Amidst Pittsburgh’s Schenley Park stands the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, a striking crystal palace that was a gift to the city from philanthropist Henry W. Phipps. Since 1893, the conservatory has been inspiring and educating visitors about not only the beauty and importance of plants, but also environmental sustainability.
Inspired by the City Beautiful Movement, the conservatory was originally stocked with tropical plants from the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, while giant Amazonian water lily pads floated in the conservatory’s Victoria Room. Today, the 65-foot-tall Palm Court, with Dale Chihuly glass sculptures, continues to be the focal point of the conservatory. Visitors wander through the Serpentine Room, the Fern Room, a room containing hundreds of rare orchids, and a room where bright tropical plants will soon be joined by butterflies. The South Conservatory features show rooms illustrating the tropical forests of India, tropical fruits and spices and fish ponds, while children can play in a farmers’ market in the Gallery Room. A sunken garden is outfitted with fountains and hanging baskets. Since 1902, cacti and succulents have flourished in the Desert Room. A large fountain and central pond are the focal points of the Victoria Room, while the Broderie room is planted with a formal and elegant garden typical of those found in Louis XIV’s France. Streams and waterfalls are the hallmark of the East Room.
Outside, visitors can enjoy a variety of gardens, such as aquatic gardens, a medieval herb garden, a fern garden, dwarf conifers and a medicinal plant garden. A Japanese courtyard garden features a natural looking man-made landscape and Bonsai. Other outdoor gardens have been designed for children’s discovery and play.
Every year, the Phipps Conservatory offers a Spring Flower Show. This year’s display was based on The Secret Garden, the classic children’s book by Frances Hodgson Burnett. To interpret the story of how a newfound love of gardens helps 10-year-old orphan Mary Lennox, Terra Design Studios created beautiful English-style plantings throughout the conservatory, filling the air with the fragrance of tulips, daffodils, hyacinths and lilies. The display included Martha Sowerby’s Cottage Garden; Archibald Craven’s Topiary Court; Ben Weatherstaff’s Kitchen Garden; The Secret Garden Alcove; a formal Victorian garden with a dipping pool and jet fountains; a wild garden featuring edible and seasonal woodland plants; a riotous Victorian pattern garden where swatches of bulbs and annuals criss-cross to form bold patterns; topiaries in geometric and animal shapes; ivy-covered trellises; flowering trees like redbuds and magnolias; and a host of flowers, including hydrangeas, pansies, shamrocks, begonias, snapdragons, azaleas and daisies.
I wasn’t prepared for the conservatory to be so spectacular. Halfway through the tour, my camera was exhausted, so we took a break and recharged our batteries in the Café Phipps. The luscious spring green walls were as refreshing as the “Phipps Splash,” made from local Pittsburgh seltzer water and freshly squeezed pineapple juice.
Crystal Palaces: Garden Conservatories of the United States, by Anne S. Cunningham, includes a chapter on Phipps Conservatory.