Spotlight on Mary Schenley

An estranged daughter. An international love affair. An heiress disinherited.

Before turning twenty, Mary Schenley’s life read like many a juicy soap opera. And it’s exactly this flair for the dramatic that has us telling her story more than 150 years later.

Recently, 90.5 WESA featured the story of Mary Schenley in a pithy piece featuring our Parks Curator Susan Rademacher. Listen to the full story here, and read below for a piece written by Susan about Mary and the making of Pittsburgh’s civic park.

Mary Schenley and the Making of Our Park System

By Susan M. Rademacher, Parks Curator, Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy
Originally published in
Squirrel Hill Magazine

Only two of our city’s four historic regional parks bear a family name. Frick Park is named in tribute to Henry Clay Frick who, upon his death in 1919, gave 150 acres and an endowment to develop and care for a new park. Frick Park is also a symbol of a father’s Iove for his daughter — Frick’s daughter Helen is reputed to have asked her father for the park property as a gift to the children of Pittsburgh. This story is perhaps the better known of the two family-named parks, because the Frick home and museums at Clayton remain to embody the family’s presence and impact on Pittsburgh.

Mary E. Schenley

Schenley Park, on the other hand, wouldn’t exist today if it weren’t for the forgiveness of a father in restoring his estranged daughter to her inheritance. In what became the scandal of the day, Mary Elizabeth Croghan eloped at age 15 from her Long island boarding school with the headmistress’s 43-year-old brother-in-law, Captain Edward Schenley. The newlyweds settled in London and Mary was promptly disinherited. Her father, William Croghan Jr., couldn’t bear the break for long, visiting the young couple and the first of many grandchildren in London a year later in 1843. His forgiveness is especially understandable, given that Mary was the widower’s only surviving child.

William Croghan Jr., father of Mary Schenley

Croghan was born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky, at the fabled country seat Locust Grove. His father was the Revolutionary War Quartermaster General William Croghan, married to the sister of General George Rogers Clark. After the steamboat allowed passage upriver, Pittsburgh became a favored destination of Louisvillians. It was on such an outing that William Croghan Jr. met the prosperous O’Hara family, marrying daughter Mary O’Hara in 1821. The couple started their family in Louisville with son William and daughter Mary Elizabeth born at Locust Grove on April 27, 1826. That same year, William Croghan Jr. wrote his brother-in-law, “I am sick & tired of farming, incessant toil and anxiety & no profit….I am now firmly resolved so soon as my difficulties will allow to make arrangements for moving to Pittsburgh.” Sadly, he would make that move as a widower, his wife Mary having died 1827. In an 1828 letter from William’s sister Ann Croghan Jesup to her sister Eliza Croghan Hancock, Ann writes “Mr. Baldwin in Pittsburgh says Will Croghan is the finest boy he ever saw & Mary is a lovely child it did me good to hear him speak of those poor little children. Mary has quite recovered I sat up with her for two nights she was dangerously ill with Quinsy and inflammation on the Lungs.”  Young Will died only a month later.

Picnic House

Father and daughter Mary Elizabeth soon moved to Pittsburgh to make a new life. There, William Croghan Jr. was admitted to the Allegheny Bar. And in August of 1833, Mary writes to her Aunty Lucy Jesup, “Next year Papa is to build his cottage.” This fine Greek Revival-style home atop Stanton Heights was named Picnic House, and contained 22 rooms. Croghan died at Picnic in 1850, but his will preserved the home and furnishings for the use of Mary and her children until 1931, when Mary’s daughter Hermione, Lady Ellenborough, sold the furnishings. The house was demolished in 1955, and its grand ballroom and foyer were transplanted to the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning where they remain a major attraction.

Mary’s inheritance of O’Hara properties from her mother’s estate made her the largest property owner in Allegheny County. Her Pittsburgh landholdings included slums at the “Point” and she was severely criticized as an absentee landlord and exploiter of the wretched by Pittsburgh’s Labor Tribune and the Chicago Daily Tribune in the late 1880s. Her redemption came in philanthropic form. Significant gifts to several important institutions helped shape the cultural, social, and physical landscape of Pittsburgh as we know it today.

