Culture

‘Choo choo!’ Garden railroad display delights visitors young and old at Phipps

Most visitors come to Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens for its collection of exotic plants and seasonal outdoor botanical garden. But when they round the corner of the gallery room from October to March, they’re greeted with a full-room display of trains, whimsical props and interactive moving parts.

For 24 years, Phipps has put on an annual garden railroad display. Garden railroad trains are slightly bigger than those used in indoor hobby setups, with hardier infrastructure to keep them moving in outdoor conditions. They’re often found in the backyards of dedicated enthusiasts, but Phipps brings them indoors each year — at least, as indoors as a greenhouse filled with towering ficus trees can be.

This year’s display’s theme is “Through the Four Seasons.” Then-current events often inspired past themes — the 2022 Phipps display celebrated 150 years of national parks with homages to Yellowstone, Sequoia and others, and the 2021 display featured a scale model of 2019’s infamous bus sinkhole incident

Visitors can experience all four seasons as they walk around the sloping display and enjoy Pennsylvania-specific touches — as well as some familiar Pittsburgh symbols, including a hidden Heinz ketchup bottle. Mary Lou Linton-Morningstar, exhibit associate at Phipps and the designer of the “Four Seasons” display, said there’s intention behind every aspect of the setup. 

“We try and pick up little things to make it sort of look like Kennywood, [with] the different rides,” Linton-Morningstar said about the fall section, which features a colorful county fair and a haunted house. She said the trolley parked alongside the rides represents the beloved Pittsburgh television host Mr. Rogers.

Mini figurines skate on a model ice rink as a part of the “Garden Railroad: Pennsylvania Through the Four Seasons” exhibit in Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in January. (Bronco York | Staff Photographer)

Linton-Morningstar said she and her team carried out research on Pennsylvania history and traditions to plan out the “vignettes,” as she called them, that populate the setup. Scenes from around the state dot the verdant seasonal landscapes, including a lighthouse representing those along Lake Erie, covered bridges and a county fair. 

To create one of the winter vignettes, Linton-Morningstar said she uncovered a festive statistic.

“Pennsylvania is the Christmas tree-growing capital — Indiana, [Pennsylvania] more specifically — so this is a reflection of that,” Linton-Morningstar said. 

The tree farm vignette includes a tiny couple pondering which tree to choose and a miniscule ax-wielding man in the middle of chopping down his own. Silvery plants and blushings of delicate white flowers give the effect of snowfall in the scene.

Every part of the display is chock-full of minute, intentional details, from a miniscule ski map on a trail sign to a billboard advertising Phipps’ “Flowers Meet Fashion” exhibit to a two-inch Sheetz Dairy trailer parked among tradescantia plants. Even a visitor lingering at the display for only a few moments will notice a few thoughtful choices. Linton-Morningstar said the details make the display.

“That’s why it takes so long, because of all these details. And that’s what I like about this … It’s just so fun to have, you know, the frantic dad pushing the baby,” Linton-Morningstar said, pointing to two posed figurines on the platform of the “Snowball Limited” train track.

All these small details mean that putting together the train display takes time — lots of it. Linton-Morningstar said it takes a full year to develop the garden railroad from concept to finished product.

“We usually have a planning meeting [for next year’s] just as we’re installing this. It literally starts about the same time,” Linton-Morningstar said.

A miniature store trailer sits among model trees as a part of the “Garden Railroad: Pennsylvania Through the Four Seasons” exhibit in Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in January. (Bronco York | Staff Photographer)

Because it’s difficult to predict how different elements will interact or whether a certain track will run successfully without actually seeing it, Linton-Morningstar said designers have to make quick adjustments in the final weeks of installment and come up with creative solutions to unexpected problems.

“The scale is so small that you have to do a lot of fine-tuning in place,” Linton-Morningstar said. “So it’s tricky last-minute, because you never know what it’s gonna look like at the very end.”

Linton-Morningstar also mentioned that the garden railroad’s waning popularity is making it more difficult to find props at the right scale, leading to some unconventional solutions.

“It’s getting a little harder, because garden railroad is becoming a thing of the past now … But Etsy has really picked up a lot with 3D printing — that’s where we got the snowboards from,” Linton-Morningstar said. “The little snowmobile, that’s a kid’s toy. If we can find it in the right scale, we try and use it.”

Multiple Phipps departments share the hefty task of creating the display, from facilities to marketing — and even some volunteers, who help build and install props. 

“It’s a great team effort. When you’re handed a design of something, you never design alone,” Linton-Morningstar said. “Everybody is such a big part of the creative process, which is really nice … Working with other people, the creative process is enriched that way.” 

Smiles from delighted visitors of all ages reward the conservatory staff’s efforts. The display appeals to a variety of interests, with motion-activated trains and a light-up moving ferris wheel to wow the younger crowd, manicured bonsai as scale-sized trees for horticulture enthusiasts and technical track elements that seasoned model train hobbyists will appreciate. Linton-Morningstar said many visitors are excited to stumble upon trains in the middle of a conservatory.

“It’s fun to see when I’m in here either maintaining it or installing it, there’ll be a lot of gentlemen that will say, ‘Yeah, I had railroads when I was growing up, I love seeing this!’ or ‘My father did this’ or ‘I have all these trains,’” Linton-Morningstar said.

A model train drives through a town as a part of the “Garden Railroad: Pennsylvania Through the Four Seasons” exhibit in Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in January. (Bronco York | Staff Photographer)

The display brought back fond childhood memories for one Phipps visitor. Charles Walker of Pittsburg, Texas, who was visiting his hometown’s Pennsylvanian counterpart for the first time, said he was surprised and charmed by the garden railroad.

“It’s really cute. I was expecting mostly just plants, I wasn’t really expecting to see a little railroad exhibit … I was a train kid, so it is nice to see. It reminds me of going to the train exhibits,” Walker said.

For others, the annual garden railroad display is a familiar tradition. Doug Frisbee, a Squirrel Hill resident, said he and his family visit Phipps at least once a year. He first saw this year’s railroad display during Phipps’ Winter Show and appreciated its nature-focused theme — and his two young children “love to see” the trains.

“We’ve been here for the holiday setup. This is a little more Pittsburgh-based, which is great,” Frisbee said. “As a Jewish family, it’s nice to have entertainment for the kids that aren’t so Christmas-based.” 

Visitors aren’t the only ones who enjoy the display — Linton-Morningstar said there’s joy on Phipps’ side, too. 

“I think people don’t appreciate how much fun we have doing something like this and what it means to do something that means something to us,” Linton-Morningstar said. “It’s like we’re playing.”

The “Garden Railroad: Pennsylvania Through the Four Seasons” exhibit sits on display in Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in January.
Mini figurines skate on a model ice rink as a part of the “Garden Railroad: Pennsylvania Through the Four Seasons” exhibit in Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in January.
A miniature store trailer sits among model trees as a part of the “Garden Railroad: Pennsylvania Through the Four Seasons” exhibit in Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in January.
A model train drives through a town as a part of the “Garden Railroad: Pennsylvania Through the Four Seasons” exhibit in Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in January.
A Heinz ketchup bottle sits next to a model house and buggy as a part of the “Garden Railroad: Pennsylvania Through the Four Seasons” exhibit in Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in January.more

A previous version of the story said the exhibition was in the stove room. The Pitt News regrets this error.

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