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$3 million renovation to Botanical Gardens is underway

As the initial phases of the $3 million renovation at the Buffalo & Erie County Botanical Gardens began to take shape shortly after Memorial Day, it was clear the prickly cycad had to be moved. The 500-year-old, palmlike plant had lived happily for 70 years under the domes of the Victorian conservatory on South Park Avenue.

“It had to be moved,” said Todd Zintz, director of operations at the gardens. “And we did the best we could with what we had to work with. It was archaic as it was ingenious. It took three people three days to gradually dig it out, and then it took another three people to move it onto a cart and into the big dome.”

The 1,200-pound cycad – which grows one inch a year and was donated in 1901 by John J. Albright – was “important to us,” said David Swarts, president and CEO of the gardens.

Swarts was joined by a small group of county officials and garden enthusiasts who were gathered on the North Dome’s front lawn late Thursday morning to deliver the update on the garden project.

“The county is providing the $3 million for the complete restoration of this building,” said Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz. “The glass, as you see, was removed, as was the putty that held the glass in place. The problem was asbestos in the putty.”

Work on the North Dome will include steel refurbishment and replacement, foundation and masonry repair, wood restoration and replacement, lighting upgrades, heating system repairs as well as the installation of a garden misting system.

“We are celebrating the 115th birthday of the Botanical Gardens this year,” said Swarts, who added that the attraction has been visited by many people over the century.

In 2014, the gardens welcomed more than 100,000 people to the tri-domed conservatory designed by Frederick A. Lord and Lord’s son-in-law William Addison Burnham of the firm Lord & Burnham. The firm built major public conservatories, including New York Botanical Garden and the Phipps Conservatory & Botanical Gardens in Pittsburgh.

With a capital budget of $30 million, the Botanical Gardens is on the National Register of Historic Places. The renovations, Swarts said, will maintain the structure’s historical integrity.

The state Historic Preservation Office “is there to ensure the historic nature of the structure is not changed at all,” Swarts said. “When the pieces are put back together it will look like it looked before. The original wood was old-growth cedar, and when it was installed back in 1900 it had a life expectancy of 75 to 100 years.

“We’re well beyond that,” Swarts added. “It made no sense to use aluminum or a glass composite, but what we settled on was a Spanish cedar wood which is hard, dense and resistant to mildew. It has a life expectancy of 75 years as well.”

Officials said the renovations will offer a chance to update the exhibits.

“We certainly plan to keep the waterfall and the koi pond,” Swarts said. “The koi fish also were moved into temporary housing and are now in ‘foster care.’ We’ll get them back next year when we rebuild the pond.”

Interestingly, officials said, the November 2014 storm had minimal impact on the garden’s three domes.

“The storm impacted the lower houses in the back, and those houses were completed in 1907,” said Swarts. “The deterioration to the domes occurred over many years, and the other two domes have been refurbished: the Palm Dome in 2002, and greenhouses 11 and 12 in 2006.”

The North Dome’s new glass will be double-paned, laminated glass with one frosted side that refracts a fraction of the sun’s heat, said Zintz, the facilities director.

Contractors for the restoration project include Telco Construction, Goodwin Electric and Quackenbush. Asbestos abatement was performed by Arric Corp.

Swarts reminded visitors the Botanical Gardens will continue operating through the renovations, which are expected to be complete next spring.

“Just because the facility is under renovations, it is not closed,” he said. “You see the scaffolding and all the workers. The gardens are open.”

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