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The Future is Green

Phipps Sept 14

THE FUTURE IS GREEN in Pittsburgh’s famous glasshouse

I saw one of the world’s great greenhouses last month when I visited Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Pittsburgh. One of the largest conservatories in the world, with soaring, lacelike Edwardian architecture framing the glass overhead, it has 17 separate indoor garden spaces – pools, gorgeous orchids, cacti, vast tropic aroids, green tunnels of ferns, huge indoor palm trees, a butterfly garden, even an indoor hedge garden. And outside, the 15-acre campus includes perennial gardens in several styles.

It’s not the individual elements that are unusual — it seems like every botanical garden or conservatory has Dale Chihuly art glass and a miniature train to divert children. But the Phipps has everything on a spectacular scale: dozens of Chihulys, room after room of lush exotic plants, several trains, roof garden after roof garden.

There’s a connection with my hometown: In 1893, after it was built with money from steel magnate Henry Phipps, the conservatory was stocked with plants left over from Chicago’s World’s Columbian Exposition, which had just closed. Few, if any, of those plants survive, but what do you expect from houseplants after 121 years? I have a hard enough time getting mine through one winter.

Phipps Broderie Room Botts 8-2014_edited-2
Broderie Room at the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, Pittsburgh. Photo by Beth Botts.

Beyond the Victorian conservatory itself, I was impressed by the attached Center for Sustainable Landscapes, a recently opened research and education facility. It’s an LEED platinum building designed for net zero energy use. Solar panels contribute electricity; there’s geothermal heating and cooling and natural ventilation (that means windows that open!). An elegant pool is part of a system to manage and recycle rainwater, surrounded by a garden of native plants.

It’s among several modern additions to the original glasshouse (which was huge to begin with), all of which do an excellent job of blending with or complementing the 19th century architecture. I was there in August, but I can only imagine what a balm for the soul this place must be in January.

So: What was my favorite part of the Phipps? Was it the orchids? Was it the charming rooftop vegetable garden? I’m almost abashed to admit that it was a train.

In one room, in the middle of an elegant Victorian pool, surrounded by ferns and philodendrons, was a miniature island with a little mountain. At the edge of the pool was a button. I pushed the button. I heard the noise of a faraway train. It grew and grew, a mighty rhythmic roar, until I felt like I was about to be run down by a diesel engine and a hundred freight cars. Suddenly a single tiny trolley car popped out of the little mountain, tootled around the little island and disappeared. Silence fell.

Orchids, elegance, a conscience and a sense of humor — what more could you hope for in an indoor garden?