‘Choo choo!’ The park’s railway display delights visitors young and old at Phipps
For 24 years, Phipps has held an annual railroad show at the park. Garden railways are slightly larger than those used in indoor hobby spaces, with a sturdier infrastructure to keep them moving in outdoor conditions. It’s often found in the backyards of its dedicated enthusiasts, but Phipps brings it indoors every year — at least, as indoors as a greenhouse filled with towering ficus trees.
This year’s parade theme is “Through the Four Seasons.” Then-current events have often inspired past themes — Phipps’ 2022 show celebrated the 150th anniversary of national parks with tributes to Yellowstone, Sequoia and others, and 2021 show It featured a scale model of the infamous 2019 year Bus pit accident.
Visitors can experience all four seasons as they wander around the sloping screen and enjoy special Pennsylvania touches – as well as some familiar Pittsburgh icons, including a hidden Heinz ketchup bottle. There is intention behind every aspect of the setting, said Mary Lou Linton-Morningstar, a gallery fellow at Phipps and designer of the “Four Seasons” display.
“We try to pick up little things to make it look like Kennywood, (with) the different rides,” Linton-Morningstar said of the fall section, which includes the colorful county fair and a haunted house. The carriage parked next to the rides represents beloved Pittsburgh television host Mister Rogers, she said.
Linton Morningstar said she and her team researched Pennsylvania history and traditions to plan the “vignettes,” as she called them, that fill the space. Scenes from all over the state are scattered in the verdant seasonal landscape, including a lighthouse representing those along Lake Erie, covered bridges and the county fair.
To create one of the winter vignettes, Lynton Morningstar said it revealed a festive statistic.
“Pennsylvania is the capital of Christmas tree farming — Indiana, (Pennsylvania) more specifically — so this is a reflection of that,” Linton told Morningstar.
The tree farm vignette includes a young couple contemplating which tree to choose and a little man carrying an ax in the middle of chopping down his tree. The silvery flora and blush of delicate white flowers give the effect of falling snow to the scene.
Every part of the screen is full of subtle, intentional detail, from the small ski map on the trail sign to the billboard advertising Phipps “Flowers Meet Fashion” exhibition. To a 2′ Sheetz Dairy trailer parked among tradescantia plants. Even a visitor who stays in front of the screen for only a few moments will notice some thoughtful choices. Linton-Morningstar said it’s the details that make the show.
“That’s why it takes so long, because of all the details. “That’s what I like about this… it’s so much fun, you know,” Linton-Morningstar said, pointing to two small statues placed on the platform of the Snowball Limited train track. To have the frantic father pushing the child.”
All these little details mean that assembling the train display takes a long time. Linton-Morningstar said it takes a full year to develop the park’s railway from concept to finished product.
“We usually have a planning meeting (for next year) just as we install this. It actually starts around the same time,” Linton-Morningstar said.
Because it’s difficult to predict how different elements will interact or whether a particular track will run successfully without actually seeing it, Linton-Morningstar said designers have to make quick adjustments in the final weeks of installation 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 hard at the last minute, because you never know what it’s going to look like in the end.”
The Linton-Morningstar also reported that the decline in popularity of park railways is making it more difficult to find props on the right scale, leading to some unconventional solutions.
“It’s getting a little more difficult, because park railways are a thing of the past now… but Etsy has benefited a lot from 3D printing — that’s where we got the snowboards,” Linton-Morningstar said. “The little snowmobile is a kid’s toy. If we can find it the right size, we’ll try to use it.”
Multiple Phipps departments are involved in the massive task of creating the show, from facilities to marketing — and even some volunteers who help build and install props.
“It’s a great team effort. When you’re given a design for something, you never design it alone,” Linton Morningstar said. “Everyone is a big part of the creative process, which is really nice… And by working with other people, the creative process is enriched.” this way.”
The smiles of delighted visitors of all ages reward the efforts of the conservatory staff. The show attracts a variety of interests, with motion-activated trains and an illuminated moving Ferris wheel to wow younger audiences, bonsai pruned as oversized trees for gardening enthusiasts and artistic track elements that seasoned model train enthusiasts will appreciate. Many visitors are excited to bump trains into the middle of the conservatory, Linton Morningstar said.
“It’s fun to see when I’m here either maintaining them or installing them, there will be a lot of gentlemen who will say, ‘Yes, I had rails when I was growing up, I’d love to see this!'” or “My father did this,” Linton Morningstar said. Or “I have all these trains.”
The display brought back fond childhood memories for one Phipps visitor. Charles Walker of Pittsburgh, Texas, who was visiting his Pennsylvania counterpart in his home state for the first time, said he was surprised and fascinated by the park’s railroad.
“It’s really cute. I was expecting mostly just plants, and I wasn’t really expecting to see a little railroad exhibit… I was a kid on the train, so it’s nice to see that. It reminds me of going to train shows,” Walker said.
For others, the park’s annual railroad show is a familiar tradition. Squirrel Hill resident Doug Frisbie said he and his family visit Phipps at least once a year. He first saw this year’s railroad show during the Phipps Winter Fair and appreciated its nature-focused theme — and his two young children “love seeing” the trains.
“We were here for the holiday setting. It’s a little bit in Pittsburgh, which is great,” Frisbee said. “As a Jewish family, it’s nice to have entertainment for the kids that isn’t Christmas-based.”
Visitors aren’t the only ones enjoying the show — Linton Morningstar said there’s joy on Phipps’ part, 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.”