In the late 1950s, Dr. Frits W. Went, Director of the Missouri Botanical Garden, needed something big. Attendance to the historical gardens was in decline, the buildings stood in deteriorated condition, and one of the park's main attractions, a glass conservatory built in 1913, needed extensive repairs. But instead of looking to the past, Dr. Went took a chance on the future, making plans for a groundbreaking geodesic dome that would capture the nation's attention.
The Missouri Botanical Garden's Climatron is today's midMOD monday.
Designed by St. Louis architects Joseph Murphy and Eugene Mackey with the engineering firm Synergetics, Inc. (Dr. Went also played a significant role in the building's plan and climate zoning), the Climatron was the period's most ambitious realization of Buckminster Fuller's geodesic system. The glass and aluminum dome, 175 feet in diameter and 70 feet tall, now stands as a web of simple glass panes and intricate aluminum stunts, providing an ideal canopy for the park's collection of exotic plants. An unapologetically Modern structure, the Climatron’s exoskeleton, a triangular truss system of aluminum tubes and rods, was originally sheathed in a skin of lightweight Plexiglas panels and requires no interior columns (weight is evenly distributed throughout the dome on the aluminum rods). As the world’s first climate-controlled greenhouse, the Climatron housed an impressive system by Honeywell that maintained the garden’s tropical conditions and allowed for distinct zones of temperature and humidity.
Opened to the public on October 1, 1960, the Climatron quickly became the Missouri Botanical Garden’s most iconic building, signifying a new age in greenhouse design. With its hypnotic honeycomb of aluminum tubes and a network of floodlights that made its glass exterior glow at night, the structure found instant success, a modern marvel synonymous with science and innovation. Completed in just over a year and housing more than a half an acre of lush vegetation, the Climatron cost $700,000 (almost twice the original estimate), but its novelty generated a new surge in visitors, each paying fifty cents to wander the dome’s landscape. In the late 1980s, the building underwent an extensive renovation (including the replacement of the original Plexiglas panels with glass), securing its place as one of St. Louis' most beloved landmarks.
Novel and enduring, the Climatron remains a true testament to the mid-twentieth century’s progressive vision and optimistic spirit. Predating Buckminster Fuller's dome at Expo 67 in Montreal, the Climatron heralded a new era of human control over the natural world and used the language of Modernism to illustrate scientific discovery and technological advancement. Named one of the 100 most significant architectural achievements in U.S. history by the U.S. Bicentennial Commission of Architects in 1976, the Climatron is both aesthetically pleasing and structurally innovative, a symbol of the modern age and a true machine in the garden.
You can visit the Climatron at the Missouri Botanical Garden, 4344 Shaw Boulevard, St. Louis, Missouri.
All photographs are part of the Historic American Buildings Survey, available here.
Historic American Buildings Survey, Missouri Botanical Garden, Climatron, 2345 Tower Grove Avenue, Saint Louis, Independent City, MO. Documentation compiled after 1933. Library of Congress, mo0413.
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