Among her major gifts were:

  • Land for building the West Penn Hospital;
  • Property for the Western Penn Institute for the Blind;
  • A large lot for the Newsboys Home;
  • A $10,000 subscription toward the purchase of land for Riverview Park; and
  • The gift of the Old Block House and adjoining property, (the original Fort Duquesne) to the Daughters of the American Revolution.

While the City of Pittsburgh had been attempting to buy or take Schenley properties for an Oakland park since 1869, it wasn’t until 1889, after Captain Schenley died, that the land for Schenley Park was finally acquired. It was through the enterprising efforts of the “Father of Pittsburgh Parks,” Edward Manning Bigelow (1850-1916), that Mary was persuaded to donate 300 acres, giving an option to buy another 100 acres. Bigelow, named the first director of the new Department of Public Works, envisioned a park system for the city. When he heard that a developer was heading to London to broker a deal with Mrs. Schenley, he promptly dispatched an attorney to get there first and secure a donation. Mary had just two conditions: that the land be used for a park named after her and that it could never be sold. The City soon purchased an additional 144 acres, including the present-day Schenley Plaza and part of the Carnegie Library for much less than its tax value.


Mary E. Schenley Memorial Fountain

Sculpted by Victor David Brenner, with the granite base by architect H. Van Magonigle, the memorial was entitled A Song to Nature and dedicated on Labor Day, September 2, 1918. The memorial was restored and lit in 2008 by the City of Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy. Her invaluable gift is memorialized in the Mary E. Schenley Memorial Fountain at Schenley Plaza.

When she died in 1903, the New York Times observed, “The death of Mrs. Mary E. Schenley, which occurred at her home in Hyde Park, London, was made known in Pittsburg [sic] to-day. Mrs. Schenley has been Pittsburg’s benefactress for many years… Mrs. Schenley was the heroine, sixty years ago, of the greatest romance in Pittsburg’s early history… The affair created an immense social sensation at the time, and the house was preserved for many years in precisely the shape that it was in at the date of the elopement.”

Mary returned only once to Pittsburgh before her father’s death in 1850, and rarely after that. As an asthmatic, the smoky city was not a healthy environment for her. How fitting that our park system was created, in part, to improve the health of our people while changing the image of the city from gray to green. Schenley Park, along with all the parks and greenspaces of Pittsburgh, has more than fulfilled that early promise, thanks in no small part to the spirited benefactress Mary E. Schenley.

A century and a half of Pittsburg and her people, by John Newton Boucher; illustrated. Vol. 2.
Frick Fine Arts Library: Schenley Plaza, Schenley Park &Environs, Library Guide Series, No. 11.
Grove Gazette, Winter 2011.   Historic Locust Grove, Louisville, Kentucky.
“Fountain of Forgetting: Mary E. Schenley (1827-1903),” by Don Simpson, University of Pittsburgh.
Mandy Dick, “The Storyteller,” Clarksville, Indiana, 502-500-8899.
The New York Times, November 6, 1903.
The History of Pittsburgh: Its Rise and Progress, by Sarah Hutchins Killikelly.  B. C. & Gordon Montgomery Co., 1906: Pittsburgh, PA.

You Asked for It, You Got It: Parks Conservancy in Allegheny Commons

Going to the park to promenade in a hoop skirt or top hat, as one does, is an exquisite way to spend a weekend afternoon. When one’s week has been spent in the steel mills or in the city that some may call “hell with the lid off,” just load up the buggy and head to the neighborhood park.


View from Picturesque America, 1872” Photo courtesy University of Pittsburgh, Historic Pittsburgh Image Collections.

In the same year that our capital expanded suffrage to African American men and antiseptic surgery became a thing, the citizens of the then City of Allegheny transformed a plot of free grazing land into a park. And what a delightful place it became. It was here that Alleghenians could shake off the dust of the day and see their neighbors out for a stroll.

