The following history is largely anecdotal and far from complete. It was compiled by Bernie Rubinstein, who owes a debt of gratitude to John Tristan and his book A History of the Durfee Conservatory and files, which provided information about the early years of the university. Also helpful were Ed Davis, Otto Stein, Seymour Shapiro, and Ronald Beckwith for their reminiscences.

The early years

Photo of  William Smith ClarkThe study of botany, and by extension the greenhouses that are essential for botanical studies, have a long and distinguished history at UMass Amherst. The teaching of botany and botanical research has been a tradition here since the first students enrolled in 1867. The president at that time, William S. Clark, had been a professor of chemistry and botany at Amherst College. Given Clark's interests and the fact that a knowledge of botany was considered essential for an educated person, it's perhaps unsurprising that one of the first buildings constructed at the then Massachusetts Agricultural College was the Durfee Conservatory. Named after trustee Nathan Durfee, the new greenhouse was a showplace for its time. It was presided over by the Horticulture and Botany department and contained an extensive plant and seed collection financed by Henry Hills, a wealthy hat manufacturer from Amherst.

Durfee Plant House archival imageThe reputation of the greenhouse reached a new high circa 1875 when Clark set up a provocative experiment in the Durfee Conservatory. He constructed a harness that allowed increasingly heavy weights to press down on a developing squash fruit. Over a period of several months, thousands of visitors dropped in to monitor the progress of the experiment. The rather amazing result was that the growing squash lifted approximately 5,000 pounds. The study won notoriety for Clark, the Durfee greenhouse, and Mass Aggie. Clark received invitations to lecture about the squash and many people commented favorably in print. Later, recognition of a different sort was achieved when a grand prize was awarded for a plant exhibit at the 1893 World's Fair. One might assume that specimens from the Durfee greenhouse were instrumental in winning this award.

When horticulture and botany were organized into separate units, Durfee was turned over to the Horticulture department. Botany, now housed in Clark Hall, used the Clark greenhouse, although the department continued to oversee the collection in Durfee. As the university grew—it became Massachusetts State College in 1931—the botany faculty depended more and more on the greenhouses at Clark Hall for their teaching and research needs.

Ray Ethan Torrey

Photo of Ray E. TorreyIt was about this time that Ray Ethan Torrey arrived as a professor of botany, making an immense impression. His courses were always oversubscribed and year after year he won the college's award for best teacher. Torrey was also responsible for aspects of interior design of Durfee when it was remodeled, and he played a major role in managing the collection. In 1934 he organized the relocation and organization of an impressive collection of tropical plants from Harvard that dated back to the botanist Asa Grey. One can easily imagine Torrey using living material from the greenhouses as well as a superb collection of detailed drawings (now in the herbarium) in his courses. A chair was established in Torrey's name to commemorate his impact on and contributions to botany and the university.

Following the hurricane of 1938, Durfee went into decline. Botany now had to depend even more on the greenhouses located at the south end of Clark Hall. Also present was a submerged greenhouse with a glass roof. By being partially buried, it provided quite uniform conditions. In 1951, another greenhouse was added to the west side of Clark, but the underground greenhouse was removed. An array of growth chambers were also purchased about this time and placed in the basement.

The new Morrill Science Center

The dependency on the Clark Hall greenhouse facility, along with the collection in Durfee, extended up to 1960 when the Botany Department moved into the south wing of the newly constructed Morrill Science Center at what had now become the University of Massachusetts. There was no question that a greenhouse for Botany was to be part of the new building, but at first the architects wanted to place the greenhouse on the roof. This plan was amended when it was pointed out that in similar situations problems such as leaks to the floor below often occurred. The solution can be seen today—a semicircular greenhouse of about 550 square feet attached at ground level to the south end of Morrill. Except for the greenhouse at the west side of Clark Hall that the botanists could still use, the remaining greenhouse space at Clark was given over to other departments. Unfortunately, no accommodations were provided for growth chambers in the new building, so most of them were moved from the Clark Hall basement to an area on the first floor of Morrill that originally had been intended to be a research lab.

