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Victorian Glass Houses Inspired Phipps Conservatory in Pittsburgh

On my recent trip to Pittsburgh to attend the Garden Writers Association Annual Symposium one of the highlights for me had to be our trip to the Phipps Conservatory, the steel and glass structure which was built in 1892.

Phipps XXX
The main entrance to the Phipps Conservatory in Pittsburgh

It was then that industrialist Henry Phipps gave the Conservatory to the city of Pittsburgh as “a source of instruction as well as pleasure to the people.”

The glass structure reflects the nineteenth century Victorian era with its love of greenhouses with showy plants. The English plantsman Joseph Paxton (1803-1865) built his glass structure in 1851 in London for the Great Exhibition and called it the Crystal Palace.  That began the popular movement to include a glasshouse or conservatory for the home gardener as well.

The decades following Paxton’s structure saw greenhouses appear, big and small, both in England and in America.  It was from that tradition Lord and Burnham built this grand Pittsburg structure.  On the wall of the center area of the Phipps Conservatory you can still see the original plague [below] with their names as the builders.

This plague on the wall of the conservatory
A plague on the wall of the Phipps Conservatory

The structure includes a center area with two arms that house various plant collections. Each year the Phipps offers four seasonal flower shows.


Inside the Phipps
The Palm Room inside the Phipps Conservatory

The left and right sides of the original center area have their own particular plant collection and design.

The XXX interior of the Glasshouse
The interior of the Broderie Room in the Glasshouse

On the west side the Broderie Room, modeled after the French knotted garden, is a delicate scene of carefully clipped boxwood shrubs surrounding beds of colorful flowers. On my visit the garden itself was off limits to visitors. All we could do was simply admire from the top landing the detail and, of course, the hard work of the gardeners in maintaining this beautiful setting.

Today the Broderie Room serves as a popular wedding venue where the couple  can exchange vows within the garden itself.

The visit to Phipps was the highlight of my time in Pittsburgh.  I only wish more people could see this building, a lesson in American garden history.


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  1. The New York Botanical Garden’s library has the archives of Lord and Burnham and I’ve visited to see a small part of the collection. The blueprints themselves are just beautiful – the particular files I looked at included multiple blueprints of greenhouses and buildings as well as a few sketches. The garden where I work no longer has its Lord and Burnham greenhouses, but I’ve now seen the designs in addition to a few photographs we have from another source.

    If you’re ever in the NYC area, you might enjoy the Lord and Burnham archives.

    1. Jessica, thank you for the lead on the Lord and Burnham archives. I appreciate it. I will follow up when I am in NY.

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