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MoBot’s Architecturally Groundbreaking Climatron Greenhouse Celebrates 60 Years

The Climatron in 1960 (at left) and in 2019 (at right.)
Missouri Botanical Garden's Archive & Kent Burgess
The Climatron is the world's first geodesic dome greenhouse. It opened to the public on Oct. 1, 1960.

This week marked 60 years since the Climatron, first of its kind, opened to Missouri Botanical Garden patrons. The geodesic dome is a conservatory and incorporates design principles of architect R. Buckminster Fuller, inventor of the geodesic system. In 1976, it was named one of the 100 most significant architectural achievements in United States history.

The garden decided to incorporate the greenhouse at its St. Louis campus to increase visitorship and give a “one-of-a-kind experience,” MoBot horticulturist Susie Ratcliff said on Friday’s St. Louis on the Air.

She joined the program to discuss the Climatron’s history and give insight on all the care that goes into its living collection. She’s worked at the center since 1997.

“It was also meant to be a place where you could study. You could study plants, you could study architecture [and] ecosystems, climate control systems,” Ratcliff added. “And what's really cool is occasionally we will get a visitor that comes in and they were part of the renovation in the ’80s … and they talk about how certain things have aged and how well they look.”

The greenhouse was closed for extensive renovations in 1988 and reopened two years later. The new features included updated panes of heat-strengthened glass and a relandscaped interior. A more notable addition was a “talking orchid.”

The animatronic orchid was programmed to allow garden staff the ability to talk and drink water from the hands of visitors. It was used as an educational tool to explain how tree-dwelling orchids get water and nutrients without being rooted in soil.

“I know that a lot of people really enjoyed it, a lot of kids really enjoyed it; and we still have people that come in and [ask], ‘Where did it go? What happened to it?’ And basically, it eventually just wore out,” Ratcliff said.

More recently, the Climatron reopened in August after closing down due to the coronavirus pandemic earlier this year.

Cassidy Moody
Missouri Botanical Garden
The Climatron is the world's first geodesic dome greenhouse. It opened to the public in 1960.

“And then even after the garden opened, it took us a little bit to catch up to where we were visitor worthy. … There was a core staff that did the watering and kept the plants alive. They did a fantastic job, but there was no weeding and there was no pruning, and we really walked into a jungle,” she said.

Now, visitors will be once again greeted by a vibrant and tropical collection of plants and animals — with some plants even dating to the 1904 World’s Fair.

Cassidy Moody, MoBot’s senior digital media specialist, recently highlighted 30 fun facts about the iconic greenhouse.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Lara is the Engagement Editor at St. Louis Public Radio.