Phipps Conservatory celebrates '125 Years of Wonder'
When philanthropist Henry W. Phipps gifted the City of Pittsburgh with Phipps Conservatory in 1893, he said he wished “to erect something that (would) prove a source of instruction as well as pleasure to the people.”
Residents and visitors to the city still marvel at the Victorian glasshouse in Schenley Park as a showcase of horticultural beauty and artistic design a century and a quarter later.
Phipps will celebrate its quasquicentennial with its “Fall Flower Show: 125 Years of Wonder,” which opens Oct. 13 and runs for three weeks through Nov. 4.
Laura Schoch, Phipps plant recorder and display horticulturist, designed the show that pays tribute to past displays through preserved props and historical photos from the conservatory’s archives.
Schoch said she believes the benefactor would be proud of the facility today.
“As stewards of this conservatory, it’s our job to continue what Henry wanted it to be,” she said. “I think he would be proud that we incorporate the latest trends in plants, energy-saving automation and conservation of the historical glasshouse, all while still providing the public with beautiful shows.”
In the spotlight
The most prolific flower of the season, the chrysanthemum, takes center stage as usual for the fall show. For the milestone anniversary event, Schoch said Phipps’ greenhouse technicians prepared 800 disbud mums for display.
The lengthy process of disbudding, which involves clipping secondary flower buds on each plant so the main bud produces a large full bloom, was a huge undertaking for the staff, she said.
Thousands of additional mums in 13 different classifications will be included in displays throughout the conservatory.
The Palm Court is a tribute to Henry Phipps and his vision for the conservatory, filled with a variety of mums in assorted shades of yellow, gold and white and a large portrait of him.
In the Victoria Room are framed photographs of past shows arranged in window boxes accented by “Redbeat” and “Sea Urchin Copper” coleus, “Autumn Leaves” coral bells, “Contiki Red and “Triumph” (light orange) garden mums.
The East Room brings back a favorite storybook character from the 1960 and 1968 fall show, Humpty Dumpty, in a nursery-rhyme-inspired display.
Visitors are invited to share their own memories of past visits to Phipps in the Welcome Center by adding notes to an oversized memory board fashioned into a vintage postcard.
A few early postings recall “Coming here every Sunday as a child with family in ’60s and ’70s,” “First adventure with my two babies after moving here from Minnesota – We love it now with the grandbabies” and “Our son’s wedding July 2016.”
A special feature of the flower show will take place in the Serpentine Room, which will be transformed into a spooky “Night of the Living Dead” experience for a tribute to filmmaker George A. Romero on the 50th anniversary of his horror movie.
Plantings in (blood) red and black and bats “flying” overhead will add an eerie feel to the room depicting the film’s cemetery scene. Guests can learn about Phipps’ legendary corpse flower named in Romero’s honor and pose for a photo with a zombie.
The corpse flower last bloomed in 2013 and is still dormant, so it will not be shown, Schoch said, “but we still celebrate with a room filled with a hauntingly memorable display.”
‘Memories in Motion’
Phipps’ Garden Railroad exhibit, “Memories in Motion,” returns with the fall show, keeping with the conservatory’s 125th anniversary theme. Landscapes with miniature plants depict scenes of Phipps and Schenley Park in 1893 and 2018 with interactive push-button stations that bring the displays to life.
Jordyn Melino, Phipps associate director of exhibits, designed the layout, which features a small-scale model of the conservatory with its original entrance, a sawmill, train station and other structures, including those that are gone, such as a small zoo and bandshell once located near Phipps.
Melino said the Garden Railroad, which became a part of the fall show in 1999, continues to evolve.
“This year one of our senior props builders, Paul Widek, created a serpentine road track complete with push button-activated racing cars as a nod to the first car races held in Schenley Park in the 1890s,” she said.
Candy Williams is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.