Greenhouses like this one were often found on the grounds of fashionable estates from the 17th to 19th centuries. They were used for growing fruit trees, flowering plants, and ferns during the winter, or for nutritional value and aesthetic purposes. The historic greenhouse was constructed between 1825 and 1835, probably by Judge John F. May, who owned the Battersea property during this period. It is an architectural gem and perhaps one of the earliest American greenhouses still in existence today.
One of the
greatest contributions May brought to Battersea was the addition of the traditional
style greenhouse. It
was built circa 1830, and would have represented status and good taste as greenhouses
during this period were a luxury, some estimates concluding that a greenhouse
could cost upwards of $200,000 dollars per year in modern terms. In 2017 James
River Institute for Archaeology did a study of the greenhouse and excavated 19 test
units around the north, west, and south walls. Interestingly, they found that
the greenhouse had no heat source, so they believe the building either relied
solely on sunlight, or decomposing bark beds made of manure, compost, and bark
to keep plants warm in winter months. The archaeologists also found fragments of
planting pots, which means the plants housed here would have been potted.
The boarded up portion of the structure is where
the south-facing windows once were. When originally constructed, the door to
the greenhouse was in the middle of the south wall. During the 20th
century, the structure was converted into a garage by opening up the east wall
and removing the door on the south, carrying the bricks across to make the
former door part of the south-facing windows. Along the south side, JRIA found different
types of colored glass, including variations of aqua and green, as well as
colorless. Colorless glass wasn’t introduced until the 1830’s but given that
American horticultural pursuits generally lagged behind those of Europeans, the
Battersea greenhouse likely had green or aqua glass when first constructed due
to iron impurities in glass materials.
In 2016, Warren Davies with Virginia
Masonry Restoration repaired a large vertical fissure in the greenhouse and did
extensive work to stabilize the structure. If not repaired soon, the greenhouse
could have further deteriorated and even collapsed. The fact that the
greenhouse has remained intact for almost 200 years is remarkable, making it
one of the oldest American greenhouses still in existence today.
opposed to lean-to style with a sloping wall of glass or glasshouse styles made
almost fully of glass, traditional style greenhouses had vertical windows and
were constructed with thick brick walls to keep in heat.