British Columbia·Photos

Vancouver's tropical paradise at the Bloedel Conservatory turns 50

Brightly coloured birds and exotic-looking plants first started making Vancouver their home at the Bloedel Conservatory 50 years ago and, over the last half century, the city’s small pocket of paradise has garnered countless stories.

Domed garden atop Queen Elizabeth Park houses hundreds of plants, more than 160 birds

Bird perches on a tree branch inside the Bloedel Conservatory in Vancouver on Nov. 26, 2019. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Brightly coloured birds and exotic-looking plants first started making Vancouver their home at the Bloedel Conservatory 50 years ago and, over the last half century, the city's small pocket of paradise has garnered countless stories. 

The domed tropical garden, sitting atop the city's highest point in Queen Elizabeth Park, was opened on Dec. 6, 1969. It houses hundreds of plants and more than 160 birds, from cockatoos to parrots. 

"It's called the jewel atop Vancouver and I've always considered it exactly that," said John Coupar, who has a long personal history with the conservatory. 

His father, Charlie Coupar, became the first director of the conservatory and Coupar took on the battle to keep the gardens open decades later. He's been the Park Board Commissioner for the last three years. 

Entrance to the Bloedel Conservatory in Vancouver. It's been 50 years since the gardens first opened to the public. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

"I grew up around parks and I had a passion for this particular place," Coupar said. 

Coupar remembers attending the opening of the gardens as a young teenager vividly.

He was 13 years old and looking up at the funky-looking, dome-shaped building that opened the same year as the first moon landing, Coupar says he couldn't help but compare it to a spaceship. 

The Bloedel Conservatory with its geodesic dome looks futuristic even in the 21st century. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

"The city was changing to a more modern city and I think the conservatory, at that time, really symbolized that because it was a very futuristic design at the top of Vancouver and all lit up," he said. 

The building might never have existed if the original benefactor wasn't an avid gardener. 

Kramer is a cockatoo, native to Indonesia, who's been living in the conservatory for about 10 years. With a vocabulary of more than 40 words, he's one of the more sociable residents. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

A Vancouver park commissioner visited the conservatory's namesake Prentice Bloedel in his personal rhododendron garden, so the story goes, and asked for more than a million dollars for the project. 

Bloedel, who made his money in B.C.'s timber industry, agreed and construction began. 

Many people come to the gardens to find peace and tranquility. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

10 brothers behind construction

Paul Van Vliet was 26 when his family's business was given the construction contract. 

"For us, and for me personally, this was a milestone," Van Vliet said.

"We had done a lot of nice projects but never anything like this and nothing ever got built again like this."

Paul Van Vliet is one of the original builders of the Bloedel Conservatory. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Van Vliet is one of 10 brothers who were part of the family-run construction company. One by one, the brothers immigrated from Holland to Canada after the Second World War.

Their work with the Bloedel Conservatory was historic — the dome itself is made up of more than 1,000 triangular plexiglas bubbles that are all different shapes and sizes — and even the Dutch newspapers in their home country covered the opening. 

A view of the dome from inside the Bloedel Conservatory. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

"We're very happy that the Park Board reconsidered a number of years ago not to close this, that would have been terrible," Van Vliet said. 

In 2009, construction on the Canada Line — which runs along Cambie Street to the west of the conservatory — and work on the Little Mountain Reservoir meant the gardens were hard to get to and attendance dropped. The city nearly shut down the building as a result.

An article about the Bloedel Conservatory from a 1969 edition of The Province newspaper. Fifty years later, Paul Van Vleit still has an envelope of old news clippings. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

"It was scary. 'What are we going to do with all the birds?' and thoughts like that all cross your mind," said Agnes Romses, supervisor at Bloedel Conservatory.

"A lot of people came out and fought for the conservatory and that's why we're still here." 

Bird perches on a tree branch inside the Bloedel Conservatory in Vancouver on Nov. 26, 2019. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

CBC's Jake Costello went down to the Bloedel Conservatory to meet some of the chatty birds and the people behind the lush gardens. Listen to his visit here:

"Kramer" the bird perches on a tree branch inside the Bloedel Conservatory in Vancouver on Nov. 26, 2019. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

With files from Jake Costello and The Early Edition

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