The Wall Street Journal, which in 2020 splashed a Prairie-style Minnetonka space by the company across a spread. But perhaps the best testament comes from a homeowner in Atlanta, who had a magnolia design incorporated into her conservatory’s transom windows. “She loved her conservatory so much, she put her bed in it and sleeps in there,” says Jim Hewitt, Conservatory Craftsmen’s founder and owner.
Hewitt’s own love of conservatories came early in life. “My dad used to take me to Como Park Conservatory when I was a wee lad, just for a little vacation from winter,” he says. With time, the horticulturalist by trade—who for years taught high school horticulture in Cold Spring—wondered whether there might be more to conservatories than the occasional visit. “I felt it was the kind of environment that could make people mentally and physically healthy and that should be considered more frequently in terms of everyday life,” he says.
That realization became an endeavor to build home conservatories with modular kits from England. But Hewitt quickly learned that architects wanted more control. “At that point, we knew we had to break from the norm and become custom designers,” he says. “We had to design whatever was most appropriate for the moment.”
Those designs span styles (85 percent of the firm’s designs are traditional, but contemporary is gaining interest), sizes (from 500 to nearly 3,000 square feet), states (about half of their projects are in Minnesota and the Upper Midwest, half elsewhere in the country, with jobs in places like New York’s Hamptons and Jackson Hole, Wyoming), and costs (from around $150,000 to upwards of $2 million). Some feature elegant sitting rooms or swimming pools. But most are designed for a clientele Hewitt calls “plant people,” just like him.
That means plants for practically every climate, with conservatories designed to withstand temperature extremes. Innovations in glass, in particular, make it possible, Hewitt says. “When we started out, glass was basically a problem in our rooms, and now our glass is as energy-efficient as an insulated wall.”
Plant science plays a role too. Hydroponic towers, for example, automatically feed plants with nutrient-rich water multiple times a day. But horticultural expertise brings the most value, Hewitt believes, which is why he recently brought on Alex Eilts, a PhD in ecology and evolutionary biology who’s a part-time professor and research associate at the University of Minnesota. “We needed him on staff just to help us with our clients’ rare plant collections,” Hewitt says.
That bespoke touch may well make the biggest difference. Every piece of a conservatory is custom-designed by Hewitt’s team and fabricated by small companies around the world. Much of the glass comes from the U.S., and framing elements are mostly made in England. Window motors hail from Italy, roof vents from France. “These are not large-scale factories,” Hewitt says. “With every one of our fabricators, we are their largest customer.”
But “fitters”—a British term used for the tradespeople who assemble conservatories—come from the Twin Cities, and they travel to every job. “People say, ‘Well, I’ll just get my builder to do it,’” Hewitt says. “And I say, ‘You want your builder to learn how to glaze your roof? Leak is a four-letter word, you know.’”
Keeping things hands-on and hyper-custom, after all, has been key to the company’s success from day one. “You’re either going to be a commodity company and produce hundreds of these and sell and ship them out the door,” Hewitt says, “or you’re going to make a few of these, and they’re going to turn out right.”
Architecture + Building: Conservatory Craftsmen, 2229 Friendship Ln., Mpls., 612-281-4985, conservatorycraftsmen.com