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Phipps Conservatory Gets A Facelift For Its 125th Birthday

Megan Harris
90.5 WESA
Phipps Conservatory is undergoing three separate renovation projects this summer. Two will take place on its main Schenley Park campus, and a third is slated for its Garden Center in Mellon Park.

The lush greenery and humid mystique of Phipps Conservatory’s Palm Court has served as the facility’s front door since it opened in 1893, when hundreds of panes of delicate annealed glass were installed beneath an ornamental ogee crest. 

Executive director Richard Piacentini said that glass needs a facelift, and the crest has been missing since a fierce windstorm ripped it off more than 80 years ago.

Credit Megan Harris / 90.5 WESA
Scaffolding surrounds the vegetation inside Phipps Conservatory's Palm Court, where crews are replacing and reframing dozens of panes of glass.

"We thought as part of this 125th anniversary, it would be really exciting to return it back [to its original state]," he said. “The renovations we’re doing now – instead of only being good for about 15-20 years – are going to last over 100 years.”

Crews are doing a pane-by-pane replacement using safety glass, which isn’t as susceptible to breakage from outside forces or the behemoth palm trees pressing up from below, Piacentini said. Scaffolding is currently visible inside Palm Court and will come and go from the exterior throughout the summer, he said.

The original glass panes, which can shatter and fall, were framed in cypress and steel, but even the most resistent wood rots over time, he said. Architects now recommend aluminum, and they're following spacing guidelines in the conservatory's original blueprints. Piacentini said the safety glass and added reinforcement will help with planting as well.

Credit Phipps Conservatory

“A lot of palm trees continue to grow over their life, and the Palm Court is obviously a static space," he said. "You know, we can’t raise the roof on it. So some of those palm trees have actually reached the top of the glass where they actually break the glass.”

The installation is part of three separate renovation and restoration projects helmed by Phipps this year. 

Its Garden Center, built in Mellon Park off Shady and Fifth avenues in 1909, is slated to get a new guest entrance, updated gift shop, and on-site café. Piacentini said the conservatory is still meeting with members of the community to decide how best to meet its many needs. They're also in the process of creating a new Exhibit Staging Center on the main Schenley Park property inside an old public works building that will be open to the public for a behind-the-scenes view of how curators create the props for Phipps' seasonal flower shows.

Piacentini said all three will likely be funded, at least in part, through capital campaigns.