrade," Maybury said, explaining that the building was taken down to the ground and painstakingly put back together. "We departed from the original construction in several ways."

Most significant, he said, was the addition of structural steel to junctures bearing heavy weight and the replacement of plate-glass windowpanes with laminated safety glass.

To the unknowing eye, the conservatory's finished exterior looks pretty much like a freshened-up version of what was there before. But inside, under 16,800 glass panes whitewashed to prevent overheating of humans as well as plants, things are very different.

Make no mistake, it's still a jungle in here. The challenge, Maybury said, was to create an environment where visitors would be at once engaged, entertained, educated and inspired. That mission is accomplished through five exhibition areas, each a distinct "climate chamber" where moisture and temperature are controlled by high-tech equipment that can create mist, fog and rain under the dome.

"The idea is to create an immersive environment where, if you work hard, you can imagine yourself in the tropics," Maybury said.

About $4 million of the $25 million restoration cost went to new exhibits, which showcase 1,500 species of plants from 50 nations.

Visitors first encounter a lowland tropics environment focused on what Maybury calls "economic plants" -- coffee, cashew, vanilla, allspice and others grown as cash crops. A centerpiece here is a century-old philodendron that was left in place while the 55-foot-tall central dome was rebuilt around it.

The recommended visitors path continues to the east wing's highland tropics gallery, home to the world's largest and most-complete collection of high-altitude orchids, with more than 700 of the 1,000 known species represented. Here, too, are carnivorous attention-getters such as rare species of pitcher plants capable of dissolving insects and even small animals that fall into their traps.

At the end of the east wing is a serene space devoted to aquatic plants. The centerpiece is a serene pond where giant lily pads float beneath a hanging sculpture representative of the plants' hidden, underwater parts.

In the conservatory's west wing, the ambience changes considerably. Here visitors encounter what Maybury describes as "Victorian pot culture."

"This may be San Francisco, but we're not talking marijuana," he joked.

The exhibit space is filled instead with blooming plants arranged to create an impressive explosion of color. "This room helps us turn the Conservatory of Foliage back into the Conservatory of Flowers," Maybury said.

The final gallery on the tour is a special-exhibits space where the institution's powerful but low-key educational efforts are concentrated. In an attempt to attract repeat visitors, exhibits will be changed several times a year, Maybury said. "It will have a very 'Austin Powers,' flower-power kind of ambience."

The opening exhibit, about the birds and the bees, "is very family friendly, pretty hip, pretty fun. It's not too heavy on the message, but you leave knowing that the survival of plants depends on the critical relationship between plants and their pollinators."

And there's more to come, including an education center and event space.

"Our big message for the opening," Maybury said, "is that we're not done."

Most visitors will agree that what has been accomplished to date is amazing enough for now.

Travel wise: Conservatory of Flowers

Where: JFK Drive in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park.

Hours: Beginning Saturday, 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily except Mondays and major holidays.

Admission: $5 general; $3 for ages 12-17 and 65 and older, and students with ID; $1.50 for ages 5-11; free for ages 4 and under.

For more information: (415) 666-7001 or www. conservatoryofflowers.org.

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