Behind the Scenes of the Tropical Forest Cuba Installation
Feb 06

Behind the Scenes of the Tropical Forest Cuba Installation

By Stephanie Bergan

Our horticulture and facilities staff, construction workers and coordinators joined together and worked for countless hours to bring the biodiverse tropical forest of Cuba to Pittsburgh! Before the all-new exhibition officially opens on Sat., Feb. 10, take a behind-the-scenes look at the dramatic transformation of the Tropical Forest Conservatory (TFC) into a colorful and culturally rich Caribbean landscape.

Week 1: Goodbye, Congo!

For over a week, the horticultural and facility staff clears plants and palms, drains the streams, and demolishes the village, food market and research station to remove Tropical Forest Congo, which was on display for the past three years.  

The cleared out plants and trees will either be composted or donated to area organizations like the National Aviary or the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium — nothing goes to waste!

All signs and details of the Congo are taken away to make room for everything Cuba. Cuba begins to take shape with the installation of the paladar–where guests will recreate the experience of enjoying a Cuban meal in Phipps' play café– and the beginning of a new façade.

There’s a lot of work to be done in the next four weeks!

Week 2: “Taxi!”

After more clearing of the Congo’s native plants, the horticultural staff begins planting diverse, exotic plant species of Cuba. Many of these can only be seen in a handful of botanical gardens in the country, on display for the very first time together at Phipps!

A locally refurbished 1949 Chevrolet Fleetline is installed, which will make for a fantastic photo opportunity! A team of mechanics break down the car into smaller pieces so that it can fit through the door and reassemble it in the entrance to the exhibit. Our team showed their dedication to creating an immersive guest experience by adding fun details in the car, like an ornamental pair of boxing gloves and a decorative pillow.

The research station is built. When complete, guests will be able to smell Cuban spices and see the plants that they come from. People will also be able to learn more about Cuban agriculture and the impact it has on the environment.

The façade, which resembles the brightly-hued architecture of Old Havana, is coming together slowly but surely!

Week 3: Paladar, Farmacia, Oh My!

More fun Cuban elements are built, like the faramacia, and construction continues on the façade. The room is becoming lusher as the horticulturalists plant more palms and plants throughout the walkways. Lighting is installed in the buildings, and the paladar now actually looks like a mini restaurant!

Week 4: Cuba Coming Into Bloom

The planting doesn’t stop! Over 70 percent of the TFC’s plants are being replaced, so the process takes weeks. By the end of this week, all planting will be complete. Our facilities staff install more details, including a backdrop for the antique taxi, fabric overheads for the main entrance and finishing touches on signs! After four weeks of construction, the new façade is almost complete.

Week 5: Final Touches

During the final week of installation, our staff completes all the finishing touches to make this new exhibit the best one yet! Our horticultural and facilities staff work all week to make sure everything is perfect for guests who will celebrate the opening with us on Sat., Feb. 10. The staff labels all of the plants and facilities team members will finish installing authentic Cuban props throughout the paladar, farmacia and research station.

In just five weeks, our dedicated staff was able to transform the 12,000 square-foot, 60-foot high Conservatory from the Congo into Cuba. Years of planning and curation of the collection, plus countless hours were spent to make sure every visit will be an enjoyable way to experience one of the most biodiverse Caribbean nations in the world. We’d like to thank each and every person who took part in creating this beautiful tropical escape right here in Pittsburgh! Visit Phipps when the new exhibition opens on Sat., Feb. 10 to see and enjoy it for yourself.

Select photos © Paul g. Wiegman