The greenery is striking. Walk up to the second floor of the SG Academic Center, enter what has been known to teachers and students as the “plant room” and you’re in a space that is remarkably different than the mostly earth-toned classrooms and atrium. Sunlight beams through floor-to-ceiling windows and skylights in the south-facing room, which contains a thriving plethora of plants, among them orchids, begonias and other succulents, a bonsai that had been growing in a student’s dorm room, and a citronella plant from Lebanon donated by Elie Karam, father of Naji Karam ’20. An indoor koi tank bubbles with fresh water near the entrance.
Construction of the 325-square-foot greenhouse, which has quickly become a beloved place on campus, was made possible by the generous donation of Victoria and Julio Rios, parents of Catherine Rios ’16 and Caroline Rios ’19 (right). The conservatory was formally dedicated Friday, Feb. 17, as part of the Parents Committee’s annual Fifth-Form Parents Weekend gathering. The Rioses, Head of School Eric Peterson, Associate Head of School for External Affairs Bob Weston, Chair of the Science Department Dr. Bob Wein and Caroline Billyard ’17, who made extensive use of the conservatory for an independent study in plant DNA last spring, offered remarks at the ceremony.
“For our family the conservatory represents growth and growth brings life,” said Mrs. Rios, an artist. “Science was never my forte, however … the natural sciences are my inspiration in every piece of work I produce. I don’t have a green thumb unless paint is on it, but what I have is the ability to create and reflect the beauty of nature in my art. What I find fascinating about this is the connection of it all — nature, science, art and imagination.”
Since its inception, the conservatory has offered a host of teaching and learning opportunities, according to Wein. “Students are in the conservatory all the time,” added science teacher Holly Williams. “Some come to do homework in the peaceful atmosphere, others to rest, others to chat. Some come to work with plants.”
Following her independent study, Caroline (on left in picture at right), with Mrs. Williams’ help, is now creating a “living wall” in the conservatory as part of an independent SGx project. Art teacher Ted Sturtevant manufactured the metal frame, which now hangs on the room’s west side and is expected to be filled with five rows of plants, including lettuces that could be used in the dining hall.
And it won’t be the first time Sage, the school’s dining service, has taken advantage of the room’s foliage. Chef Rob Couto said the conservatory regularly provides herbs for several flavorful dishes. “I have used the oregano in most of the Latin dishes we prepare. The lavender has been used in the biscuits. And the rosemary in all the other dishes that require it,” he said.
The Rioses, of Dallas, Texas, said they donated the conservatory to inspire others to give to St. George’s, as well as to serve as a source of inspiration. “Our hope is that the St. George’s community will take advantage of this great space and it will inspire knowledge, creativity and growth,” Mrs. Rios said.
Margaret Todd ’17 said she was fortunate to have the opportunity to help Mrs. Williams set up the conservatory. “I feel at home in the plant room,” she said. “Since last fall, it has become a place I know I can always go, whether to study for a test or to take a study break.”
The space, she said, has become a sanctuary – and a place for imagining possibilities. “I have become attached to the plants that I have seen grow from nothing, and the fish that I got to help pick out,” she said. “I am very grateful, along with many others, that we now have a place like this easily accessible. I have always loved nature and the environment, and this room has provided me with the opportunity to explore what I want to do in the future.”