A History of Phipps Conservatory


Photography above courtesy Emmanuel Fine Art Photography

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Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens

When many of us think of Phipps Conservatory, we have fond memories of visiting the fragrant rooms filled to the brim with gorgeous plants and flowers. Phipps has been around for over 120 years and has served as a spectacular green space for visitors and Pittsburghers alike. The conservatory is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as of 1976 and in 1970 it was declared a historic landmark by the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation.

Phipps’ Early Beginnings

History of Phipps

Phipps’ history began in 1893, when it was given as a gift to the City of Pittsburgh from a philanthropist named Henry W. Phipps. The facility was designed by Lord & Burnham, a New York-based greenhouse manufacturer. Phipps was designed for just $100,000, which back then was a decent chunk of money. Henry Phipps wanted to build something that would be a source of instruction as well as pleasure to those who visited, and judging from the success of Phipps today, he certainly got his wish.

Construction on Phipps was finished in just one year and it opened on December 7, 1893, just four months after completion. The glasshouse consisted of nine display rooms. During its inaugural year, Phipps showed many plants that originated from the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Henry Phipps stayed the benefactor of the conservatory until his death at age 91.

Mid-Century Phipps

History of Phipps

One of the first major attractions in the conservatory, Phipps’ Aquatic Gardens, was built in the early 1900s. A second pool was installed in 1939. Just a few years later in 1943, visitors celebrated the 50th anniversary of Phipps. The previous years, in 1942 and 1941, saw record-setting attendance to the attraction, with a whopping 16,000 touring on Easter Sunday 1942 to enjoy the first blooms of the Spring Flower Show.

Decades later, in 1971, 24-year-old Edward Vasilcik became Phipps’ lead horticulturist. The previous lead horticulturist, Frank Curto, retired in 1970. He spent 35 years of service to the conservatory. Curto loved using elaborate props for his flower shows.

In 1993, Phipps became privately managed yet city owned and a designated non-profit. It had previously been run by the City of Pittsburgh since 1893.

Phipps in the New Millennium

At the dawn of the new millennium, Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens merged with Pittsburgh Garden Place, which was formerly known as the Pittsburgh Civic Garden Center. This merger happened in 2001. The Garden Place was founded in 1935 in Schenley Park and later relocated to Mellon Park. It was the center of horticulture in Shadyside. It was renamed the Phipps Garden Center after the merger.

Two years later, in 2003, Phipps announced an expansion project with the first phase being a green engineered Welcome Center topped by a neo-Victorian dome and designed by IKM Incorporated. It was completed in 2005 and a year later, the Production Greenhouses and Tropical Rain Forest Conservatory were done.

History of Phipps

The Tropical Rain Forest Conservatory has a different theme every three years. It started with Thailand. There’s also two waterfalls, bridges, a stream and large array of plants including bamboo, orchids and frangipani. The is a Research Forest Station and Healer’s Hut which is to educate visitors. The second theme of the Tropical Rain Forest section was “Headwaters of the Amazon.” That opened in 2009.

Notable exhibits since then include the 2007 exhibit with glass artist Dale Chihuly where Phipps ended up obtaining four prominent pieces. The pieces were the Welcome Center Chandelier, hanging gold star in the Desert Room, a purple gilded Fiori in the Tropical Fruit and Spice Room and a bronze, apricot and chartreuse Ikebana in the Palm Court. The conservatory also ended up buying 26 smaller glass pieces for its permanent collection. The designs are valued at $1.2 million.

Two years after Chihuly, Phipps teamed up with the glass artist Hans Godo Frabel and created “Gardens and Glass.” Frabel’s glass work is slightly more realistic with glass orchids and lotus plants. His work was on display until January of 2010.

A History of Phipps’ Rooms

Phipps’ intricate rooms include the Palm Court, which is the first room guests see when they enter the conservatory through a main entrance. Here they will find the original dated plaque of the conservatory’s opening. In 2008, the original wood and annealed glass in the Palm Court had deteriorated so much it needed emergency stabilization. Renovations had already begun in 1992.

Next, the breathtaking Serpentine Room is west of the Palm Court. It changes with the seasons and varying shows and special events. It’s named after it’s curvy path that resembles a snake. The room was first known as the Border Garden and was redesigned during a renovation in 1978.

The Fern Room, adjacent to the Serpentine Room, contains ferns (of course) like the Tasmanian tree fern, tongue fern, bear’s paw fern and more.

History of Phipps

Moving on to the Orchid Room, you see unique variations of orchids including miniature orchids and the unique Phalaenopsis Frank Sarris orchid, which is named after you guessed it, the founder of Sarris Candies. He is a trustee and benefactor of Phipps Conservatory. The room originated with a donation of 800 rare orchids in 1931 from Charles D. Armstrong. Armstrong was the owner of the Armstrong Cork Company, which was located in the Strip District.

Next, the Stove Room is located in the south part of the conservatory. The room contains butterflies and a 80 degree temperature during the day and 70 at night.

The South Conservatory is located south of Palm Court and is home to seasonal flower shows. Since 1999, it is the room where the Garden Railroad is exhibited. It was originally called the Economic Room and is one of the earliest rooms in Phipps, dating back to 1896. It was remodeled in the 1930s.

The Gallery Room is located east of the South Conservatory. It contains lots of exhibits for children including a farmer’s market. In the 1950s and ’60s, it was known as the Modern Room.

The Sunken Garden connects the Palm Court to the Victoria Room. It includes fountains, hanging baskets and sunken beds. The plants vary seasonally and there is a gorgeous Charleston Garden featuring an antebellum-themed display.

The Desert Room contains plant life that thrive in a desert climate (think cacti and succulents). The room opened back in 1902 and was named “The Cacti House.” In the late 1930s it was redesigned so visitors can walk through.

The last few rooms include the Victoria Room, which features a large central pond and interactive fountain. The Broderie Room opened in 1939 and was originally called the Cloister Garden. In 1966 it was redesigned to what is now known as the Broderie Room. The East Room includes a Japanese Garden installation with streams and waterfalls and changes seasonally.

The Outdoor Gardens include a Rooftop Edible Garden, Japanese Courtyard Garden, Children’s Discovery Garden, Botany Hall and Aquatic Garden.

Phipps TodayHistory of Phipps

Today, Phipps is one of the greenest facilities in the world. Not only does the entrance pavilion of Phipps have silver LEED certification, its greenhouse production facility received platinum certification. It is the first and only greenhouse to this day to be certified as so. Phipps’ Center for Sustainable Landscapes, located on the grounds of the conservatory, was designed to be as environmentally sustainable as possible. The center is also LEED platinum certified and produces its own energy.

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