The Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens has a long and interesting history. It first opened in 1893. It was built by Henry Phipps to be a place of education and relaxation. Henry Phipps insisted that the conservatory must be open on Sundays so that workers could visit on their day off. The original building had nine rooms that were designed by a New York firm called Lord and Burnham for $100,000. The first plants to be used in the conservatory came from the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, once the exposition ended in November 1893. Also of note is the fact that admission was free to Phipps until after the early 1940’s.
In 1931, the already impressive collection of plants at the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens was expanded. The owner of the Armstrong Cork Company, Charles D. Armstrong, donated 800 rare orchids. At the time, they were valued at $50,000.
It is interesting to note that the first plants on display were usually placed in pots on benches that were two to three feet tall. In 1935, Ralph Griswold, the head of the Phipps Conservatory’s horticulture department began to change this style of gardening. He began to place the plants in a more natural garden setting, much like the designs that currently exist in the conservatory.
The conservatory was closed from February 1937 to September 1938 due to a windstorm. The windstorm was so severe that it shattered the glass panes in the greenhouses. As well, the distinctive arch on the roof of the Palm Court had to be removed because it was so badly damaged. It took 20 months to repair all the damage that the conservatory sustained. When it reopened, Phipps hosted the Fall Flower Show of 1938.
In 1978, the Phipps Conservatory was again closed for a period of time. It was closed for 18 months not because of any damages, but rather to make substantial improvements both inside and outside the conservatory. Some of the renovations that were done included redesigning a few of the greenhouses, replacing glass panels and adding new growing benches to the production greenhouses.
In 2003, an ambitious expansion project spanning several years began. Phase one was completed in 2005 with the opening of a new 11,000 square foot building to welcome visitors. It is the first public garden visitor center in the US to be LEED Certified (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design).
Phase two of the Phipps Conservatory expansion project completed in 2006 and consisted of two major accomplishments. The first one is the addition of 36,000 square feet of new production greenhouses. The second accomplishment is the opening of a new 12,000 square foot public greenhouse called the Tropical Forest Conservatory. It has multiple levels, has a more educational focus and has a theme that will change every two years.
Phase three began in 2007. The first part of this phase is to concentrate on fundraising and designing. The goal of the third phase is to design and build a “living” building. Phase three will also include a Center for Sustainable Landscapes, new administrative offices and educational space. This expansion phase is scheduled to be completed in 2010.
The story of the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens is not over. It continues to change and to be a leader of gardens open to the public in the United States.