Give Me Shelter: Riverview Park Evolves

Since I have fun compiling them and it seems like you folks have fun reading them, today it’s time for another history post.  This time we’re shining a spotlight on the development of Riverview Park.  In looking back through old photos and documents, it seems that in some ways the story of Riverview is a story of shelters.  Many of the buildings in the park either started as or became shelters, with a common thread of people using the park to gather together.  Here’s a look at some of those shelters (with some other buildings thrown in for good measure).  Click the photos for larger versions.

Perhaps the building we talk about most in Riverview Park is the Chapel Shelter, which was at the top of our priority list for quite a while thanks to our 2008 restoration project.  It was likely one of only two buildings within the park’s boundaries on July 4, 1894, when Riverview Park was officially dedicated (only a few days after the land had been acquired).  1894 was the year that a new Watson Presbyterian Church was built on the site of the present-day Riverview Presbyterian Church; thus, it’s probably the year that the original church building was moved and converted into a picnic shelter. 

This undated photo was given to us by a woman who attended the rededication ceremony of the Chapel Shelter, and it shows the building in its original location.  You can see the familiar steeple and dormers in the small building in the right foreground of the photo.  I’ve always wondered what those two other magnificent-looking buildings are in the background, and whether the smaller building at left is the new church under construction.

Chapel Shelter original

As you can tell from this photo we recently unearthed, the Chapel Shelter’s longtime status as the most popular building in the Pittsburgh park system has been thanks to the many groups who have embraced it as a gathering space.

Chapel Shelter gathering 1930s

Before the restoration project converted it back into a lawn, the area behind the Chapel was home to some rundown tennis courts.  Recreation was a little more active in the Chapel’s earlier years too, although technically this area was still a lawn—it was just referred to as a “play terrace” with swings!

Chapel Shelter Play Terrace

The other building that existed when Riverview Park was dedicated was Watson’s Cabin.   This log cabin probably dates back to the early 1800s.  Like much of the land in Riverview Park, the cabin was owned by Samuel Watson, a member of one of the original families of the City of Allegheny (which was annexed by Pittsburgh in 1907).  Before it was a park, the property was largely open land that Watson rented to  dairy farmers—a far cry from the current forested landscape!  The log cabin eventually was converted into the Girl Scout Headquarters and into a shelter, and it played host to small groups of Scouts on overnight camping trips.  Eventually, it was destroyed by fire but its ruins remain on site. 

Watson's Cabin

The first structure to actually be built within the park was likely the zoo, which went up sometime around 1896 at the foot of what would come to be known as Observatory Hill.  Coming up Riverview Avenue into the park, visitors would pass refreshment stands, and further down the slope was an aviary.  The zoo itself featured a flying cage, an elk paddock, and other native animals.  It also had a bear pit, whose floors were later used in the construction of a picnic shelter, aptly named “The Bear Pit.”  After 1910 the Highland Park Zoo began drawing crowds away, and the zoo was eventually shut down.

Riverview Zoo

The next construction project brought Riverview Park its signature structure: the Allegheny Observatory.  Begun in 1900, the building was constructed because the original observatory along Perrysville Avenue was having its views blocked by Pittsburgh’s industrial pollution.  With its new position atop the park’s natural hill, the visibility was better.  Thorsten Billquist was the architect for the new building, incorporating Greek Ionic columns and Roman balustrades.  This early-20th-century postcard shows a view from behind the Observatory, one that’s hard to envision for those of us who have visited this century and know this area as densely forested.  I wonder if, standing in the same spot today, you’d even be able to make out the top of the building over the trees.

Allegheny Observatory

Another postcard from this era shows a more-familiar view from the front side of the building.  The entrance steps were simpler then, but otherwise the basic layout resembles what you’d see today.

Allegheny Observatory

You can read more about the history of the Observatory and the many research advancements made there at this website.    

