Special collection of photos brings to life Phipps' history
Many Western Pennsylvania residents have special memories tied to Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, from family traditions such as annual Easter Sunday visits to garden weddings and other special celebrations held at the Oakland glasshouse.
The Phipps' staff has been hard at work for the past year — in between seasonal shows and ongoing programs — digitizing and archiving a treasure trove of photographs that documents the conservatory's history, as well as its growth and change, dating back to its opening on Dec. 7, 1893.
Adam Haas, interpretive specialist with the science education and research and marketing departments, says the effort has been massive for staff members, who have spent hours poring over photos that have been shared by Phipps' guests or are part of the conservatory's records.
“We learned a lot during those sessions,” he says. “Looking over the images, some had context material but most didn't. It was like doing forensic detective work to identify them.”
The public will have an opportunity to view a collection of 84 of the photos displayed throughout Phipps' exhibit rooms for one weekend only, March 10 to 12, as part of their regular admission to the conservatory. On March 10, docents will be available to answer visitors' questions about the facility.
Haas says the historical photos are still coming in and people have been encouraged to bring their own snapshots to Phipps when they visit.
Among the earliest images that will be part of the display is a photo taken during the 27th Triennial Conclave of the Knights Templar, a Masonic order, which took place in Pittsburgh in 1898. The woman in the photo is standing on a Giant Water Lily (Victoria amazonica) that Haas explains was named for Queen Victoria, who reigned when the species that found its way to England from Guyana was described in 1837.
“The stunning plant in turn lent its name to the (conservatory's) Victoria Room,” he says. “In fact, the ribbed underside of the pad served as design inspiration for early glasshouses like Phipps.”
Another early photo from 1909 depicts a woman and three children sitting on a bench outside the conservatory. Haas says the grandson of the infant on the woman's lap emailed the image of the family to Phipps last year.
In addition to sending digital images, people have donated slides, printed photos and even old postcards dating to the late 19th century, some with written messages on the back.
Among the staff's finds was an image of Pittsburgh philanthropist Henry W. Phipps shown at a former glass house located on the North Side, on property where the current National Aviary is located. Phipps later paid to have the current conservatory built as a gift to the city of Pittsburgh.
The structure was designed by Lord & Burnham, a New York-based greenhouse manufacturer, for a fee of $100,000.
Over the years, Phipps Conservatory has grown in size and popularity, welcoming more than 434,000 guests in 2016, according to Haas. Easter weekend is the busiest weekend of the year for Phipps' attendance.
Candy Williams is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.