At the Phipps Conservatory

Last weekend my friend in Pittsburgh and I went to visit the Phipps Conservatory.

Pittsburgh’s a great town, with lots of cool museums and galleries (home to the Andy Warhol gallery, Carnegie Museum, Phipps Conservatory, Frick Art Collection, etc.) also there’s way too much great food to be found there, according to my expanding waist-line.

Conservatories, for me, are one of the perfect storms of hobby: you have a place that is to be filled with plants and gardens, then you give artists, planters, and gardeners a chance to go completely off the hook with gardening and planting and art – and then people like us get to walk around in it and go “OO!”

This year the Phipps has found a pretty amazing glass artist who does gorgeous things that fit in with the plants.

Glass by Jason Gamrath

I kept asking the staff “can you tell me how much that weighs?” but didn’t get a good answer.

That day I was in “wandering about” mode not in “photoreconnaissance mode” so I was just snapping stuff with my iPhone – my pictures don’t do his work justice. It’s cool as hell to come wandering around a corner and there’s a giant glass venus fly trap 9 feet tall, ready to grab and dissolve your head.

Here’s the Phipps’ page on Gamrath’s art (it has some portraits of some of his sculptures)

Glass by Jason Gamrath

Those pitcher plants are solid glass. They’re about 4′ tall and a foot across, and the glass is pretty thick – 1/4″ to 1/2″ in spots. I’d be surprised if they weigh less than 30lb each. That’s a lot of weight to be hauling around with tongs while it’s red hot! When I see something like that, my imagination immediately jumps to the process involved: was that rolled out on a giant hot plate? Was the glass somehow snipped into shape in a pattern, then formed and curled around something? Presumably the artist had to spend a great deal of time figuring out the right combinations of frit and pigment to get that real-yet-surreal look. Did he dance with joy around his studio when the Phipps called him? Or did he play it cool and do the dancing after he got off the phone?

Old victorian conservatories are one of my many favorite things, ever since I read Henry Petroski’s To Engineer is Human and the section on the Crystal Palace and Paxton’s invention of modular truss-and-glass buildings. There is a small conservatory in Baltimore that I used to visit every year (because the humidity makes my sinuses happy) and I always daydreamed that if I were a Carnegie or a Frick I’d have a conservatory attached to the back of my house with a big jungle and a waterfall and a library and a great big armchair and samovar by the waterfall. Plug me in, hook me up, and I’d never move again.

Lately, I have been reading Meet You In Hell – an account of the great war between Carnegie and Frick, two of the industrial giants who shaped America. I plan to, eventually, write a review of that book (probably tied to some stuff about Marx and Veblen) when I’m not completely overcome with despair and rage whenever I read it. One of The Commentariat(tm) also recommended I read The Whiskey Rebellion, which I have been tracking in parallel – interestingly (I did not know!) a lot of the action there is also set around Fort Pitt, AKA Pittsburgh. It’s weird to read how what later came to be called Homestead was a sand-bar in revolutionary times, that still had rotting bodies from the wars drying in the sun – it wasn’t until a hundred years later, or so, that thanks to Frick Homestead had burning strike-workers drying in the sun. The Carnegies, Fricks, Phippses, etc, created great endowments that still bear their name and make wealthy parts of Pittsburgh beautiful for the wealthy and middle class of Pittsburgh. Mild spoiler: when Frick died, someone said “the closest he ever got to a blast furnace was when he died and went through the door to hell.” They were being nice.


  1. kestrel says

    Those pitcher plants are incredible. And they light up? Wow, even better! How amazing to be able to wander among those plants and sculptures!

    I *need* one of those blue pitcher plants. For… a… rain gauge. Yeah.

  2. odgraphix says

    Some 30 years ago before they were being done by everybody and their brother I was hired by Phipps to do a fundraiser by converting the conservatory into a Haunted House. We did a theatrically themed version with costumes and make-up, not rubber masks. If they had topiaries we would turn one room into an Edward Scissorhands theme. We’d borrow scenery from local theaters and do Phantom of the Opera improvisations and hire acting majors from Point Park College. We even built a two story facade of the Addams Family house surrounded by pumpkins carved by local children. Smoking dragons and day glow fish monsters in the orchid room. Anyway, my favorite part of all this was the smell of the place. Walking into the employee’s entrance had the same effect on me as the front door due to that unique aroma.

  3. says

    I don’t think they light up; I just photographed that set because the light was bouncing off them prettily. It’s an amazing blue color.

    They had minis of the pitcher plants in the gift shop but I think they were pretty $$ive. On the other hand, I hope Gamrath is making bank on those things; he’s earned it!

  4. says

    Walking into the employee’s entrance had the same effect on me as the front door due to that unique aroma.


    That must have been super cool! I’d be terrified of accidentally stepping in the wrong thing and being sent to gardener hell, with all the weeds, for endless pruning.

  5. says

    I just had a recent post up about the Blaschka flowers.

    Wow! Those are incredible. I can’t even imagine…. But I guess glass really is the perfect material for that sort of thing. If it’s treated right, it’s going to last longer than mankind.

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