Phipps Conservatory full of wonder and whimsy

Phipps Conservatory
Visitors walking the perimeter of the train display at Phipps Conservatory in Pittsburgh can see interactive sights like Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park and watch as the trains cross the recreation of the New River Gorge in the newest national park, New River Gorge National Park in West Virginia. (Julie Geiss photo)

Recently, my husband had to say my name three times before I realized he was talking to me. Only slightly embarrassed, I answered his question and then returned to my reverie.

Typically in the middle of January, I start to daydream more than usual. It doesn’t matter if I am cooking dinner or driving my car, my mind starts to drift to another place.

More specifically, my mind focuses on some place warmer with more sunshine. Sometimes, my thoughts settle in a tropical paradise like Hawaii where wild chickens wander along the hiking trails in Waimea Canyon. I can hear the roosters crowing and see their feathers glistening in the warm sunlight.

Other times, I picture myself basking in the warmth of the desert while hiking near Prickly Pear cacti and stepping around Desert Sand verbena.

My mouth waters when my mind settles on the memory of Key Lime pie in Key West. In the stifling heat, we ate our pie next to the koi pond. Time slips by as I picture the waxy fronds surrounding the bright orange and black koi next to us in paradise.

Practical things like jobs, school and sports keep my family tethered to the midwest throughout the winter months. I had to find an alternative to booking flights to someplace warm.

On our many trips to Pittsburgh, there was a magnificent building I had never stepped foot inside to explore. From the road, Phipps Conservatory is a beautiful combination of Victorian charm and modern finesse.

Whimsy and wonder

The greatest contradiction is that the glass greenhouse has the shape of a circus tent, yet the clear glass panes translate the look into elegance. Since 1893, the conservatory has been beckoning visitors to explore the “whimsy and wonder” of nature.

The conservatory was gifted to the city by Henry W. Phipps, an entrepreneur and philanthropist. Growing up in Allegheny City, he was the son of a shoemaker and a childhood friend of Andrew Carnegie. He later had business relations with Carnegie and the Carnegie Steel Company. His business affairs also included real estate.

In later years, he transitioned his life work into philanthropic endeavors. When Phipps Conservatory was built, it was Phipps’ desire for it to be open on Sundays, allowing the working class to visit on their day of rest.

The original nine display rooms held over 6,000 exotic plants brought from the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Trains and horse-drawn carts were used to bring the various flora to the nation’s largest conservatory newly built in Pittsburgh.

Over the years, the building and grounds grew with additions and multiple expansions. One of the additions was the construction of what is now called the South Conservatory in 1895. During our visit to Phipps, we spent a lot of time in this room.

Train displays

Phipps Conservatory
In the current National Park display at Phipps Conservatory in Pittsburgh, locomotives travel through over 3,000 plants. (Julie Geiss photo)

My youngest son loves garden train displays and was especially fond of the current National Park display. Locomotives travel through over 3,000 plants. Herbs, sedums, succulents and dwarf conifers are just some of the varieties that bring the display to life.

Visitors walking the perimeter can see interactive sights like Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park and watch as the trains cross the recreation of the New River Gorge in the newest national park, New River Gorge National Park in West Virginia.

Tropical forest

Early on in the history of the conservatory, the decision was made that each room should have a central idea and the displays blend into a pattern. I truly appreciated this idea when we entered the “Tropical Forest Hawai’i: Aloha ‘Aina” exhibit. It was the warmth and beauty I had been desiring in the middle of Ohio’s cold winter months.

“Aloha ‘Aina,” meaning love of land, is a display about living in harmony with the natural world. We walked by a recreation of a traditional Polynesian canoe and stepped into a tropical paradise.

The 60-foot high section of the conservatory houses many native and endemic species like hala (Pandanus tectorius), also called screw pine which is used to make many items like leis, sandals and sails.

It turns out, our simple trip to the Phipps Conservatory took us to elaborate settings like the desert and tropical islands too. The glass greenhouse trapped in heat and radiated warmth on a cold winter day. Orchids, jade trees, and Birds of Paradise were floral reminders that even in the winter there is growth.

We found the Phipps Conservatory to be a balance of historical significance and modern conservation of natural resources.

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