A garden glows in Mellon Park

If you’ve walked by the Walled Garden in Shadyside’s Mellon Park recently, you’ve probably noticed that it’s beginning to look like a garden again.  The Management and Maintenance staff at the Parks Conservancy has spent a lot of the last four months in Mellon Park, working alongside Department of Public Works crews and contractors to restore this beloved space in memory of one who left it too soon. 

The project had to balance several things: it honors the life of Ann Katharine Seamans through an art installation that mimics the pattern of the stars in the night sky over Pittsburgh on Annie’s birthday.  It also returns several historical elements from the garden’s 1929 design by Alden and Harlow for the Richard B. Mellon estate.  And finally, the garden had to be a welcoming space for today’s visitors, with plenty of seating, well-maintained plantings, and a beautiful, open design.

With work just about finished for this year, we wanted to give you a look back at how the project has progressed since our groundbreaking in July.  We’re planning on a June 2010 re-opening when the new trees are in full bloom and the grass has had a chance to grow into the lawn.

Before we get to the photos, Phil wants me to pass on something very important: if you’re using Mellon Park between now and June, please keep your dogs out of the fenced area!  The new grass needs time to grow in, and some larger dogs are leaping over the fencing and tearing up patches of lawn.  We’ll be working on some of the lawn area in front of the garden too, so you’ll see more fencing in the months to come, but we ask for your patience in helping us make the park better for everyone. 

And now for the pics!

In July, crews began removing the plant material in the garden borders so that work could begin.

Digging up plant material

In August, the whole lawn was dug up to prepare for the installation of the stars.  Meanwhile, Eagle Scout Jake Meyer assembled a crew at Schenley Plaza to assemble the stars out of PVC piping.

Digging up the lawn; assembling the stars

The garden’s signature fountain received a new water supply, and an underground vault was built that will serve as a mechanical room when a full restoration of the fountain can be undertaken.  (That portion of the project has not been funded to date.)  The fountain is once again able to flow but needs a little tweaking to do so properly.  New pipes were run from the vault to the fountain–the water supply and a return line that will allow the water to recirculate.

Fountain repair

Electrical conduits were laid to power the fiber optics that make the stars glow.  Then fill was added to the lawn that covered the stars up to their fiber optic tip.  A nighttime lighting test allowed the garden to glow for the first time.  The effect is unique and surprising, and as Phil says, “If you look closely, they wink at you.”

Stars in the lawn

Lighting test 

Each star’s name and a short saying is affixed to a granite disc that covers up all but the tip of the fiber optic line.  So not only will you be able to sit on the lawn without running into a bunch of poky lights, but you’ll get to learn a fun star fact whenever you visit!

Star disc

October was a time for planting.  A great crew of volunteers came out to help install shrubs, bulbs, perennials, and finally trees on the garden’s borders.

Volunteers planting

The restoration includes two plaques, one honoring Ann Katharine Seamans and the other recalling Vitale and Geiffert’s work.

Plaque honoring Annie Seamans

The original design had an octagonal planting bed leading up to the lawn, so this element is being brought back.  The garden’s much-loved frog has hopped over to a nearby pad but is still part of the garden.  Its original location was at a pond in another part of the park, and it will likely return there if a restoration of the pond is ever undertaken.  The two lions on either side of the steps are currently in storage.  Historically, there were urns where they sat, so that’s what you’ll be seeing when the garden re-opens.  The lions are likely to turn up somewhere in another park to be determined.

Octagonal garden

The distinctive iron gates by Samuel Yellin were partially restored as part of the project.  Although a test revealed no lead paint on the gates, they are over 100 years old, so to be on the safe side they were sandblasted and repainted with lead-free, environmentally friendly coatings.  (Don’t worry, we didn’t turn them white–this is how they looked between blasting and painting!)

Iron gates

And this is where we stand today.  You can see that wooden park benches have been added, replacing some of the stone benches.  The idea there was to add to the garden’s airy feel by installing benches that weren’t completely solid, allowing the other elements to show through to a degree. 

Garden today

You can also see that a stepped terrace has been added near the front of the garden with another planting bed and a circular bench.  This allows for a new and elevated perspective on the garden below.

Lawn and terrace

So come next June, this is what you should see: an attractive space that’s lively yet intimate, bringing together an innovative new art installation with a stunning historical design and sustainable plantings. We can’t wait to open this back up and see it filled with people again!

