A Neo-Classical conservatory located in the heart of the Botanic Gardens.
The largest and oldest of the Botanic Gardens display houses, Cuningham House - originally known as the Winter Garden - opened to the public in 1924. The building was funded by a bequest made to the Botanic Gardens by Mr C.A.C Cuningham, a Christchurch law clerk, on his death in 1915.
Well stocked with an array of tropical plants, many were hand picked by Botanic Gardens Curator at the time, James Young, while on a dedicated plant sourcing trip to Australia. The jungle-like collection included orchids, breadfruit, guava, paw paw, date and sago palms and new kinds of bananas, some of which still survive today some 80 years later.
With its symmetrical facade, Tuscan columns and Italianate balusters, Cuningham House firmly falls into the style of a Neo-Classical glasshouse. Local architectural firm Collins and Harman modelled the design of the building on the Reid Winter Gardens at Springburn Park in Glasglow. Cuningham House was considered an improvement because of its reinforced concrete structure and in this way differs from a number of glasshouses built at a similar time. Adding to the classical nature of the building, local resident George Scott donated four Italian marble statues from his Opawa estate to be displayed although the remaining statues have since been removed for preservation.
Cuningham House is divided into two main sections, a lower house on the ground floor and an upstairs gallery for plants that have high light requirements. The central section on the ground floor allows for the growth of taller species. The Rosary, redeveloped in 1934, was specifically designed to suit the form of Cuningham House with the circular design creating an axis with the entrance and making it a focal point. Later, rose covered archways were constructed along the pathway, framing the conservatory and creating one of the most photographed views in the Gardens.
Cuningham House is of significant cultural and heritage value to the Botanic Gardens. Not only does it offer a practical way to display indoor plants but it provides continuous interest throughout the seasons when other displays may not be at their best. The conservatory also gives us an interesting glimpse into post war society where a fascination with the exotic, other-worldliness of the jungle is tempered by a need for the stability and order provided by the Neo-Classical structure it is housed in.