The first thing we want is breathing places accessible to our overworked people. As these grounds develop in beauty, and new works of art are introduced, our citizens can resort thither to spend a holiday or leisure hour, instead of being compelled to stay indoors, or to frequent places of questionable propriety, for recreation or pastime. (Parks Commission Second Annual Report, 1870)


Pittsburgh’s earliest park, Allegheny Commons is comparable to the historic Regional Parks in nearly every dimension except for scale. It’s been a part of a world that has changed completely in 150 years. The truest testament to this being the thousand or so trees of one hundred different species that grow there, some of which are thought to date back to the original 1800’s plantings. The Commons are an invaluable cultural landscape for Northsiders and Pittsburghers of all stripes.

Keeping Allegheny Commons lovely is no small feat, as outlined by Allegheny Commons Master Plan of 2002, a comprehensive guide to improving and maintaining this 80-acre space. Spearheaded by the Allegheny Commons Initiative, and more broadly supported by the Northside Leadership Conference, the community has already completed two of its planned phases, and is now moving on to the third. It’s in this third phase that we at the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy are thrilled to become an ally in this exciting project.

The importance of historic preservation, the park’s vital role in community development, and the need for ongoing stewardship are the basis of this collaborative effort.


Rendering of the restored northeast fountain. Rendering by Carlos Peterson.

In this next phase of the Master Plan, the Parks Conservancy will oversee the design and construction of the $2.5 million restoration of one of the park’s four spectacular fountains and surrounding areas in the North Commons at the intersection of Cedar Avenue and North Avenue. The Allegheny Commons Northeast Fountain Restoration, which comprises approximately one city block, includes reconstruction of the historic fountain (now a planting bed) and surrounding gardens, as well as restoration of the promenade and other walk ways, plus installation of new signage, benches, lighting, and other amenities.

The northeast fountain, original to the park’s 1869 design, was filled and shut down due to city budget and staffing constraints years ago. This well-used corner of the park is within walking distance of more than 7,000 people and is practically the front yard for Allegheny General Hospital, Allegheny Center Alliance Church, and Martin Luther King School. Northside landscape architecture firm Pashek Associates is finalizing work on the design for the restored fountain and surrounding areas.

In addition to this Capital Project, the Parks Conservancy is also spearheading a detailed stormwater management plan for Allegheny Commons, to be completed in 2015.


Lake Elizabeth. Photo courtesy Allegheny Commons Initiative.

The Parks Conservancy is diving head first into this project and is very excited to be working in Allegheny Commons. Stay tuned for more information on volunteering in the park, and how our collaborative efforts will become a formal partnership alliance for years to come.

What’s up with Westinghouse Pond?

Westinghouse Pond todayIt’s been a while since we updated you on what’s happening with Westinghouse Pond in Schenley Park, where the grass has taken over what was once a lovely fountain.  I had a chat with our Director of Management and Maintenance, Phil Gruszka, this morning and asked him for an update.

The good news is that the Parks Conservancy is actively working with the City and the City’s contracted landscape architecture firm to develop a complete restoration plan.  After the quick fixes of the last couple of summers failed, we decided to take a careful look at what would be good for the site in the long term.  Once the conceptual design is in place, we’ll develop a construction budget and then seek funding for the project.  Developing the plan has allowed us to look at historical documents that show the original design intent and how the use of the site has changed over the years, making it harder to maintain.  One big example:

A Fountain or a Pond?
Directly behind the monument is a water body–the headwaters of the Phipps Run stream that runs through Schenley Park down to Panther Hollow Lake.  Before there was a Westinghouse memorial, the pond was called the “lily pond” and it was fed by the Phipps Run stream.  After the memorial was built, the pond continued to receive its water entirely from this natural source.  But somewhere along the line, a fountain was installed in the pond and much of the stream water was actually diverted underneath the pond.  Potable water was treated and brought in to fill the basin, which was now being treated as a fountain and no longer a pond. 

Historic postcard

Historic postcard of the lily pond.

Looking at this site’s larger implication to the park, treating it as a fountain instead of a pond is undesirable for two reasons: one, pumping the jet of water into the air required live wires to be run along the bottom of the pond, which isn’t exactly optimal for safety.  Two, the stream water is diverted underground instead of being given a place to pool, which ultimately increases stormwater runoff into an already overtaxed watershed.  (We’ve written about the Panther Hollow Watershed several times recently, including here and here.) 

