Mellon Square Update – History on the Move

The basins in the Mellon Square fountain in summer

When the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy took on the restoration of Mellon Square in downtown Pittsburgh we knew it would require some heavy lifting. This phrase took on new meaning January 19th when a forklift was brought in to remove the nine bronze basins that serve as the focal point of the Square’s once stunning central fountain. The task at hand that brisk morning was to free the basins from their concrete pedestals and load them onto truck beds. The basins would then take a short trip through the Liberty Tubes and arrive into the capable hands of Matthews International, where they were originally cast in the early 1950s.

Weighing in at approximately 1,800 lbs each, the nine basins of the Mellon Square fountain are reportedly the largest single bronze basins ever cast. Typically a casting of that size would be done in pieces and then assembled, but these were made in one solid piece. Yet another accolade for Mellon Square – the country’s first modern garden plaza built over a parking garage.

construction photos by Rebecca Chiappelli

While at Matthews International, the basins will be refurbished. The dark green layer that covers the bronze will be removed and the patina restored to a golden brown color. “We’re letting the restoration of this historic bronze drive the restoration of the whole fountain in terms of color choice,” says Parks Conservancy Park Maintenance and Management Director, Phil Gruszka. The color will be tested directly on one of the basins instead of on a separate sample of bronze since the alloys in this historic metal will create unique variants in color. Once the brown tone of the basins is established, the pale green shade for the fountain itself will be selected.

Lighting was originally part of the fountain’s design, but was done away with in 1987.  We are thrilled that the lighting will be put back into place as part of our historic restoration in order to highlight these magnificent bronze pieces. “They will be lit again,” says Parks Curator Susan Rademacher, “and this will help redefine the image of the park as a wonderful place to be at night.”

The process of restoring these sixty-year-old basins will take time. While they are away we can get to work restoring the fountain itself. The basins are expected to make the trip home to Mellon Square once again in late fall of 2012, where they will be perched back atop their concrete pedestals in a fully restored Mellon Square fountain.       

Learn more about Mellon Square and our restoration project here. View our flickr page of historic images of the casting of the basins. Help us bring Mellon Square back to life by making a donation to this important project for downtown Pittsburgh. Keep up with our progress on the Mellon Square facebook page


Memories of Mellon Square

Mellon Square Tree Planting

Planting trees in Mellon Square, courtesy of the Library and Archives Division, Sen. John Heinz History Center.

Fifty-five years ago this February, a tree was planted in downtown Pittsburgh.  Not an extraordinary feat by today’s eco-friendly standards, but something of an oddity in a downtown with a pattern of smoke-choked afternoons, traffic snarls to rival any industrialized US city, and a complete lack of plant life.  What made this particular tree noteworthy is that its new home was the roof of a parking garage. 

The first combined park and parking structure of its kind to be built in the US, and possibly the world, Mellon Square solved two needs for downtown workers—parking and a place for escape.  And, by all accounts, both goals were accomplished.

When I mentioned recently to my mother, Patricia Henke Sexauer, that the Parks Conservancy was working on a restoration plan for Mellon Square, she immediately recalled what a “big deal” the opening of Mellon Square was in 1955.  My mother, who left Pittsburgh for Erie in the early 60s, also shared how she and my grandmother would shop in downtown and then wait in Mellon Square for my grandfather who worked nearby in the Koppers headquarters.

Mellon Square

Historic photo of Mellon Square courtesy of the Library and Archives Division, Sen. John Heinz History Center.

John ‘Jack’ Henke passed away when I was two, leaving me without a lasting impression of my maternal grandfather.  Until now, the only physical place I associated with him was the home he built on Manor Road in Marshall Township. But seeing the late-50s photos we selected for promoting the Square—with women in skirts and men in hats matching those in old family photos—makes it easy for me to imagine my family meeting in the space before heading home.

Though my mother probably would only recognize the more prominent aspects of the Square now, I am looking forward to the day when she can see the completed project and feel as though little has changed.

Four Unsung Spots #2: Snyder’s Point in Riverview

This is the second in our series of Unsung Spots in the Parks.

Click here for a full map and directions!

Click here for a full map and directions!

