History in miniature; tiny plants surround Phipps garden railroad
A large, red button is pushed for the third time, starting Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood Trolley on another musical journey around King Friday’s Castle, much to the delight of 2-year-old Charlie Lamb. The sound is drawing lots of other young children to this part of the garden railroad at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, but the kids don’t recognize the famous streetcar for its connection with the classic kids show.
“He loves Daniel Tiger and basically loves trains and cars, anything that moves,” says his mother, Melissa Lamb of Richland. “He could stand here for hours. It’s a nice activity for him.”
Daniel Tiger is an animated show inspired by the original PBS children’s program which was produced at Pittsburgh’s WQED-TV. Exhibit coordinator Jordyn Melino, 31, has seen both old and young transfixed by the display.
“I think the biggest hit has been the Mister Rogers focus,” she says. “Little kids are going to see it as Daniel Tiger; anyone my age or older is going to see it as Mister Rogers.”
The theme of the garden railroad is “200 Years of Pittsburgh,” and it chronicles many of the city’s landmarks and triumphs.
“We wanted to do something that partnered with the city on the bicentennial year,” Melino says. “It’s a mix of what we really thought was important to Pittsburgh’s history.”
Of course, the plants play a big role in anything at Phipps and have been carefully chosen for the garden railroad. “I love the dwarf boxwoods, some of the dwarf chamaecyparis (false cypress), because their textures are so tight they look like they would in real life at that scale,” Melino says.
Display horticulturist Katie Schuller is straddling the outfield of Forbes Field, looking like a giant with a pair of hand trimmers to cut the grass. It’s a weekly chore, but the turf is actually made of Irish moss that tends to flower, so the trimming creates an illusion of grass.
She tends all the plants in this room and the Palm Court but has to walk carefully when navigating the garden railroad to reach all the plants. “There’s a lot of awkward positions to stand in,” she says. “I knocked the train off the tracks. Buildings have been toppled.”
She loves watching the kids, who are fascinated with the railroad. Schuller also enjoys answering questions; she’s often asked if the plants are real. “I really like interacting with people,” she says. “They really make my job fulfilling.”
There are tiny junipers, succulents, ferns, mosses and many more interesting plants that fill the display and need to be maintained to retain the appropriate size. Melino searches for cultivars that will work as authentic substitutes for full-size shrubs and trees.
“We also use tropical plants that look like hardy plants,” she says. “That’s the idea, to use plants that are small and stay small for the full six months of the show.”
When visitors first walk into the South Conservatory, they are greeted by the Duquesne Incline set in the 1870s, and after traversing the room, they end with a look at the Point from 2013, which includes a “giant” rubber duck.
“We were able to use a regular-size rubber ducky in our miniature-size river to replicate that,” Melino says with a smile.
The journey is a walk through time that starts with the use of horses for transportation all the way through modern vehicles and everything in between. Even the clothing of the minuscule people are period-correct through the historical trip.
Candy Filippone of Monroeville was captivated by some of the classics on display.
“I really like the little Phipps building, and I remember coming down to Forbes Field, that’s how old I am,” she says.
Pat Lemme of Harrison City is standing next to her listening to the nation’s first commercial broadcast from KDKA radio. “It’s iconic,” she says. “They really represented the history of Pittsburgh. I like that there’s so many firsts here — the Ferris wheel, KDKA. People don’t realize that.”
Besides listening to that first broadcast, visitors can also hear the call of Bill Mazeroski’s ninth-inning, Game 7 walk-off homerun to win the 1960 World Series. Other interactives include a hand-cranked Duquesne Incline, moving Ferris wheel, lighted Phipps Conservatory and Three Rivers Stadium, where visitors can listen to a replay of the Immaculate Reception.
The four trains running on the railroad are G scale sized, often referred to as garden scale, which is near 1-to-24 scale. Among the fascinating details are the various sizes of “people” throughout the display. The closer the figures are to the edge of the display, nearer to visitors, the bigger they are, creating something called “forced perspective,” Melino says. “I basically feel like a city planner when I design the garden railroad.”
Local artists created Three Rivers Stadium, the Cathedral of Learning, Forbes Field and Union Station. Building maintenance technician Paul Widek built the Duquesne Incline and Ferris wheel from scratch; he’s also in charge of all the interactive electronics.
During the half-year run of the garden railroad, Melino wants visitors to explore the unique history of the city in miniature.
“I hope this is a really fun walk through time,” she says, “to see how great Pittsburgh is, all our accomplishments and just really having fun with the interactive elements of the exhibit.”
Phipps is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily and until 10 p.m. Fridays. Admission is $15, $14 for 62 and older, $11 for ages 2 to 18. Details: phipps.conservatory.org
Doug Oster is the Tribune-Review home and garden editor. Reach him at 412-965-3278 or firstname.lastname@example.org. See other stories, blogs, videos and more at triblive.com/lifestyles/dougoster.