Before they discuss firing up the world economy, leaders at the G-20 Summit, beginning today in Pittsburgh, get a chance to chill out in one of my favorite places, Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens. Tonight President Obama welcomes the A-list crowd for dinner at this classic Victorian glasshouse with a twenty-first century twist. Tweaks like geothermal heating tubes, passive cooling in its indoor tropical forest and a grass roof atop its subterranean entrance makes it one of the greenest greenhouses in the world.
As I step into the forest, now flourishing with hundreds of trees and plants from the headwaters of the Amazon in the Peruvian Andes, I’m standing at its highest and coolest elevation. The yunga, or cloud forest, nurtures tall canopy trees like kapok, and dense vines line a pathway as I descend to warmer zones. The faint rush of a waterfall grows more insistent as I pass palms, manioc, and few discreetly placed examples of Peruvian pottery. The Phipps is big on incorporating artwork into its natural displays; some of the most colorful accents in its conservatories are exuberant glass sculptures by Dale Chihuly (right).
By the time I find the pool that catches the waterfall, the air is perfectly warm, and I can almost hear the plants breathe. That’s always been the lure of this garden, though its priorities have changed. When it was built in 1893, in a city then choked with smoke and steel mills, industrialists believed they could conquer the natural world. Now the G-20 leaders and the rest of us know that the real fight is protecting it. And the Phipps serves as a reminder of what’s at stake.
Getting there: The Phipps is closed to the public today due to the G-20 summit, but will reopen tomorrow. It’s located in Schenley Park in the Oakland neighborhood of Pittsburgh, across the street from the Carnegie-Mellon University campus.
Photos: Above, Phipps’ Welcome Center is the first LEED-certified (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) visitor center in a public garden in the U.S. Nestled into the earth, the building highlights the original Lord & Burnham conservatory while providing green roof space on either side of the dome; by Denmarsh Photography.
Below, right, Chihuly chandelier in Phipps Welcome Center, via the Phipps Conservatory.
- Nat Geo Expeditions