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Lyman Plant House

As the Smith College student body grew considerably in the 1890s, President Seelye directed his focus on the structure of the campus and how it could accommodate the growing number of students. He decided to integrate his appreciation for biological education in the plan for the college’s campus. In 1873, he had gone abroad to study the European methods of education, noting how they emphasized the importance of botanic gardens.[1] Recalling this impressive feature of the European schools, Seelye drew up plans with the Boston firm Olmsted & Eliot in 1891 to make the entire campus an arboretum so that Smith students would “be educated on different varieties of plants while walking through the grounds.”[2] Part of their plan included the construction of a greenhouse and adjacent garden.

The building that now houses the Lyman Plant House was sold to Smith in 1895.[3] The college hired William Ganong, a professor of botany with some experience designing the botanic gardens for Harvard, to help create plans for the greenhouse.[4] The structure is named after a prominent family that resided in Northampton and helped fund the project. E. H. R. Lyman gave a considerable sum in honor of his mother Anne Jean Lyman. His children later donated funds for the expansion of the greenhouse in 1902 and again in 1904.[5] The college also received gifts of seeds from the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh, the Botanic Gardens of the Imperial University in Tokyo, the St. Petersburg Botanic Gardens, Kew Gardens of London, and other famous botanic gardens in Spain, Italy, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and various universities in the United States.[6] When the plant house was first constructed, Seelye and Professor Ganong used the Kew Gardens of London as a model for the greenhouse, featuring an iron filigree roof ridge, painted white.[7] The original structure was completed in 1894 and late enlarged and furnished in January of 1896.[8]

Each house in Lyman was intended to represent the principle climates of the earth, “And within each it [was] intended to have the appropriate types [of plants] to illustrate the different modes of adaptation to each climate”.[9] First was the Tropical House featuring smaller plans of hot and moist climates; the Palm House with larger varieties of tropical plants, such as palms, tree-ferns, bamboo, figs, and bananas; the Acacia House with plants of desert and dry climates; and the Cool Temperate House with “summer favorites to be found in bloom mid-winter”.[10] It also included an experiment house for seniors taking Plant Physiology in which “each student carries on a series of experiments upon the life-phenomena of plants, investigating their modes of nutrition, growth, and response to the environment”.[11]

Both President Seelye and Dr. Ganong felt that the greenhouse’s main purpose should be purely academic. At first, decorative plants were prohibited from display because Dr. Ganong “felt this was not a proper function of an educational greenhouse and that plants for such purposes should be supplied by commercial florists.” President Seelye did allow one exception to this policy. He held that the “provision of plant material for specific functions involving the trustees, the alumnae, Commencement activities and the occasional supply of surplus plants for flowers for the President’s house” would be permissible.[12]

President Seelye’s hope for the greenhouse’s academic contributions were certainly realized. In 1952, Dr. Albert F. Blakeslee, associates, and several Smith students did “intensive experimental work [in Lyman] on the inheritance of plant characteristics, which resulted in important contributions not only to the College but also to scientific knowledge in general.”[13] Sixteen years later in 1968, a senior at Smith managed to hybridize a pure white pinwheel chrysanthemum for the first time in scientific research. While conducting experiments in the Lyman Plant House, she cross-pollinated a yellow pinwheel with an orange red radiante and produced a white pinwheel chrysanthemum. This was an especially notable achievement “because chrysanthemums have been hybridized for over 100 years and the results obtained by crossing these flowers [have always been] highly unpredictable.”[14]

Today, the Lyman Plant House remains a vital component of Smith College. It receives at least 20,000 visitors annually, especially during its spring bulb show.[15] It serves as a teaching lab for Smith botany students and is a popular destination for art classes, fulfilling Seelye’s vision of a botanic garden’s function on a college campus.


[1] Kemp, Margaret ’22, Associate Professor Emeritus of Botany. Smith Quarterly. “Library of Living Plants – and how it grew.” Page, 14

[2] Kemp, Margaret ’22, Associate Professor Emeritus of Botany. Smith Quarterly. “Library of Living Plants – and how it grew.” Page, 14

[3] Botanic Garden News, Fall 1998. The Botanic Garden of Smith College. “Trivia Quiz”

[4] Vickery, Margaret Birney. The Campus Guide: Smith College. Princeton Architectural Press, New York, New York, 2007, 98

[5] Vickery, Margaret Birney. The Campus Guide: Smith College. Princeton Architectural Press, New York, New York, 2007, 98

[6] Kemp, Margaret ’22, Associate Professor Emeritus of Botany. Smith Quarterly. “Library of Living Plants – and how it grew.” Page 15

[7] Vickery, Margaret Birney. The Campus Guide: Smith College. Princeton Architectural Press, New York, New York, 2007, 98

[8] Ganong, W. F. The Smith College Monthly. Volume IV. March, 1897. Page, 244

[9] Ganong, W. F. The Smith College Monthly. Volume IV. March, 1897. Page, 244

[10] Ganong, W. F. The Smith College Monthly. Volume IV. March, 1897. Page, 244

[11] Ganong, W. F. The Smith College Monthly. Volume IV. March, 1897. Page, 244

[12] Kemp, Margaret ’22, Associate Professor Emeritus of Botany. Smith Quarterly. “Library of Living Plants – and how it grew.” Page, 15

[13] Kemp, Margaret ’22. Associate Professor Emeritus of Botany. Smith Quarterly. “Library of Living Plants – and how it grew.” Page, 16

[14] “Mrs. Teal is Successful in Hybrid Experiment.” Hampshire Gazette, Saturday Nov. 2 1968, page 3.

[15] Mitchell, Phoebe. “Lyman Conservatory getting renovation” Daily Hampshire Gazette 3/25/2001.

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