Pittsburgh’s Phipps Conservatory

PhippsGlassHouseFlashback 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.


One of many works of art from Dale Chihuly

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.

Palm Court decorated with mums

Palm Court decorated with mums

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.

Sunken Gardens

Sunken Gardens


Mums in full bloom

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.

East Room

East Room

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.

Ready to give a tour

Ready to give a tour

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.

Water Woes in the High Desert

Bamboo pond at Denver’s Botanic Gardens

By Patricia Zick @PCZick

Sometimes I can’t keep my mouth shut; sometimes I need to say more. Recently, I might have found a balance between the two.

Recently we traveled to Denver. This region suffered a nearly rainless summer. They receive an average of 15.47 inches of rainfall each year, but as of September 26, they’ve only had 6 inches fall. This year is dry even for this high desert region.

The urban residential areas are on watering restrictions, and while the roadsides were brown and burned, home lawns were lush greens. Evidently, the restrictions mean they water as much as possible on the three days per week of allowed sprinklers.

A couple rode in the shuttle with us from the airport. They were returning home after a month in Europe, and they were worried about their lawn.

“It’s terrible around here,” the wife said. “We spend $250 per month on 16,000 gallons of water for our lawn. It’s a crime.”

“I think it’s a crime anyone would use that much water and spend that much on a lawn,” I said before I could stop myself. “Have you thought about planting something that’s more native that wouldn’t require all the watering?”

“If I wanted a lawn that looked like I lived in the desert, I’d move to Arizona,” she said. Then she pointed out a house we passed with no front yard or plants – just rocks. “See that’s just plain ugly.”

“There are other ways to make your yard look nice without filling it with only rocks,” I said.

Water Smart Garden – Denver Botanic Gardens

My husband decided to change the subject to something in his area of expertise.

“Where does your water come from?” he asked.

“We don’t pay attention to stuff like that,” she said.

Why should they as long as the water is there when they turn on the faucet? The next day I spent wandering one of Denver’s largest bookstores. An entire section was devoted to the problem of Colorado’s water and the diversion of it into urban areas lacking in the resource.

They both became silent when I mentioned I was an environmental writer. Then the husband surprised me as he pointed out the watering going on in the median of the roadway we passed.

“Now that is absolutely wasteful,” he said. “No one should ever be allowed to water at noon. And they certainly shouldn’t have the water spraying on the asphalt like that.”

A few days later, I wished I’d gotten their contact information so I could send them some photos. I visited Denver’s Botanic Gardenswhere whole areas are devoted not to lawns and landscaped perfections, but to beautiful flowers attracting bees, birds, and butterflies.

Dryland Mesa at Denver Botanic Gardens

The original mission of the Botanic Gardens is evident as a showcase for native plants that thrive in the arid climate of the region. The Rock Alpine Garden, Water-Smart Garden, and Dryland Mesa provide excellent examples of how residents can live with beautiful yards while contributing to the environment. Native plants do more than flourish in the climate; they are a part of the symbiotic nature with the land and wildlife.

I spoke to another longtime resident of Denver who keeps a beautifully manicured lawn and green grass. I asked her if she’d ever been to the Botanic Gardens.

“I have to admit, I’ve never visited them,” she said.

Let’s hope I said just enough to convince her to go.

Denver Botanic Gardens