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, West Virginia
February 11, 2005
His "To a Mouse" was written "On turning her up in her nest with the plough, November 1785." I imagine that is (metaphorically speaking) what happens to the seasonal displays, as changing weather and a fickle public demand fresh material, but should I comment to the gardeners:
"That wee-bit heap o' leaves an' stibble,
Has cost thee monie a weary nibble"?
I’m not sure this wee bit of sympathy would have appeased me when the groundhog who was living under my porch ate my tomatoes--and they required not one percent of the work of recreating Monet’s Giverny, complete with an impressionistic rendering in pastels of the artist’s house on the back wall of the sunken East Room. That was my favorite exhibit ever at Phipps, and I, as well as the gardeners, am reminded again of Burns’ words to his mouse:
"The best laid schemes o' mice an' men
Gang aft agley" (are often put asunder).
French Impressionism was the theme for the spring flower show two years ago. Last year, I was sure nothing could delight me as much as the impressionistic displays of the previous year, but I went anyway. Who can resist butterflies, bug sculptures, and dinosaur topiaries amid towering palms, orchids, and rubber trees hung with Spanish moss? We tourists are, after all, not like Burns when we are in an indoor jungle!
"Still thou are blest, compared wi' me!
The present only toucheth thee:
But och! I backward cast my e'e,
On prospects drear!
An' forward, tho' I canna see,
I guess an' fear!"
We’ll share none of that pessimism in the Palm Court, with statuary hidden among the palms and a calypso band, steel drums, or dulcimer playing.
There is no past or future here--just everything to delight children and adults. Eastern Indian urns and mosaics were displayed among last year’s plantings in several of Phipps’ thirteen rooms under glass domes.
On another visit, I enjoyed an educational display, complete with literature, on Japanese flower arranging. Another revealed a travelling collection of bug sculptures. Then, of course, there are frequently thousands of butterflies coming to life before our eyes while the scent of orchids permeates the Serpentine Room, the Stove Room, or the Orchid Room, with some arrangements thoughtfully placed at about the height of my nose! These "best laid schemes" may be "often put asunder," but they surely linger in my memory!
The building itself, a National Historic Landmark, is a beautiful example of an authentic Victorian greenhouse and one of the largest in the country.
Inside, the structure is somewhat hidden by the canopy of greenery in many rooms, but visible in the Victoria Room, with its interactive fountain that kids love.
Known as Henry Phipps’ Crystal Palace, Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Garden is part of Pittsburgh’s legacy from the Golden Era. A partner in steel of Andrew Carnegie, Phipps hired the New York firm of Lord and Burnham to construct what was in 1893 the largest greenhouse in the country with "silvered" domes and an impressive Richardson Romanesque entrance of stone. To this day, a visit here is for me a trip back in time. I especially love the brick structures inside and come home every year (or several times each year) wanting to build something of brick in my own backyard.
Plants, too, have always been among the finest collection in the country. Tropical greenery towering to the top of the dome was originally from the Colombian Exposition in Chicago.
I am always impressed by the East Room, where displays are changed frequently. It was the scene of Monet’s garden two years ago, and one year ago, it looked like this.
The East Room always has a stream and hosts the most romantic of all the gardens. Another sunken room is the Parterre de Broderie, which must be seen from an elevated platform to resemble a view from a window of a French country house. It is usually planted as a French garden of the Seventeenth Century or as a Flemish cloister garden of the same era.
Don’t miss the Stove Room, the most densely forested. You may have to look carefully to find the goldfish ponds, but you’ll surely be surprised by the bizarre Bomarzo statue with water frothing from his mouth. The narrow walk dips down so that stone walls surround you with dense jungle beginning at shoulder height, and the effect is that you are deep in the solitude of a tropical safari. You can enjoy being "lost" to civilization, and then dodging overhanging moss, you’ll eventually emerge onto a stone bridge and look down on dark recesses with only a sprinkling of light.
Outdoor gardens include a maze and Discovery Garden for children and a Water Garden and Japanese Garden, complete with structures and benches. All around the premises, one can find shady nooks with seats surrounded by flowers. The gift shop always has something I want for my garden or patio or kitchen.
This February, African plants will be on exhibit throughout the conservatory to celebrate Black History Month, and on Sundays, a steel drum band will entertain in the Palm Court. For Valentine’s weekend each year, candlelit nights until 9:00 pm promise a perfect end to a day of museums and concerts in this Pitt University neighborhood of Oakland. Much more is planned for the months ahead, including the orchid show through March 6, and you can see the full schedule at Phipps.
I’ll be listening to music in the Palm Court after my daylight visit to the National Aviary. (I have a few friends there, including Benito, the gorgeous indigo Macaw, who would enjoy Phipps’ jungle. Too bad he isn’t "free as a bird.") Or, . . . I may be hiding in the forest!
When the first hint of spring sunshine brings out neighboring Carnegie Mellon University students with blankets on the front lawn, I have to wonder why they choose this spot. After all, their campus has plenty of grass! I have to conclude that Phipps is simply a delightful place to be! Reminding us of Robert Burns’ poem "To a Mountain Daisy," the young women sunbathe on the lawn before his statue.
"There, in thy scanty mantle clad,
Thy snawie bosom sun-ward spread,
Thou lifts thy unassuming head
In humble guise . . . ."
I must omit the part about "thy doom." Burn’s pessimistic outlook, his own "fate of artless maid," predated the Victorian greenhouse, where artfulness abides.
From journal Pittsburgh's Museums: Firsts and Foremosts
January 9, 2001
From journal Pittsburgh- Champions in all aspects