Vibrant colors pop like staccato notes and flower beds are awash in the "blues" at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Pittsburgh, where designers from Hays Landscape Architecture in St. Clairsville have created - in flowers, plants and props - a whimsical, musical journey.
"Rhythm and Bulbs" is Phipps' annual Spring Flower Show, which opened March 22 and runs through April 20, inside the conservatory. The botanical focus of the spring show is the bulbs - all 59,285 of them, in a rainbow of colors. Literally.
Gabe Hays and Phil Cole from Hays Landscape Architecture designed a living rainbow in the East Room, where a 12-foot-wide resin rainbow bursts forth from the back wall and plunges to the ground while the colors - red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet - extend in flowers from each ray, fanning out toward the visitors. Meanwhile, renditions of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" and "Rainbow Connection" are piped into the room through hidden speakers, and a child's xylophone - the kind with rainbow-hued keys - is mounted on the railing for visitors to play.
Photos courtesy/BETSY BETHEL
Gabe Hays of Hays Landscape Architecture Studio in St. Clairsville discusses the blues exhibit in the Sunken Garden with Phipps exhibit coordinator Jordyn Melino (back to camera).
Photos courtesy/BETSY BETHEL
A piano and musical staff create the centerpiece of Palm Court at Phipps Conservatory in Pittsburgh, where Hays Landscape Architecture designed the Spring Flower Show. The room also features a treble clef, shown far right, and a bass clef made of dried reindeer moss.
Photos courtesy/BETSY BETHEL
A rainbow of flowers greets visitors to the East Room (the display was incomplete at the time the photo was taken).
"I think this room turned out really well," said Jordyn Melino, exhibit coordinator, during a walk-through with Hays on March 20. "To take a literal rainbow and turn it into a planting, I think people will really connect with that."
"I think that's one of the most spectacular pieces in the show," Hays added.
Melino noted that while the flowers and musical props in each room tell a visual story, the music that plays theme-specific melodies adds an auditory layer that makes this show unique.
"The addition of music makes it a really strong design," she said.
There is, for example, the aforementioned rainbow-themed room; classical music in the Broderie Room, a formal garden; and a progression from blues to rock in the Sunken Garden, which is planted in hues of blue and red.
The novelty of the show, along with its arrival on the heels of a particularly long, cold winter, has sparked excitement among Phipps members, Melino said, evidenced by the number of RSVPs the gardens received for its members-only event on Thursday - 1,100.
"We usually only get a couple hundred. We've never hit more than 1,000," she said Thursday afternoon. On Friday, she noted more than 800 members attended, and the response to the show was positive.
One flower that has garnered some attention from visitors, Melino said, is the Zebra Blue primrose, Priula acaulis, that shows up in several of the rooms. Its periwinkle petals bear thin white stripes.
The show's plantings include thousands of annuals that are grown on site and bulbs that are purchased from a Pittsburgh area grower. There are hyacinths, tulips, daffodils, snapdragons, lilies, azaleas, hydrangeas, primroses, lobelia, pansies, citrus trees, clover, sweet allysum, impatiens, coleus, begonias. And, in the Farmer's Dell garden and farmer's market area, rows of ornamental vegetables such as broccoli, kale, swiss chard and cabbage.
Hays noted Cole, who is based in Morgantown, and he both worked on the design concepts, and Cole was responsible for about 75 percent of the planting choices. The staff and large pool of volunteers at Phipps installed the show and will change out the bulbs between two and four times in the 30-day run.
"We're already into our second change-out of some of the bulbs," Melino said, noting the brief blooming window of the flowers, especially the tulips. "We basically grow four tulips to fill one hole."
In addition to the flowers and the music, the props are a fun and integral part of this show. In the Sunken Garden alone, amplifiers nestle in flower beds, an acoustic and electric guitar stand tall on pedestals, and hanging on the walls are vintage vinyl album covers by such artists as Billy Holiday, Ray Charles, Jimi Hendrix and Elvis, purchased from Jerry's Records in Squirrel Hill and shrink-wrapped to look brand new.
Greeting visitors in the Palm Court is an old piano, bursting with tulips, ivy and hyacinth and with an enormous iron musical staff emerging from behind it and sweeping over it to the ground. The staff is dotted with iron-and-foliage musical notes. In the Broderie Room hangs a cello painted by Pittsburgh artist Erin Hosfield. The idea for that piece, Hays said, came from a Wheeling Symphony Orchestra fundraiser several years ago in which local artists painted violins that were then auctioned.
More iron musical staffs - dotted with whole notes that resemble 45s - greet visitors to the Serpentine Room, where Hays and Cole have created a musical guessing game: What three songs are the plantings evoking? The answers are given at the room's exit.
Other than the rainbow, perhaps the most fascinating and whimsical piece in the show is the horn fountain in the Victoria Room. Here, jazz music plays while the fountain spurts water out of various brass and woodwind instruments - clarinets, saxophones, sousaphones, trumpets, trombones and french horns. The fountain offers additional entertainment because it is interactive - flip a switch and turn a knob to watch the water come out of different instruments and enjoy a light show. The waterworks are a permanent part of the gardens but have been adapted for this exhibit.
Almost all of the instruments used in the show came from C.A. House in St. Clairsville. Hays said the owners, the Ceo family, let them rummage through a storage facility filled with cast-off instruments.
"It's an upcycle thing. We didn't take good instruments and use them!" he said.
The drums used in the lobby atrium were acquired from St. Clairsville barber Jack Kemo, a drummer and collector.
"I was so happy that we were able to repurpose all of these," Melino said.
Hays Landscape Architecture has been in business for 17 years, starting out in the brick farmhouse west of the city where Hays grew up.
"I designed the Fox Commerce Park entry from my front porch," Hays said. The studio is now located on East Main Street, where Hays also has opened an art gallery, Main Street Gallery, to showcase the work of local artists.
His work has included Wheeling Heritage Port, Grand Vue Park's new development and the gardens at Liza's Place, the Valley Hospice facility in Ohio County. Hays counts as mentors Brooks Wiggington and Andy Barger from Oglebay Park, and he credits Hydie Friend, former director of the Wheeling National Heritage Area Corp., for hiring his firm to finish the Heritage Port project.
"I beat out all the other large firms that came in from West Virginia and the surrounding areas. Hydie took a chance on us and it paid off for us wonderfully."
Hays said designing a large-scale and high-profile show such as the one at Phipps is a coup. Phipps usually contracts with nationally known public garden design firms for its six large shows each year.
"So for us to be asked to do this is probably one of the biggest honors we've had in this company," he said.
Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens is open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m (10 p.m. on Fridays).
It is located at 1059 Shady Ave., Pittsburgh. Bulb sales will take place from 10 a.m. to noon April 5, 19 and 26 in the outdoor garden. For information, call 412-441-4442, or go to phipps.conservatory.org.