I have recently returned from Pittsburgh, my second trip this year. While each visit had a different focus, one of my favorite memories is of an early morning photo excursion to the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens.
Visiting urban botanical gardens is a bit of a passion of mine. They are not always easy to classify, although an underlying scientific basis is required. Documentation, monitoring and labeling of the plants within the collection and a commitment to education, information, research and exchange are also required.
The Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens is located in Schenley Park, one of Pittsburgh’s largest green spaces. It is sited in the lower left hand corner of pictorial map below from the 1930’s, restored and enhanced by artist Carol Skinger.
Founded in 1892, The Phipps Conservatory was presented as a gift to the city of Pittsburgh by philanthropist Henry W. Phipps, a partner of Andrew Carnegie, for instruction and entertainment providing, “a sanctuary, a verdant space where smog-weary citizens could find respite from the notorious steel mills and smoke stacks that relentlessly polluted our metropolis.”
The glasshouse, designed by Lord & Burnham at a cost of $100,000, originally contained nine display rooms that featured plants exhibited at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
Phipps’s remained an active supporter of the Conservatory and gardens throughout his lifetime and funded the expansion of the glasshouse, as early as 1896, just three years after its dedication. Today the enlarged Conservatory is complemented by a series of outdoor gardens and the Center for Sustainable Landscapes, one of the “greenest’ buildings in the world.
The juxtaposition of the two facilities, which are connected by a series of outdoor garden spaces, exemplifies the evolution of botanical gardens and horticulture.
The complex, a felicitous blend of historic and emerging approaches to innovation and sustainable practices, supports Phipp’s mission, “to inspire and educate all with the beauty and importance of plants; to advance sustainability and promote human and environmental well-being through action and research; and to celebrate the historic glasshouse.”
The first visitor facility in a public garden to earn LEED certification, The Welcome Center, seen above, opened in 2005. It is designed to allow visitors to enter the greenhouse at a lower level, providing the obligatory guest experiences including a gift shop and a three star Green Restaurant featuring local and organic produce, some of which is grown on the Rooftop Edible Garden.
Contained within the glasshouse are the Palm Court, Sunken Garden, Victoria Room, East Room, Desert Room, Serpentine Room, Fern Room, Orchid Room, Broderie Room, South Conservatory, Tropical Fruit and Spice Room and the Gallery. The Sunken Garden is seen below.
The Broderie Room (Parterre de Broderie) opened in 1939 and was redesigned in 1966. Modeled after the formal gardens of French chateaux during the reign of Louis XIV, its name translates to “embroidery of earth.”
Two aquatic gardens were added in the early 1900’s and 1939 on the east side of the Conservatory (outside of the Victoria Room). They feature a statue of Neptune, the Roman god of the sea.
Botany Hall, funded by Phipps in 1901 to be used by local teachers to enhance visits to the glasshouse by school children, continues to serve as a facility for educational programming and events.
In support of the educational mission, a Children’s Discovery Garden, includes areas designed to attract birds, butterflies, and bees and contains varied spaces, including a bog and sensory garden.
Installed in 1991, the Japanese Courtyard Garden was designed by Hoichi Kurisu to represent two art forms. As a manmade landscape created to appear natural, the garden’s bonsai are miniature representations of trees and landscapes.
Approximately three acres in size, the Center for Sustainable Landscapes was designed to be one of the first projects to achieve LEED Platinum and Four Stars Sustainable Sites Initiative™ (SITES™) certification while fulfilling the Living Building Challenge for net-zero energy. Opened in 2012, it was designed as a collaboration between The Design Alliance Architects and landscape architects Andropogon Associates.
In contrast to the formal aquatic gardens, the Center for Sustainable Landscape’s paths informally traverse the landscape and grade dramatically until they reach the boardwalk, water fountain and lagoon, where a peaceful setting places the visitor within the landscape.
The Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens continues to support the legacy of its founder through ambitious public educational programming and by “reimagining and reinventing its campus” to become one of America’s greenest public gardens. As an international leader in sustainable architecture and operations Phipps is both a symbol of “regeneration and renewal.”
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