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Phipps completes first phase of expansion project

By Kellie B. Gormly
Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Visitors to Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens this weekend will find a warm and bright spring greeting in the new Welcome Center, which is the first phase of a $36.6 million expansion project.
“It’s the first building in a major expansion of the conservatory that’s going to make Phipps the finest conservatory in the entire country,” says Richard V. Piacentini, executive director of the Oakland attraction. “We think it is the most attractive entrance to a botanical garden in the entire country.”

Officials will discuss details of the new Welcome Center at a news conference scheduled for Thursday, which marks the official public opening. A grand-opening celebration for the public is scheduled for Saturday and Sunday.

The 10,885-square-foot Welcome Center — portions of which have been opened for about a month — includes updated visitor amenities, the 2,000-square-foot Shop at Phipps and the 78-seat Cafe Phipps. The center, topped by a 46-foot glass dome, sits mostly underground, with a small lobby on the ground level that leads to the Palm Court and the rest of the conservatory. The dome allows plenty of natural light to spill in, making it seem to visitors that they are not underground, Piacentini says.

“One of the biggest problems we had in the design process was figuring out how to put the building in front of the conservatory without blocking it,” he says. “This is an absolutely brilliant solution.”

The next phase of the project — a state-of-the-art greenhouse production facility designed to grow plants for exhibition — is scheduled to open this fall, followed by the 12,000-square-foot Tropical Forest Exhibit in the fall of 2006. The final two phases are adding facilities for special events and education administration. Timelines for these two projects depend on funding received, Piacentini says.

IKM Inc., a Downtown architectural firm, designed the Welcome Center, which replaces a pavilion that was built in the 1960s and complements the design of the 112-year-old conservatory, Phipps officials say.

“The Phipps Welcome Center is a beautiful and contemporary addition to a grand historical landmark,” said Jim Stalder, chairman of the Phipps Board of Trustees, in a written statement. “However, behind the beauty is an environmentally conscious structure that strives to lessen the impact on its surroundings while maintaining historical significance.”

Landscaping surrounding the Welcome Center is a work in progress, but Piacentini says the grounds can be tended and more flowers planted when the rain subsides.

Meanwhile, Phipps officials today will install more than 100,000 brightly colored, tulip-sized flags on the sloping front lawn to give a colorful spring flower appearance, he says.

The Welcome Center includes an upgraded ticketing and admission system, a visitor locker area, new restroom facilities and a grand stairway to the Palm Court, which leads to other conservatory exhibits. The Shop at Phipps — which is about four times the size of the old gift shop — will carry botanically themed merchandise such as cards, toys, beauty products, home items, gardening books and cookbooks, and actual house plants.

Cafe Phipps — operated by Big Burrito Group, which owns area restaurants including Mad Mex, Soba and Casbah — offers self-service meals and snacks featuring locally grown produce.

About the Welcome Center

Nearly 25 percent of the materials used are manufactured from within a 500-mile radius of Pittsburgh. Much of the material — such as steel, concrete, limestone block and bricks — also are extracted regionally, and much material was recycled.

The facility is awaiting Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification at the silver level, which means it meets strict environmental and sustainability guidelines.

The building is environmentally conscious in its operations. For instance, energy used to operate the building comes from wind power, which helps prevent global warming and conserve natural resources.
About the Tropical Forest Exhibit

The 12,000-square-foot facility, scheduled to open in the fall of 2006, will be about one and a half times the size of the existing tropical exhibit, which is about 7,900 square feet. It will be 60 feet high and feature cascading indoor waterfalls spanned by an overhead catwalk.

The Tropical Forest Exhibit will have a rotating schedule, with a new country’s tropical region featured every two years. The first country featured will be Thailand.

The forest will have an 8,000-square-foot, single-pane glass wall that will maximize sunlight. It will include a Palm Circle, where as many as 40 visitors can gather to hear presentations, sample tropical foods, weave baskets, pot plants and participate in other learning activities.

Docents will lead in-depth tours throughout the exhibit, and hands-on educational areas will be available. Phipps’ Botany in Action researchers will be on hand throughout the year to talk with visitors and explain their work.

The exhibit will be environmentally friendly in its structures and operations. For instance, it will utilize a venting system on its glass roof that aims to conserve energy, and a blanket-curtain system at night to retain heat.
Source: Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens

Kellie B. Gormly can be reached at or (412) 320-7824.

This article appeared in the Pittsburgh Tribune Review © Pittsburgh Tribune Review

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