History & Timeline
What's past is prologue at Phipps Conservatory. Inspired by the City Beautiful Movement and originally stocked with tropical plants from the Columbian Exposition in Chicago (1893), Phipps helped to put Pittsburgh on par with parks and urban development in major American and European cities at the turn of the 20th century. Today, in a new century, Phipps again takes the lead through green building initiatives that set the region on a more sustainable course.
Phipps Conservatory was built by Henry Phipps as a gift to the City of Pittsburgh. Phipps stated he wanted to "erect something that will prove a source of instruction as well as pleasure to the people." He stipulated that the Conservatory must be open on Sundays so the workers could visit on their day of rest. The Conservatory was designed by the New York firm Lord & Burnham and cost $100,000. The original plant material came in from the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago which closed in November 1893.
The Conservatory hosted the Triennial Conclave of The Knights Templar when this iconic photo was taken. The woman in the photo, Angie Means, stands on a giant Amazonian water lily pad, Victoria regia, in the Conservatory's Victoria room.
One of the additions to the Conservatory given by Henry Phipps was the Cacti House in 1902. Visitors would stand on a terrace and look into the room, as shown in this early postcard. In the late 1930's, the room was redesigned to allow visitors to walk through the exhibit. Now referred to as the Desert Room, it reflects the variety of plants in which it houses.
Two men stand in the Palm Court in a photo dated 1904. The Palm Court is one of the original rooms built in 1893 and is 65-feet-tall at its highest point. It remains the focal point of the Conservatory.
The water garden, featured on this historic postcard postmarked 1915, has always been a favorite outdoor attraction. The first aquatic garden was built sometime after 1910 and the second pool was installed near the Hygeia statue in 1939. The message on the back of this postcard reads, "How would you like to gather lilies out of the pond shown on this card?"
James Smith, left, who worked at the Conservatory, is shown examining an Easter lily with an unidentified man in this photo dated 1923. Early on, most of the flowers were displayed in their pots on waist-high benches. Beginning in 1935, through the efforts and talent of Ralph Griswold, head of the city's Public Works Department and the Conservatory's horticulture department, a major change in the displays took place. A distinctive design representing a unique garden style was presented in the majority of the rooms. Many of these innovative gardens remain today.
Two friends stand under an archway of roses on Easter Sunday 1928 in the South Conservatory. The South Conservatory, the first addition to the original nine-room Conservatory, was added between 1896 and 1897 as a gift from Henry Phipps. It was originally one large room but partitions of glass and brick were added in the late 1930's to divide the area into three show rooms now includes the Gallery and the Tropical Fruit & Spice Room.
Eight hundred rare orchids valued at $50,000 were donated to the Conservatory by Charles D. Armstrong, owner of the Armstrong Cork Company. This collection greatly enhanced the plant collections at Phipps, which was regarded as one of the outstanding conservatories in the country.
A windstorm in February severely damaged the Conservatory, shattering glass panes in the display rooms and working greenhouses which the City of Pittsburgh had financed and built in 1895. The distinctive ogee arch that crowned the roof of the Palm Court was so damaged, it was removed. The Conservatory was closed for 20 months for repairs and reopened for the Fall Flower Show in 1938.
Opened in 1939, the Cloister Garden's design was inspired by an engraving in the 17th century botanical art book Hortus Floridus. In 1966, the Cloister Garden, picture here in an early photo, was redesigned as the present-day Parterre de Broderie, which translate to "embroidery on earth."
The 50th anniversary of the Conservatory is celebrated and throngs of visitors poured through the Palm Court. The past two years were record-setting years for attendance during flower shows. In 1942, 16,000 visitors toured the Spring Flower Show on Easter Sunday. At this time, the Conservatory was free to the public.
A large electric fountain was purchased and installed in the Victoria Room. It was a gift from the Pittsburgh Foundation. In 1991 it was reconditioned by Schenley High School students but was replaced in 1993 by a fountain whose display can be programmed by visitors.
During the fall flower shows, the staff at Phipps would recreate a scene from a nursery rhyme or a children's book. Shown here are Little Miss Muffet and the infamous spider, surrounded by mums for the Fall Flower Show of 1955.
This photo shows fashionable patio complete with swanky outdoor furniture and stylish paper lanterns during the 1956 Spring Flower Show. The Modern Room in the Conservatory depicted carefully-designed rooms and patios during the flower shows for most of the 1950's and 1960's. This room is now the Gallery adjoining the South Conservatory.
The Cascade Garden was dismantled for creation of a Japanese-style garden complete with a wooden pagoda – which was later replaced by a bamboo teahouse – and a large ornate stone lantern. The Cascade Garden, shown here, was previously the Charleston Garden which depicted an antebellum-inspired garden setting complete with Spanish moss and the façade of a Southern mansion. This room is now the Sunken Garden.
The original Richardsonian Romanesque entrance was demolished. While the new entrance made space for offices and meeting rooms, the design was bland and did not compliment the historic glasshouse. This entrance was demolished in 2004 and in March 2005, the new Welcome Center was opened to the public featuring the latest visitor amenities blended with an environmentally-smart and aesthetically-sensitive design. The domed roof of the new entrance complements the original Lord &: Burnham design.
