The roof of Phipps Conservatory, lashed by a fierce storm, was forever altered in 1937. The ogee — the distinctive architectural arch molding that formed a crest of glass – was shattered in that storm, never to be replaced.
To commemorate the 125th anniversary of Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, the ogee, which covers the conservatory’s Palm Court, has been restored. The restoration is the centerpiece of a renovation project that coincides with Phipps’ Fall Flower Show: 125 Years of Wonder, opening Oct. 13 and running through Nov. 4.
“It’s really exciting,” says Richard Piacentini president and CEO of Phipps. “What’s amazing to me is I was so used to seeing the conservatory the way it was. When they put the ogee on, it was like how could anybody not put this on right away. It just doesn’t look right with it off.”
The last of 5,000 new panes of tempered glass was put into place on Oct. 11, with Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto present to dedicate the month of October as a celebration of Phipps 125thanniversary in the city.
“You think about this place and it’s remarkable that it’s still here,” Peduto said. “During the 100thanniversary there was a very real possibility we were going to have to close it. It was a department of city government, like the zoo, and it was through (former Pittsburgh mayor) Sophie Masloff that we figured out a way to create a public-private partnership that would allow it to continue. … Twenty-five years later, Phipps is at the strongest point it’s ever been at. It’s not only surviving, it’s thriving.”
A gift from philanthropist Henry W. Phipps, Jr., to the city, Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens opened in 1893. Designed by boiler and greenhouse manufacturer Lord & Burnham for $100,000, Phipps’ generosity created a natural complex where residents could find relief from the smog and pollution created by steel mills.
Today, Phipps’ 15 acres feature a 14-room glasshouse and 23 gardens that host seasonal flower shows. This year’s Fall Flower Show will pay tribute to Phipps’ history including “The Garden Railroad: Memories in Motion,” a model train display featuring interactive features at each stop.
The Victoria Room showcases a re-creation of a topiary Humpty-Dumpty from the 1960s, and the late filmmaker and longtime Pittsburgh resident George Romero is honored with bats, tombstones, and a zombie photo opportunity in the Serpentine Room.
The Sunken Garden features a vibrant mix of flowers in amethyst, amber, and topaz tones. An enlarged postcard also will be available for guests to sign and share their favorite Phipps’ memories.
And as is customary during the fall, there are thousands of chrysanthemums in bloom throughout the gardens, including 800 disbud mums that only flourish through the attentive efforts of Phipps’ horticulturists.
While individual rooms can take a few days to set up, planning for the displays can take up to a year, or longer. Laura Schoch, a Phipps display horticulturist, says preparations are already in the works for next year’s fall events.
The highlight of the 2018 Fall Flower Show is the restored Palm Court. The room’s wooden supports have been replaced with aluminum ribs, precisely scaled to the duplicate the dimensions of the original area in 1893. The decorative fleur-de-lis cresting atop the ogee is similar to elements found in Victorian glasshouse architecture. New LED lighting will illuminate Palm Court.
The renovations are aesthetically pleasing, even breathtaking considering most guests have never seen Phipps as it was originally intended to look. But engineers and architects had to make sure the new ogee was sound, especially accounting for wind shear that damaged the original structure.
The impact on existing exhibits also had to be considered.
“They started taking the old glass off in April and they’re just finishing up in October,” Piacentini says. “We could not afford to shut the conservatory down for that long period of time. We had to have them engineer scaffolding on the inside as well, with all kinds of protection, so that patrons could still go through without any kinds of worries about safety.”
The renovations included an opportunity for the public to become part of the process. Patrons were able to sponsor individual panes for donations ranging from $100–$500 for the 5,000 new panes of tempered glass, extending from the gutter line to the top of the ogee.
“That exceeded our expectations,” Piacentini said, who said there were hundreds of participants. “We were really excited about people being part of the construction.”
In his remarks, Peduto touted Phipps as one of the region’s environmental jewels for the recognition it receives for sustainability and green practices. The Center for Sustainable Landscapes is recognized as one of the greenest buildings in the world.
“We may be celebrating 125 years in the past today,” Peduto said,” but we should be also celebrating where Phipps is today in the leadership that has gotten us here in the past 25 years, in order to look at the next 125 years and what this institution can provide to the world.”