Artist's rendering

Thanks to Carlos Peterson for the sketch and Joe Seamans for the lighting photo!


15 thoughts on “A garden glows in Mellon Park

  1. I attended a wedding near the garden this summer. The series of photographs illustrate well the changes to the garden since then. Thank you.

  2. Thank you to everyone involved for all the hard word and perseverance to make this happen; the work undertaken is spectacular!

    I grew up in Point Breeze and spent many a day, evening and even late nights in Mellon Park. The entire area holds many special memories for myself, as well as for most of my childhood friends.

    I cannot wait to return from England to visit this wonderful oasis in the city I call home to share the excitement with my wife and children. Who knows, they might even grow to love it as much as I do!

    J. Humphrey

  3. Having just come back from Italy, where the stone benches (and lions!) from roman times are still in place, a couple of millennia after their construction and placement, I find it a bit peculiar that we’re taking out stone–a classic material for the ages–in the name of “airiness.” I assure you that the gardens in Italy were both airy and esthetically pleasing, as well as sustainable…not “made in China”…and intrinsically ecological.

    Ah, well, I suppose in another 20 or 50 years we’ll be ripping out the unecological improvements that have broken down, and (unless we’ve learned our lesson) we’ll be putting in a new set of improvements with a predicted life of…another 20-50 years. After all, why build for posterity, or conserve resources?

    • JFS, I checked with our design team on the project and here is their rationale for the wooden benches:
      As the trees, shrubs and perennials of the garden began to arrive and the subtle elegance of the Tennessee sandstone and Indiana limestone became so evident, from a design perspective, we felt the seating should be open and not solid. The wooden benches are suited aesthetically to the garden as they provide a lighter, more open effect. The open style of the wooden benches incorporates the rest of the elements creating an inclusive garden landscape. The current plan is to put 3 limestone benches by the wall where the turtle fountain is and a park user’s view will not be inhibited, but the rest will be wooden. As the garden grows in, it’s certainly possible that more stone features will be added.

  4. Thank you for the gorgeous work of restoration. The park will have Annie’s elegance, strength and originality; I’ll be happy to come back and think of her among all the visitors.

  5. Is there a possibility that the fountain will be at least semi-operational next summer? Also, I was wondering if there’s a timetable in place for its restoration. Excuse me for saying this, but it seems like poor planning to restore a park and add new features, but not do very much work on restoring its signature element.

    • Michael,
      You’ll be glad to know that, as part of this project, the Parks Conservancy is putting the fountain into a basic fully-functional condition with the installation of a new water line and cleaning the openings in each of the features. We have also installed a vault to hold the new electric and mechanical systems that would be installed when additional funds are raised. The finishing touch will be to clean and restore the sculpture itself, including the replacement of a missing cherub. Additional funds needed total $250,000.

      • Okay, thanks for clearing that up for me. I was under the impression that some infrastructure work was done, but that the features still weren’t capable of functioning properly. This is the part of the project I’m most excited for because Mellon Park has one of the city’s most beautiful fountains, and I can’t recall ever seeing it operate. Also, I’ve always wondered where that cherub ended up. One day I noticed that part of the fountain seemed awkwardly empty and, upon closer inspection, noticed that he left his foot behind.

  6. WOW. Sure looks a lot different than it did over the summer! That pic with all of the ‘stars’ staged is amazing, and the one at night is awesome! Can’t wait to check it out when I’m back in town.

  7. Question for park personnel about weddings in the walled garden: are there restrictions concerning the use of wedding decorations such as shepard hooks that go in the ground?

    • Yes, there will be restrictions on things going into the ground. There are irrigation and electrical lines running all through the ground in the garden itself, so something like sandbags will have to be used instead.

  8. I’ve been following progress in the park extremely closely because I am scheduled to have a wedding ceremony there and reception at the Center for the Arts on May 22. Previously you’ve said the project was on track to be open by then. Are we still on track? Is there anyone specifically that I can talk to about the timeline?

    • The latest we’ve been told by the City is that they’ll be permitting after June 12. I would go ahead and give them a call now to verify that with them and talk over your options – the number is 412-255-2370.

  9. My fiance and I are from California and we are coming into town next month, before the planned reopening. We really wanted to take our engagement photos there. Would that be permitted, as long as it’s not on the grass.

  10. Pingback: Mackenzie and Chris | Heavens in the Earth at Mellon Park | Joe Appel Photography | Pittsburgh Wedding Photographers

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