Conservatory of Flowers model a labor of love for Berkeley man

Alan Wolf's decision to donate the 100 hours it took to create a model of San Francisco's Conservatory of Flowers followed the advice of his immigrant father: "Be a mensch."

The replica of the Victorian wood and glass building in Golden Gate Park, the oldest greenhouse of its kind in the United States, is on display, along with 150 other models of historical American sites, at the White House during the holiday season.

It's part of Hillary Clinton's "Save America's Treasures" program, which she described and detailed at a White House press conference Monday.

"I was brought up believing in the need to donate time, money and energy to the things you believe in," said Wolf, who lives and works in Berkeley. "My father would have said, 'You need to be a mensch.'"

An accomplished architect, model-maker and president of California Model & Design Group Inc., Wolf saw the project as something of an obligation. "I made the decision that my company would donate this, and so I felt that I should be the one to do this, and it was fun."

Because of the large scope of many projects that Wolf and his partner, Israeli-raised Rami Geller, are involved with, it is rare for Wolf to be able to devote himself exclusively to a particular endeavor. But this one was especially important to him since the last time he saw the Conservatory, it was still in disrepair from the serious damage it suffered during the winter storms of 1995.

"I feel you need to work for what you believe in," he said, "and I believe in this project because it seems a shame that as a culture we seem to be allowing many of our national treasures to be lost."

Wolf, who lives with his wife and their young son, said the conservatory "has cultural and historical significance, and these kinds of things need to be preserved. I'd hate to think that my son's only exposure to a Victorian greenhouse would be a picture in a book. And it was a doable project, and it felt good doing it."

Wolf felt it was important for him to sign on with the project, partially in the hope that it might help raise awareness of the need to repair the damaged building. The conservatory houses thousands of endangered and prehistoric plants, as well as a spectacular collection of rare orchids and other species of plants and flowers.

The Friends of Recreation and Parks, the fund-raising arm of the San Francisco Parks and Recreation Department, is spearheading a campaign to help refurbish the Conservatory of Flowers, with help from a $5 million, 2-to-1 challenge grant from the Richard and Rhoda Goldman foundation.

For Wolf, the idea of doing mitzvot stems from his upbringing in the Jewish community of New Orleans, where he was born and where his parents still live.

"When I was growing up," he said, "there were at least seven synagogues in New Orleans. I went to private schools through high school, where 80 percent of the students were Jewish.

"Being Jewish is part of my consciousness. Whenever I think of anything of a spiritual or religious nature, I do so from a Jewish perspective."

He adds, however, that religiously speaking he is "more non-practicing than practicing. I have a mezuzah on the front door, but I rarely remember to kiss it." He had a Chanukah dinner this year, "but I don't keep Shabbos — though I'd like to — and only rarely do I go to synagogue."

Still, he says, "if anyone asks me my religion, I don't hesitate to say I'm Jewish. So it's always there, indelibly."

Wolf credits his father with instilling a strong sense of Jewish values. "My father is 93 now, and the bulk of his life is being lived through his children and grandchildren," he said.

"He's a first-generation immigrant, and still tells stories about the pogroms. He had his second bar mitzvah way back — when he was 83."

For Wolf, "As much as I'm my father's son, my Jewishness colors my view of the world. A large part of me views the world as a Jew, and that's with me all the time, and it's how I interact with the world around me."

A new project under way at Wolf's firm involves preserving a greenbelt near the Old City of Jerusalem. Geller is heading the project, working in association with the well-known architect Lawrence Halprin,

"We've done one study model so far," Wolf said, adding that the project is in its early stages.

Rachel Raskin-Zrihen
Rachel Raskin-Zrihen

Rachel Raskin-Zrihen is a longtime Bay Area journalist and co-author of the book "Jewish Community of Solano County." She is a wife and mother of two grown sons and grandmother of three.