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Phipps and the G-20 – Sending a Message of Transformation and Sustainability

Phipps' Executive Director Richard Piacentini presents First Lady Michelle Obama with a commendation from the American Public Gardens Association (APGA) recognizing her efforts to promote healthy foods and the benefits of gardening in children's lives.

Official White House photo by Pete Souza.

One by one, visiting dignitaries stepped into the earth-sheltered Welcome Center of Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens on September 24, 2009. It was quite evident that they knew they had arrived at a truly remarkable place. French First Lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy was overheard to murmur, "C'est magnifique!" But it was more than the unmistakable physical beauty of Phipps that caused President Obama and his White House Advance Team to select this site to host the official welcome dinner for the Pittsburgh G-20 summit. Phipps stands as a symbol of both transformation and inspiration.

Get the full G-20 story in our commemorative book, Phipps Welcomes the World:


During the days preceding the summit, the media touted Pittsburgh as a revitalized city, an example of what can happen when an industrial powerhouse evolves into a dynamic, high-tech center. Nowhere is that more evident than at Phipps. Our Victorian glasshouse conservatory, a relic of the Industrial Revolution, has been transformed into a pace-setting model for advanced green building practices, sustainable development and environmental awareness. Hailed as one of the world’s greenest public gardens and the recipient of 14 distinguished awards, Phipps is a model for the future. To that point, our commitment to preserving and protecting the environment permeated every aspect of the summit welcome dinner.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his wife, Laureen Harper, are greeted by President and Mrs. Obama during Pittsburgh G-20 Summit at Phipps.

Photo courtesy Office of the Prime Minister of Canada.

The Conversation Begins Against A Green Backdrop

When the leaders of the G-20 countries sat down to a meticulously prepared meal of roasted herbed Elysian Fields rack of lamb and striped bass, even the table sent a green message. Crafted entirely from locally salvaged trees, the table resulted from collaboration between Phipps Sustainable Design and Program Manager, Kelly Ogrodnik, and John Metzler of Pittsburgh’s Urban Tree Forge.

Twelve slabs measuring 110 feet long when laid end to end were fabricated from previously harvested Red Oak, Pin Oak and London Planetree trees from Riverview Park. The trees had thrived in their North Side location for nearly 100 years, but had been cut down in 2008 due to root rot. After their harvest, Urban Tree Forge took possession of the trees for milling and drying of the wood.

Representatives from Urban Tree Forge worked around the clock for two weeks in order to construct the expansive summit table. An environmentally friendly lacquer was used as a finish coat, sealing the lumber – and Phipps’ commitment to sustainability. This one-of-a-kind table will serve as a reminder of the Pittsburgh G-20 Summit for years to come. Now owned by Phipps, it will be reconfigured for use at other special events at the Conservatory.

A Reminder Of Unity And Economic Cooperation

Amidst the lush foliage of Phipps, the summit attendees vowed to continue to work together in a spirit of economic cooperation. As a symbol of their unity and movement toward a common goal, President Obama commissioned the internationally renowned Fräbel Studio to produce “Glass Tree” sculptures as gifts for visiting dignitaries. Along with the exquisite sculpture, each world leader also received an artist-signed copy of Life in the Gardens. Fräbel at Phipps.

Prior to the reception, Richard V. Piacentini privately presented the President and First Lady with three glass pieces from the current Fräbel exhibit. The Obamas were given the sculpture, Wavy Bowl, as well as two tropical frog glass sculptures for their daughters. As a past president of the American Public Garden Association, Richard also presented Mrs. Obama with a commendation on behalf of the current APGA board for her work with children, gardens and healthy foods.

Even though the summit is now history, reverberations of this prestigious event are heard throughout the world. Visit out media center to read the praises of Phipps and the revitalization of our hometown.


We would like to thank the following sponsors for their generous support:

BNY Mellon
PNC Financial Services Group
UPMC Health Plan
UPMC International
Assist America
Allegheny Conference on Community Development


View photos on Flickr from The White House photostream of the Pittsburgh G-20 Summit Welcome reception and dinner held at Phipps »