So what’s the proposed solution?  We’d like to return to the days when the pond was filled by the stream water, turning the pond into an ecological benefit as well as a park amenity.  This may mean that the fountain looks a little different–one possibility is that instead of one large jet, there will be tubes pumping compressed air into an array of different bubble patterns on the surface of the water (which will look attractive but also aerate the water, keeping the pond from becoming stagnant).  That would also eliminate the need for electrical wires in the basin itself, making it a safer place to be.

Other Improvements
The landscape would also see improvements as part of a restoration project.  One important change would be to make the monument ADA-compliant.  When the granite walkways are replaced, the steps on one side of the fountain will be changed to grade so that wheelchairs are able to access the monument. 

Lighting will also be redone and enhanced.  We’re hoping to add some discreet overhead lighting to the pond and the monument to illuminate it in the evenings.  Benches and seating walls will be rethought, especially with an eye to protecting the site during the Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix each year. 

Westinghouse volunteers

Volunteers on-site this spring.

We’ll also be planting additional sweet bay magnolias on the side, because repairing the pond and the walkways will likely damage some of the trees that are embedded within the rocks in the walkways.  Restoration of the woods near the pond is already in full swing thanks to a woodland management grant we received earlier this year.  We started clearing invasives out in knee-deep snow this past winter, and this summer and fall we’ll be in planting mode with our volunteers, including a University of Pittsburgh Day of Caring scheduled for September.

So When Will All This Happen?
According to Phil, the hope is that construction will begin in 2011.  So while the pond may be an eyesore for one more winter, we’re developing a careful plan that respects the site’s history and solves some ecological and practical issues.  We’ll keep updating you as new info becomes available (including when you can help volunteer on the project!).

Art from above

Two things seem to be dominating life at the Parks Conservancy at the moment: the Body and Soul: Parks and the Health of Great Cities conference (next month!!), and the restoration of the Mary Schenley Memorial Fountain.  So following up on Laurie’s excellent post below, I’d like to talk a little more about the fountain and what it says to me.

Nursing a turtle back to health

Nursing a turtle back to health

Last Friday Laura and I got to chat with Tom Podnar, a conservator from McKay Lodge, while he was working to restore the sculptural portion of the fountain.  He explained that he was applying a wax coating to the bronze to seal its surface, prevent corrosion, and make it easier to clean.  The figures of Pan and the nymph are now glistening, and soon the turtles that adorn the fountain’s edge will be as well.  Tom’s been trying out a treatment to repair the corrosion on the turtles that so far seems to be working.  Because half of the turtles are constantly submerged underwater, they pose a particular maintenance problem.  Just check out the difference between the parts of the turtle where Tom’s protective coating has been applied and the bright white sections where it hasn’t.  (The green line is where the water rests; sort of like the bronze turtle version of a ring around the tub.)

Natures dulcet tones

Nature's dulcet tones

After he showed us the turtles and the base of the sculpture, Tom asked if I wanted to go up in the construction lift and take some photos of the sculpture close-up.  Pretty soon the Parks Conservancy’s newest employee, horticulturist Steve Horhut (everybody wave to Steve!), was harnessing me onto the lift and Tom was taking me on what he called a Kennywood thrill ride, only slower.  It was very cool to actually get to stare into the faces of the figures that are usually peering down upon us.  Great perspective on the Plaza too.

Afterwards, I went back and looked up the description of the fountain in Marilyn Evert’s book Discovering Pittsburgh’s Sculpture.  Here’s an excerpt:

Pan, most handsome earth god

Pan, most handsome earth god

“The figure of Pan in A Song to Nature represents the yearly regeneration of all plant life.  The singer standing on the rocks above Pan ‘is Pan’s pipe, the compensation which nature gives to those in sympathy with her.’ … The inscription at the lower basin reads: ‘A Song to Nature, Pan the Earth God Answers to the Harmony and Magic Tones Sung to the Lyre by Sweet Harmony.'”

I’ve heard this sculpture described as a representation of culture taming nature, but I like this interpretation better.  For one thing, you need look no further than this beautiful but weather-beaten piece of art to see that nature has its way of getting the upper hand.  But in another way, I like the idea that harmony and magic are something that nature gives back to us.  Even though it might be untameable, it still has so many gifts to share.