1913 was a boom year for construction in Riverview Park.  A cabin shelter was built that year in the northern end of the park, but its location made it difficult for planned gatherings because of poor vehicular access.  In the early 1920s, it was converted into the Wissahickon Nature Museum and was a highly popular attraction until it was eventually lost to arson. 

Wissahickon Nature Center

Here’s a view of the cabin from the inside.

Wissahickon Nature Center interior

Also in 1913, a building housing a carousel was built.  Designer Thomas Scott was at work in many of Pittsburgh’s parks around this time, and based this design on his work on the Schenley Park merry-go-round across town.  The carousel was used until 1938, when the machinery became too old to be serviced.  The building was later used as a shelter and game room.


This earlier view shows the carousel’s location, close to where today’s Activities Building sits.

Carousel 1915

Another period of wide park improvement was in the late 1930s and early 1940s, when Ralph Griswold was Pittsburgh’s Parks Director and funds for construction were available through the Works Progress Administration.  Griswold was the first landscape architect hired by the City of Pittsburgh, and he served as the Superintendent of the Bureau of Parks in this era while independently working to develop plans for Point State Park.  One of the projects he spearheaded was the main park entrance, which was completed in 1941.  Griswold designed the entrance garden and stone fountain, and a park office (today’s Visitor Center) was built alongside.

Riverview entrance

Other features dating back to the WPA era include the two bus shelters (originally trolley shelters) along Perrysville Avenue and their accompanying stone stairways that lead into the park’s trail system.

Have any Riverview memories to share?  Feel free to post a comment!

Stuff That’s Gone: Schenley Park Edition

If you’ve been in Pittsburgh a while, you probably have seen Rick Sebak’s Stuff That’s Gone special (or perhaps you just remember a lot of stuff that’s gone!).  In the spirit of looking back at some of our lost treasures, today we’re taking another look at our Schenley Park historic image archive.

For all the historic features of Schenley Park that remain–like Phipps Conservatory, the lily pond that become the Westinghouse Memorial, the Christopher Magee and Mary Schenley Memorial Fountains–there are others that now exist only in words and old postcards.  Here are some of the late, great features of Schenley Park (along with one that survived).  Click photos for larger versions.

Before the Schenley Oval was best known for tennis courts and running tracks, it was a horse-racing track.  Built in 1895, it was declared by Parks Superintendent Edward Bigelow to be “a boon to all lovers and connoisseurs in fine horses.”  Races were held on weekends and on Wednesday afternoons.  In 1904, the Schenley Matinee Club acquired rights to hold its own races there on Wednesday afternoons, and the next year this group began work on a new racetrack and stables.  The new track included a grandstand, which you can see in the photo below.  Today’s tennis courts are situated where the grandstand used to be. 

Schenley Oval

In addition to racing, horses had other entertainment value in the park, as you can see in the magazine cover at left: diving horses were another popular attraction. 

Diving horses and skating rink

The photo at right above shows the interior of the Casino, a beautiful but short-lived attraction that sat on the ground presently occupied by the Frick Fine Arts Building.  The casino may have been responsible for the first hockey night in Pittsburgh, boasting the city’s first indoor ice rink.  In summer, the rink was converted to a 3,500-seat theater.  A rooftop garden was another modern feature.  This admired and well-used structure only operated from May 1895 to December 1896, when the ammonia in its ice-making machine caught fire.  The building first burned, then exploded, taking out the bridge over Four Mile Run along with it. has a wonderful article and more photos of the Casino that’s well worth a read.

Schenley Casino

This band shell opened in the early 20th century and was considered a beautiful addition to the park.  Free Sunday concerts were held here for several years, and the audiences who attended were mostly upper-class.  Later, it evolved into a more democratic space–reform groups used it as a rallying place, free movies were shown in the evenings, and city children held plays and musical events there.  Today the band shell’s location is occupied by the Anderson Playground.