As the Botany Department faculty continued to grow in numbers, more space was desperately needed to house the teaching and research materials, to have convenient access to a plant collection, much of which remained in Durfee, and to provide space for the growth chambers that were in the first floor lab. President John W. Lederle was effectively raising funds from the legislature for capital improvements but allocation of the money depended on decisions made on campus. Two events occurred that served to focus attention on the need for new plant growth facilities. First, the graduate program of the Botany Department was ranked in the top 10 nationally. Second, on a less congratulatory note, a cold winter's night corresponding with a failure of the heating system in Clark Hall resulted in the loss of many plants, including a prized collection of Kalenchoe species —the latest, it was pointed out, of many similar disasters.

Building the greenhouses

Photo of Morrill with attached greenhouseClearly, a nationally recognized department devoted to teaching plant biology and carrying out plant research could not maintain its reputation if it did not have the space and environmental controls to sustain its plant collection. Thus, Oswald Tippo, provost, who was also a professor of botany, was able to work with Seymour Shapiro, dean of the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics and also a botany professor, to allot funds that would greatly enlarge the space under glass and provide it with dependable heating and a thermostated venting system.

Originally, the plans were for one large greenhouse with several rooms, but this was discouraged by some university officials who felt that for aesthetic reasons a greenhouse of that size and profile would have to be hidden at some other part of the campus. This solution was deemed unsatisfactory to members of the Botany Department, as articulated by Otto Stein, the department head. After all, faculty and students depended on a supply of living plants in their classes and labs at all seasons of the year, and transport through the outdoors was unthinkable.

A compromise plan was devised by David Bierhorst, a distinguished member of the Botany Department. Bierhorst designed four ranges of about 550 square feet each that were shorter than the structure on the original plan; these houses were then connected to the existing Morrill house by a glass tunnel. He also included a building of more than 1,000 square feet to house walk-in as well as smaller growth chambers, a head house, and storage facilities. This new plan allowed construction at the most favored site—the one next to Morrill. Bierhorst's contributions extended well beyond his design for the greenhouse extension. Many visitors to the newly constructed greenhouse remember him up to his elbows in concrete as he helped construct the wall of what was to become a pond in range #4.

Since the space was now available, the growth chambers were moved into the new addition, freeing up the first floor lab for faculty research; it is now occupied by the latest Torrey Professor, Peter Hepler, professor emeritus. Miraculously, the chambers operated for almost 30 more years, but, naturally enough, their dependability declined. So Hepler, as director of the new Plant Biology Graduate Program, chaired a committee that applied to the National Science Foundation in 1999 for new chambers. The grant was funded and a new era was ushered in, complete with the latest equipment.

The facilities today

Photo of Ronald BeckwithThe extensive new greenhouse facility opened in 1973, and together with the existing Morrill and Clark houses provided almost 3,500 square feet under glass along with the large growth chamber facility. It was crucial at this point to have a full-time manager. Stein was able to identify and hire a young Englishman, Ronald Beckwith, who was then a foreman at Smith College. For more than 25 years, Beckwith ran the Botany Greenhouses, which after a merger with Zoology, became known as the Biology Greenhouses. They are now known as the Morrill Greenhouses.

Under Beckwith's watchful eyes the collection grew to more than 225 families. Most of the plants were new: donated, purchased or traded for. Bierhorst donated many plants from his private greenhouse; others came from Harry Ahles, Paul Godfrey, Karen Searcy, and Otto Stein, to name just a few of the sources. A collection of cacti and succulents, many of them rare and endangered, were given by Jim Beach, who was a former graduate student of Dave Mulcahy, and Cliff Desch. Plants were purchased or collected to provide living material for Jim Walker's Angiosperm Systematics course and for Ed Klewkowski's Plant Morphology. Plants were also obtained to provide material for other courses including the New England Flora, Plant Ecology, Plant Geography, and Medicinal Plant courses. The Clark Hall greenhouse became a repository for cold-requiring plants such as those found in rock gardens.