Summer was not only the growing season but also the remodeling season for the John R. Roach Center for the Liberal Arts’ greenhouse.

The greenhouse will spring back to life tomorrow, Friday, Sept. 10, with a casual, public open house for the hexagonal-domed glass building at Summit and Cleveland avenues. The structure had not housed plants since 1997, when they were moved to the newly constructed Owens Science Hall greenhouse.

The open house will be held from 9 a.m. to noon. Steve Trost, greenhouse manager and horticulturist for the University of St. Thomas, will be on hand to answer questions.

Greenhouse manager Steve Trost waters plants in the recently renovated John R. Roach Center for the Liberal Arts' greenhouse.

Greenhouse manager Steve Trost waters plants in the recently renovated John R. Roach Center for the Liberal Arts' greenhouse.

Trost, who began his gardening career at the JRC greenhouse (then named the Albertus Magnus Hall greenhouse) 30 years ago, was overjoyed when he learned of plans to renovate the building. “It’s a sweet place. … I feel like I’ve come home,” he said.

Last fall, Dr. Tim Lewis, chair of St. Thomas’ Biology Department, made a request on behalf of his department to Dr. Marisa Kelly, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, for the greenhouse’s renovation as part of a larger collaboration with the geology and physics departments.

“The increasing number of students in biology over the last several years, up 25 percent over just a three-year period, meant we needed more space for student projects,” Lewis said. “In addition, several of our faculty received National Science Foundation funding for research that requires substantial greenhouse space. In other words, we simply outgrew the space we had.”

Though the $650,000 renovation, which began and was completed over the summer break, gave the 47-year-old greenhouse a modern makeover, the changes are largely unseen. “From the outside, everything looks exactly the same. You can’t tell the difference,” Trost said.

Got purple (flowers)? The recently renovated  John R. Roach Center for the Liberal Arts' greenhouse does.

Got purple (flowers)? The recently renovated John R. Roach Center for the Liberal Arts' greenhouse does.

Included: a new, computerized, greenhouse climate-control system; three separated “growth environments” within the greenhouse; all new, tempered glass panes for the walls and cathedral ceiling; three renovated rooms – two labs for student collaborative research and a field-research storage area, all located in JRC, adjacent to the greenhouse; and landscaping around the perimeter.

A Wadsworth Control System, also used to control the climate inside the OSH greenhouse, is a significant upgrade for the JRC greenhouse. The system monitors the greenhouse’s humidity and controls the misting system, grow lights and automatic water system by way of indoor and outdoor computerized sensors. The sensors, one in each of the three greenhouse spaces and a master outdoor sensor, register the humidity, temperature and amount of sunlight inside the greenhouse. “It’s energy-efficient,” Trost said. “So, for example, on a bright, sunny day, the grow lights (specifically, high-pressure sodium grow lights) will automatically shut off.”

Also in keeping with the university’s mission toward going green, Trost said he will continue to forgo pesticides and use praying mantises, ladybugs and other insects to manage the “bad bugs” (aphids, mites and mealy bugs) that spread disease to and munch on the plants; additionally, Trost scouts the plants in both greenhouses each day for botanical pests.

Sunlight streams into the John R. Roach Center for the Liberal Arts' greenhouse.

Sunlight streams into the John R. Roach Center for the Liberal Arts' greenhouse.

The flooring wasn’t changed in the renovation, and the original benches that hold the plants were reused.

The greenhouse itself is divided into three rooms. The main room will house the Biology Department’s plant collection, which contains more than 100 varieties, including orchids, ferns and cactuses. It also will be used as a place to germinate vegetable seedlings that eventually will be planted in St. Thomas’ community garden in the backyard of the Common Ground house on Summit Avenue. The vegetables will be served to diners at St. Thomas-sponsored Loaves and Fishes nights at Faith Lutheran Church in St. Paul.

Lewis added that the renovated greenhouse “increases space for student projects in both majors and nonmajors classes. It will facilitate faculty-student collaborative research projects, and the collection will provide educational outreach opportunities for the community.”

Trost estimates that 500 to 600 students will use both greenhouses during the 2010-11 school year.

On a parting note, the greenhouse has a claim to fame: It served as a location for the 1994 made-for-TV movie “She Led Two Lives,” starring Connie Sellecca and Patricia Clarkson.