Band Shell

And then there are the park shelters.  This rustic woodland shelter has an ornate character that seems unusual by today’s standards.


A few more ambitious park shelters were built in the early 1900s by the celebrated architectural firm of Rutan and Russell, who also designed the Schenley Hotel (today’s William Pitt Union) and Phipps Conservatory’s Botany Hall.  The Arts and Crafts-style buildings began as picnic shelters and evolved with the needs of the park.  This one is labeled “athletic shelter” in a 1937 photo. 

Athletic Shelter

You may recognize the signature eyebrow windows, because one of those buildings still exists as the Schenley Park Café and Visitor Center.  Here it’s shown in a postcard from 1912.

SPVC in 1912

The Café has been a lot of things to a lot of people in its 100+ years of life.  In the 1950s and 1960s, it was a nature museum operated by the City Parks Department.  It’s been a tool shed for city workers and a concession stand for Phipps Conservatory visitors.  But from 1935 to 1940, it was the Pittsburgh Civic Garden Center. 

Garden Center

The idea for the garden center belonged to the Garden Club of Allegheny County, which wanted a place where children and families could learn to grow flowers, as well as vegetables to feed their families during the Depression.  The women, assisted by a contractor and some young men, gutted the place and install plumbing and electricity, opening the center less than a month after starting work.

We have no notes on what type of event was being held at the Garden Center when these photos were taken, but I found it striking that Bartho Nietsch (who operates the Café) recently installed a little fireplace in the exact location where a fireplace used to sit 70 years ago.


Ladies at the Garden Center

We’re glad to have been a part of keeping this building from disappearing, and grateful for the new generation of people who have made it part of their own history.

Hope you’ve enjoyed today’s walk down memory lane!

Historic info from Ralph Ashworth’s “Greetings from Pittsburgh: A Picture Postcard History” (2000)’; “Landscaped Visions: A History of Schenley Park, 1889-1990; R.J. Gangawere’s “Schenley Park” (Carnegie Magazine, Summer 1979); Patricia Lowry’s “Welcome to Schenley Park” (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, November 2001).

Panther Hollow Lake Through the Years

In honor of our (sold-out) presentation on Panther Hollow next Wednesday, we thought we’d look back at some images of Panther Hollow Lake throughout its history.  We had fun with some historic winter images back during the Snowpocalypse, but that didn’t exhaust our archives, so here are some more! 

(For those of you who didn’t get a chance to register for next week’s presentation before it filled up, we’ll post highlights afterwards in this space.  Plus, we’re planning two hands-on workshops this fall centered on watershed health.  One will teach you how to keep your yard watershed-healthy–including learning to build a rain garden–and the other will focus on stream bank improvements in Schenley Park.  Stay tuned for dates and how you can register!)

Thanks to Charlotte Cohen and Joe Natoli for the below images.  Click on the photos to see larger versions.

The postmark on this one is May 1909.  This meadow now has a lot more trees in it than it did back then!

Meadow postcard

This one makes it look like there was a tiny little island in the middle of the lake.


This one also looks like it was done before the boathouse was built.

Postcard pre-boathouse

Boating on Panther Hollow Lake looks like it was the fancy thing to do.

Panther Hollow Lake postcard

A major renovation ordered by Mayor David Lawrence began in 1957.

1957 renovation

Looks like there was some shoring up of the walls of the lake.

Renovation 1957

The lake filled in with some shrubbery before it was stocked with water once again.  This photo is dated 1959.

1959 growth

Then our photos jump to the early 1970s, when the lake was still a popular place for winter recreation.

Skating aerial 1971

Looks like the boathouse had gotten a little facelift, too.

Skating 1971

And finally, this must have been shortly before the boathouse was demolished in 1979.


Got any Panther Hollow memories?  Share them in the comments section below!