Edward Vasilcik, at age 24, became lead horticulturist at Phipps. He replaced the beloved Frank Curto, who retired in 1970 and had worked for Phipps for 35 years. Vasilcik was known for using elaborate props in the flower shows. The finest and most elaborate example of the types of props Vasilcik presented is pictured here, a fire-breathing dragon, for the Fall Flower Show of 1985.
Phipps Conservatory was placed on the National Register of Historic Places by the Secretary of the United States Department of the Interior. In this picture, people are in line to walk through the Spring Flower Show.
The Conservatory was closed for 18 months for extensive indoor and outdoor improvements. Renovations included installation of outdoor Victorian-style replicas of street lamps, glass panel replacement, and new growing benches in the greenhouses, among many other improvements. The Border Garden, pictured here in a photo from the 1950's, was redesigned as the present-day Serpentine Room.
First class of Conservatory docents graduated. In this photo, the graduates posed with Pittsburgh Mayor Richard Caliguri. The docent program was founded by Irene Jacobs, a local Pittsburgh woman well-known in the gardening community.
Groundbreaking began in April on the new one acre garden, now called the Outdoor Garden, to replace the outdoor Perennial Garden, pictured. In 1935, WPA workers constructed the garden's hardscape which still remains. The Outdoor Garden now features a variety of gardens such as the medieval herb garden, fern garden, dwarf conifers, and a medicinal plant garden, and many other interesting features.
Schenley Park celebrated its 100th anniversary. The Conservatory makes a giant three-layer cake covered with white chrysanthemums and orchid accents for the Fall Flower Show.
Our Japanese Courtyard Garden was designed in 1991 by Hoichi Kurisu to compare and contrast two very important art forms from Japan: The Japanese Garden (a natural looking man-made landscape) and Bonsai (a man-made miniature representation of trees and landscapes). The Phipps Japanese Courtyard Garden is unique because, in Japan, Japanese Gardens and Bonsai are rarely, if ever, displayed together.
In July, Phipps Conservatory, Inc. signed a 100-year lease with the City of Pittsburgh to take over management of the Conservatory. Under private management, Phipps has added educational programming among other amenities. In 1997, the Board of Trustees recognized the expanded mission and voted to change the name of the organization to Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens. This same year was also the 100th anniversary of the Conservatory. Pictured here are the initials of Henry Phipps sculpted in poinsettias for the Winter Flower Show.
Neptune returned to the Conservatory. The statue of Neptune – the Roman god of the sea – was installed in the Aquatic Gardens. The statue originally stood guard over a pond installed in 1893 at the front of the Conservatory. Neptune had been in Highland Park until a grassroots volunteer initiative restored and brought him back to Phipps.
Restoration of Phipps Hall of Botany began. The building's original construction was funded by Henry Phipps in 1901 at the request of high school botany teachers to create a permanent teaching area for students on the Phipps campus. Later, it was used by the City of Pittsburgh for administrative offices. By January 1999, it was restored to its original splendor.
Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens merges with the Pittsburgh Garden Place, formerly known as the Pittsburgh Civic Garden Center. The Garden Place was founded in 1935 and was the center of horticulture education in Pittsburgh. It relocated from the Schenley Park visitors' center to Mellon Park in 1948. The Garden Place, which was renamed Phipps Garden Center after the merger, has operated the very popular May Market, a three-day home and garden sale in Mellon Park. The Garden Center continues to offer outstanding adult horticulture education.
Groundbreaking ceremony in October for a new visitor center, one of the most ambitious expansion projects in Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens' history. The new building represents the first phase of an aggressive multi-year expansion plan.
Phase one, a new 11,000 square foot Welcome Center, is completed. The building is the first LEED® certified (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) visitor center in a public garden in the United States. The new space houses admissions, a café, and a gift shop.
Phase two of the expansion is complete with new production greenhouses open with multiple growing zones and computer-controlled environments. The new 36,000 square foot space allows the horticulture team to grow a wider variety of plants.
In December Phipps opens the Tropical Forest Conservatory, a 12,000 square foot multi-level display space designed to feature a new theme every two years. The first theme is Thailand to be followed by the Headwaters of the Amazon in 2009.
Phipps sets a new attendance record with over 191,000 visitors.
The Board of Trustees votes to accept the Living Building Challenge, a national call for the world's first ‘living' building. Fundraising and design begins for the third phase of expansion, the Center for Sustainable Landscapes, a new administration and education center.
Phipps becomes the sixth garden in the US to host a Dale Chihuly glass exhibit. Chihuly at Phipps: Gardens and Glass opens in May and proves to be the most successful exhibit in the history of Phipps and possibly all of Pittsburgh. Attendance doubles from the previous year.
Groundbreaking ceremonies take place in September for a living building. The Center for Sustainable Landscapes, which will be one of the greenest buildings in the world, will open in spring 2012.