Flashback to 2009, and the invitation to visit my now husband in Pittsburgh where he lived. I’d never had the city on my top ten places to visit, and Robert knew I was reluctant to travel to what I thought of as a dirty city. That’s why soon after my plane landed, he took me to the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens.
First of all, the drive there from the airport dispelled my idea of black smoke still encircling the city. We drove through the Fort Pitt tunnel into the sunshine of downtown Pittsburgh and the meeting of three mighty rivers. We drove on to Oakland, the home of the University of Pittsburgh. On the other side of Panther Hollow lies the glass house. Henry Phipps commissioned the conservatory in 1892 to give the steel workers in Pittsburgh a place of beauty and fresh air in the middle of the pollution he and Andrew Carnegie helped create with their steel mills eventually purchased by U.S. Steel.
Botanical gardens in large greenhouses were all the rage in the Victorian Era, and so the Phipps was built in the best tradition of the very first one, the Glass House of London. Today there’s a new entrance with welcome center, gift shop, and nationally recognized cafe. However, it’s when I step into the Palm Court, the very first room of the nine original glass houses, I am transported back in time, trying to imagine what it must have been like for the average Pittsburgh family to step into that room with its abundance of oxygen and lushness as an antidote to the harsh conditions of the outside world.
Here Phipps created an environment of health and beauty. He required the conservatory be free and open on Sundays to ensure his workers could come and enjoy.
From the moment I stepped inside, I fell in love with all of the rooms in the original structure, and those built in later years to house a tropical rain forest, a spice and fruit room, discovery gardens, edible gardens, and a Japanese garden.
One of my favorite rooms is the East Room now abloom with mums. This room resembles a natural woodland although decorated with the seasonal fall flowers. It will change with the holiday show set to open the day after Thanksgiving.
But there’s something else spectacular going on at the Phipps. It’s becoming a premier vision for a sustainable world. All water that comes into Phipps stay in Phipps through recycling in one form or another. Electricity is manufactured through solar panels and wind turbine. Heating and cooling in many of the rooms is passive through the use of computers to open and shut panels for the appropriate temperatures. Fans come on automatically to move air when needed.
It’s a beautiful place. That’s why in September, I started training to become a museum docent. I’m now trained to give tours, but I still need to do a practice tour with an official. However, there is so much to know about this beautiful place that I don’t feel ready to conduct a tour. I’m in awe of the history and its place in Pittsburgh. I want to be sure I do it justice when I tell others about it.
So now I go and do shifts as a stationary docent. I stand in rooms and engage folks in conversation about the conservatory. They see my name badge and come up and ask me questions. I’m beginning to feel more and more comfortable in my role as Phipps expert. Yesterday I chatted with children and adults. I helped college students on a quest to find a particular rose, which we never did find, but it was great fun taking them through the rooms on the search. I may have imparted some information, but I was the real winner.
On a windy and cold fall day in Pittsburgh, I was transported into a wonderland of lush plants, colorful plants, and rich oxygen. Not a bad way to spend a day.
And by the way, I was wrong about Pittsburgh almost six years ago. It’s now the place I call home.