Countdown to 1 Million: Schenley Plaza History

We’re expecting our one millionth visitor to Schenley Plaza in July, which we’ll be celebrating with a free celebration at our Kids Day on July 11 from 2:00 to 5:00pm.  In addition to activities like face-painting, balloon animals, and rides on the PNC Carousel, visitors can register to win prizes with the grand prize winner receiving a personalized brick, a tree planted in his or her honor, and a lifetime membership to the Parks Conservancy.

To celebrate this momentous occasion, we’re taking a look back at all the things that make Schenley Plaza special.  We’ll be posting blog entries from now to July 11 highlighting some of our favorite memories from the past four years.  We’d love to hear your memories too!  Leave us a note or post some photos on the Schenley Plaza Facebook page. You can also find more historic photos like the ones below posted on the page’s Photo section.

Today’s focus: the history of Schenley Plaza.

The City Acquires the Land

In 1889, heiress Mary Schenley, who was living in England, donated 300 acres of land to the city of Pittsburgh thanks to the efforts of Pittsburgh’s Director of Public Works Edward Bigelow. In 1891 the City purchased an additional 119 acres which contained Schenley Plaza. The deed contained a provision about the land, “limiting the use of said property to an entrance for Schenley Park and to park purposes.”
At the time of purchase, Schenley Plaza was known as St. Pierre’s Ravine. In 1897 the Bellefield Bridge was built, extending 100 feet over the ravine and connecting Bigelow Boulevard to the back of the Carnegie Institute.  The bridge served as the primary entry to Schenley Park.

St. Pierre's Ravine

St. Pierre's Ravine

The Ravine is Filled
In 1911, the idea was proposed that a memorial to Mary Schenley should be placed in this area, and from that concept grew the sense that there should be a great public square surrounding it.  The Bellefield Bridge and the ravine no longer fit into the plans for the site.  In the early part of the 20th century, an immense amount of fill was produced from downtown development and the removal of the Grant Street hump. The fill from Grant Street was dumped into St. Pierre’s Ravine, completely covering the 200-foot-high Bellefield Bridge. The bridge remains buried to this day and serves as the foundation underneath the Mary Schenley Fountain.

Design Competition

By 1914 the ravine had been completely filled and the city of Pittsburgh decided to hold a national design competition for Schenley Plaza, to create an acceptable location for the Mary Schenley Fountain and an entrance to Schenley Park.  The winning designers were Horace Wells Sellers and H. Bartol Register of Philadelphia, who proposed a public space in the City Beautiful style.  By 1917 the Art Commission had endorsed a plan asking that it be officially adopted, stating, “This area is not only the entrance to the most important large park in the City, but… has already become in a sense the Civic Center of the Municipality. It is a general gathering place of visitors to the City and its importance as a centre of interest seems certain to increase.”

The design was slightly modified (as you can see in the photo below, the Mary Schenley Fountain was originally conceived with a grand backdrop of columns), but the general concept of a large lot lined with rows of trees remained.  The tree planting was delayed until the early 1920s, when the Garden Club of Allegheny County brought in landscape architect James Greenleaf, who planted the Plaza’s signature London plane trees.

Schenley Plaza circa 1930

Schenley Plaza circa 1930, with the Carnegie Institute to the left and Forbes Field to the right.

Encroachment of Parking

Several issues that contributed to the Plaza’s gradual transformation into a parking lot that few would ever consider to be a public space. The design of the grand entry was immense in scale and included a great amount of asphalt for parking. The median of green space provided a visual break from the concrete but was unusable as a public space. In addition, Forbes Field, the Carnegie Museums and Library, and the University of Pittsburgh were all a huge draw for many throughout the region and the convenient and obvious location of the plaza made it a tempting target for parking use.

Schenley Plaza circa 1950

Schenley Plaza circa 1950


In 1999, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette sponsored a competition for the best ideas to improve Oakland.  One of the two winning ideas was creating an open space at Schenley Plaza that would serve as a grand entrance to Schenley Park.  In his submission, landscape architect Fred Bonci said, “Oakland is supposedly our cultural center.  It should have a great civic space.”   A Post-Gazette survey several months later indicated 3-to-1 support for the new plan despite concerns over the loss of parking spaces.

