A new chapter for Buena Vista’s greenhouse

By Courtney Lynahan, curator of historic structures, and Sara Clendaniel, Buena Vista site supervisor

A nearly century-old ready-to-build greenhouse at the historic Buena Vista property in New Castle is getting a breath of new life thanks to the repair and restoration efforts of the Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs. 

The greenhouse was originally constructed by the Buck family in 1932 and is part of a larger garage/head house complex on the property. As was a popular choice at the time, the structure was completed from a Lod & Burnham kit. These ready-to-build greenhouses were popular throughout America in the first half of the 20th century, especially among wealthier families. The mass production of glass allowed for what would have once been a cost-prohibitive and labor-intensive structure to be easily erected and used.

The recently renovated greenhouse at Buena Vista.

In 2021, the Division completed its work on the greenhouse as part of a continued effort to restore and renovate the Buena Vista campus. Initial repairs and improvements started in 2016, with the last phase focusing on the repair or replacement of wood frame pieces, closing all leaks that were occurring in the building, and reglazing and resetting the expansive glass panels.

Greenhouses are a building feature dating back hundreds of years as a way to grow plants and other produce outside of the normal growing season. In the United States, George Washington had a greenhouse structure to grow fruits more suited to tropical climates, including pineapples. As glass production, especially for the scale needed for these buildings, was costly and specialized, these buildings were truly hallmarks of the wealthier. Manufacturing techniques developed by the later 19th century and into the 20th century allowed the construction to become easier, but such structures were still seen mostly on larger estates and with owners who could pursue the pastime of leisurely gardening (or those who had the means to employ the staff to take care of the structure). Other examples of greenhouse structures like the one at Buena Vista — but on a much larger scale of use and size — were built at Nemours and Winterthur in Delaware and, of course, at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square.

Family members working just outside of the greenhouse. Photo courtesy of Karen Farquhar.

Buena Vista’s greenhouse was very much in use for most of its existence. Family members of Governor Clayton Douglass Buck recall the building in the 1950s and how it served its purpose. Karen Farquhar, Buck’s granddaughter, remembered her father using the greenhouse to grow carnations, a flower he loved and often wore in his buttonhole. She also recalled the bright-green, fragrant parsley that grew in the building that her father would cut with his pocket knife for her to have as a snack. 

Parsley also came to mind for Farquhar’s sister, Bucky Farquhar, who recalled how there would be food grown in the greenhouse that allowed for out-of-season options at meals, including celery in the winter that was eaten during Sunday dinners. In winter, the building took on a sense of summertime, with the warmth from the humidity and the smell of soil and flowers that were growing, both memories that the sisters have of the building.

“As a little girl, I enjoyed the greenhouse,” Bucky Farquhar said. “It was considered a special place to me.”

Now the building is restored, there is the ability to use the greenhouse effectively. The Division hopes to see its full use return soon, perhaps with some parsley for old time’s sake.