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Phipps’ new welcome center makes a grand entrance

By Patricia Lowry,
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Entrances matter.

The new entrance to Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens marks the passage into the great glasshouse as a dramatic and memorable event, and along the way gives Pittsburgh an elegant outdoor room.

Via a long ramp from the sidewalk, the visitor descends into the landscape and is gathered in by welcoming arms — the pair of exterior, winding stairs that flank the courtyard and lead to the upper walkway. In the center of the courtyard wall, with its echoes of Renaissance gardens, is the entrance door to the lobby. Open it and the courtyard’s sense of enclosure gives way to a feeling of expansiveness under a sky framed by the new glass dome.

To the right is Cafe Phipps; to the left is The Shop at Phipps, both earth-sheltered but with generous windows looking onto the courtyard. What beckons first, though, is another winding stair, this one leading the visitor up into the dome and ending in a balcony that provides not only an overview of the rotunda but also of the landscape beyond: A sweeping panorama bracketed by the extending Phipps wings and encompassing Carnegie Institute and its puffing steam-plant, the cascading buildings of Carnegie Mellon University, the sloping lawn of Flagstaff Hill and the woods of Schenley Park.

We have seen this view before, of course. But after our vertical journey through the landscape, the historic, horizontal landscape is refreshed and reframed by the glass dome. We see it with new eyes and a new appreciation.

Phipps Conservatory’s $5 million welcome center, designed by IKM Inc. and built by Turner Construction Co., completes an Oakland trifecta in which the public and the public realm are the big winners. With the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy’s transformation of Schenley Park’s horribly disfigured, vacant nature center into a showcase visitors center and Phipps’ restoration and revival of Botany Hall, whose tile roof nears completion, there is every reason to celebrate and give thanks for the renewal wrought in recent years.

In fact, the Phipps welcome center is better than what was originally proposed. The scheme announced in March 2001 had two entrances: a main entrance at the rear, near a new 200-car parking garage, and a small glass pavilion set in a reflecting pool at the historic entrance to accommodate walk-ins and provide a sparkling evening reception area.

Phipps hoped to share the garage and its cost with another institution, but when a partner couldn’t be found and funding became tighter in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, that plan was abandoned and a new one hatched.

There will be no rear entrance. But behind the conservatory, new production greenhouses are under construction and a tropical forest glasshouse is expected to open late next year. Alas, it will not step down into Panther Hollow, a big opportunity lost.

But another was found.

“In the old days, you went up about 6 feet to enter” the conservatory, said IKM’s Jim Taylor, the project’s master planner and designer, along with project manager Joel Bernard and Sonny Sanjari, who worked on design development.

“We realized if we went down, you could get everything” — cafe, shop, lobby, bathrooms, locker room and the courtyard as a bonus, about 11,000 square feet of new space in all.

And with the dome, a lot more volume, adds IKM president Mike Marcu.

At the top of the interior winding stair is the conservatory’s entrance, housed in a rusticated limestone addition that recalls Phipps’ original rusticated sandstone entrance of 1893 at the same location. It also contains the elevator and, below ground, the bathrooms.

The earth-sheltered portions — the cafe and shop — will have a 40 percent to 50 percent energy savings over a one-story, above-ground building. The large operable windows looking onto the courtyard provide significant daylight and natural ventilation, as do the dome and its vents.

When the most recent entrance, which dated to the 1960s and replaced the 1893 stone entrance, was demolished, 75 percent of its waste material was recycled. New materials were selected for recycled and non-toxic content and local production. All of these and other sustainable strategies are expected to add up to a Silver LEED rating from the U.S. Green Building Council.

For the courtyard design, detailed by IKM’s George Bedo, the architects studied Italian Renaissance walled gardens, but inspiration also came from the conservatory itself, in the arches of the Palm Court. A band of green tiles high on the courtyard wall and others recessed in the columns that join the courtyard arches lighten the mood.

Through Taylor, who studied in Rome, the twin winding stairs that enclose the courtyard have their source in the Villa Giulia, built in the mid-1500s for Pope Julius III and a national museum since 1889.

“My wife says all of my work relates to the Villa Giulia,” said Taylor, sounding like a man who thinks his wife may be onto something he himself hasn’t quite grasped.

The courtyard walls are cement stucco, with Indiana limestone framing the windows. The base molding is granite. The budget prevented the use of stone paving in the courtyard; it’s aggregate and brushed concrete. Let’s hope funding can be found for an upgrade over time. In warm weather, the courtyard will be outfitted with cafe tables and a shopping kiosk.

The conservatory has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1976. So throughout, the architects followed the Secretary of the Interior’s standards for rehabilitation of historic buildings, which call for additions that do not radically change the existing architecture and can be clearly differentiated from it. While the new dome’s geometry comes from Phipps’ wings, its cupola is a subtle distinguishing feature. The entrance’s steel-and-glass canopy is another contemporary marker.

The landscape will be gently terraced and mostly lawn, with strips of planting beds for seasonal display. The two Chinese redwoods planted in the 1930s and moved to accommodate the welcome center are doing well in their new location flanking the entrance to the outdoor gardens, said Phipps’ director Richard Piacentini.

Piacentini, who also is current president of the American Association of Botanical Gardens & Arboreta, thinks the architects have created “probably the most dramatic and beautiful entrance of a conservatory in the country,” and it would be hard to disagree.

One thing is certain: At last Phipps has the entrance it has so long deserved.

Information:412-622-6914 or

(Architecture critic Patricia Lowry can be reached at or 412-263-1590.)

This article appeared in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. © Pittsburgh Post Gazette

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