Momentum grew around the idea of a reimagined Schenley Plaza, with a working group formed by the University of Pittsburgh, Heinz Endowments, Kennametal Corp., R.K. Mellon Foundation, Carnegie Mellon University, Carnegie Museums and Library, UPMC, the City of Pittsburgh, the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, and Oakland Task Force.  The state of Pennsylvania contributed $5 million to the project, which Governor Rendell said was “an easy call.”  Extensive focus groups were conducted to determine what people would want from such a space.  Looking to New York City’s Bryant Park as a model, the group shaped a plan that would create a lively, welcoming space with amenities for the whole family.

The rest, as they say, is history.  Ground broke in 2005, and by summer 2006 Schenley Plaza was welcoming its first visitors.  Now, four years later, it’s almost ready to welcome its millionth visitor.  We hope you’ll be able to be part of the celebration.

Panther Hollow snow…in the 1920s

One of the fun parts about working at the Parks Conservancy is occasionally stumbling across some cool old photos of the parks while looking for something in your office.  When we uncover some buried treasure, we pass it among our co-workers and marvel, “I can’t believe it used to look like that!”

Yesterday we discovered some wonderful old photos of Schenley Park that had been sent to us by Ms. Jean Chess.  She was gracious enough to allow us to use them, so we thought we’d share some with you.

From the looks of it, these photos are from the 1920s/1930s. The telltale clue is the footbridge in the Panther Hollow Lake photos, which was replaced by one of the signature Works Progress Administration stone bridges in 1939.

First up is a photo of the Neill Log House, looking rather solitary on a snowy day. (You can click on this and all the photos to see a larger version.)

Neill Log House, 1920s

Next we move out of winter for a minute to check out the area along the Phipps Run Trail. Here’s a place that looks totally different now, and the flatness of the trail and the adjacent grass gives you a good idea of why. You can see where the trail would easily wash out in large rain events, flooding the lawn area to the left. Because of the Parks Conservancy’s restoration of this area in 2003, that lawn area is now a pool into which the Phipps Run Stream can safely overflow.

Phipps Run, 1920s

This photo continues on the Phipps Run Trail, but now the photographer has turned around and is facing the Panther Hollow Bridge. The inscription on the back of this one is “Leah – Panther Hollow.”

Panther Hollow, 1920s

Schenley Park Trail, 1920s I’m not 100% sure, but I think the photo at left must be the same trail, looking down from the Panther Hollow Bridge. In any case, it’s interesting to see the landscaping of the trails. Everything was much more formal–I imagine back in those days people went for “promenades” in the park moreso than a strenuous jog. Just look how nicely the ladies are dressed! Fun fact: Schenley Park’s original superintendent, William Falconer, planted evergreens in the center of the park because they fared poorly in smoky conditions, and that part of the park was furthest from Pittsburgh’s industrial pollution.

Panther Hollow Lake, 1920s

The photo at right is the one that sparked the most discussion. From the looks of it, the footbridge is actually in the middle of Panther Hollow Lake with trees planted around it, which seems to make very little sense! But because everything around it is frozen, maybe this photo is just an optical illusion of sorts.

The next one gives us a little more clarity. The rocks over which the water is cascading are still there today, and from this angle the footbridge looks to be in the exact same place as the WPA footbridge we see today.

Panther Hollow Lake Close-up, 1920s

This final shot may have been taken from the footbridge, looking back towards the tufa bridge. This makes it look like there was a small lagoon where we have a meadow today.

Panther Hollow Frozen, 1920s

Looking at these makes me realize that while there’s a lot we do know about the parks’ past, there’s a lot of mystery there also. It’s fun to find a new piece of the puzzle every now and then.