The most common question I’m asked about Riverview Park, either by people who’ve never visited or those who have been there many times, is “Where’s the river view?”  Back when the park was created in 1894, it was composed mainly of pastures that had been used in dairy farming–a far cry from the tall tree canopies you see there today.  Standing behind the current Allegheny Observatory, people had an expansive, unobstructed view of the Ohio, and this continued for many years as trees were kept pruned to preserve the view.

But now the trees mask the river entirely from this location, and there’s really only one place to check out the view.  So where is it?

To see the Ohio from what is called Pope’s View, you take the Snyder’s Point Loop Trail out to its furthest point.  You get onto this trail from the most southwestern point of Riverview Drive, the road that runs throughout the park.  A few minutes’ walk on the trail gives you a pleasant prelude to the meadows that follow.

Garlic mustard isnt tasty, so they use it as a bed.

Garlic mustard isn't tasty, so they use it as a bed.

It’s a rare occasion to walk along the Snyder’s Point Trail in the evening and not pass a family of deer snacking on the native plants, which is why all along the Snyder’s Point trail you’ll see large round piles of sticks.  These deer exclosures are experiments of the Parks Conservancy and other organizations, an attempt to protect the native saplings and groundcover that we plant in hopes that we can regenerate the canopy and the understory.  Riverview’s deer population is just too much for the plants to handle, which is part of why you’ll see entire areas with nothing but garlic mustard, jetbead, and multiflora rose–invasive plants that the deer don’t like and that take advantage of the lack of native competitors.

(Do you see why we love our Urban EcoStewards so much?  Without them, the native plants–and the biodiversity of the forest–wouldn’t stand a chance against the deer and the invasives.)

Milkweed beetle

Milkweed beetle

But I digress–back to the trail!  You’ll eventually come to a lovely open area surrounded by meadows.  It’s especially fun to visit in the summertime when the milkweed is out in full force, because the plants are covered with tiny red milkweed beetles (Tetraopes tetraophthalmus).  The beetles get their scientific names from the odd structure of their eyes.  The base of their antennae splits each eye into two sections, making it look like they have four eyes.  The milkweed beetle is one of only a handful of creatures that can eat milkweed, the most well-known being the monarch butterfly.

After you pass through the meadows, stopping to see whether there are any birds living in the houses scattered around, you’ll come upon a small stone bench, and you’ve reached Pope’s View.  Unfortunately, I don’t know who Pope is to give you the great story of his life (or who Snyder is, for that matter), but his name lives on if not his story.  (Anyone who can enlighten me, I’d much appreciate it!)  Depending on what season it is, your view of the river may be either marginal or pretty darn good.  In the summertime, you can peek through the trees at what’s going on across the river, and in the winter you may actually get a decent look.  An expansive vista it’s not, but I think it is essential to the Riverview Park experience.

Popes View in summer and in winter

Pope's View in summer and in winter

On your way back from Pope’s View, you can either make the loop and return to the road the way you came, or you can take one of the many offshoot trails into the woods.  I’d recommend this route, but only if you’re pretty sure of your feet. 

Sulfur shelf fungus

Sulfur shelf fungus

There’s no telling what kind of interesting plants, trees, and especially fungus you’ll come across.  I think Riverview Park is one of the best places in the city to find really cool mushrooms and spring ephemeral flowers, and this area of the park is a great one to keep your eyes open for bright colors.

If you want to check this route out for yourself and learn a little park history along the way, mark your calendar for Wednesday, July 15, the next time Walks in the Woods cycles through Riverview Park.  For more information on all the walks, click here.

Calm after the storm

Early Saturday morning I headed for Schenley Park, so I could see for myself what Panther Hollow looked like after the violent storm last week.  Descending the steps from the Visitor Center, I was enclosed by trees and bushes still heavy with rain.

At the bottom, I headed right along Phipps Run. I could see what Phil meant when he said the stream bed the Conservancy had constructed a number of years ago was “working.”  Rushing water had carved channels in the trail, but it was otherwise sound, and trees and grasses planted in the bottom area must have slowed the torrents down.  What would the area have looked like if restoration work hadn’t been done?

Panther Hollow Lake

Panther Hollow Lake, still muddy days after the storm.

Further on, at the far end of Panther Hollow Lake, I marveled at the line of muck left in the middle of a grassy area hundreds of feet from the Lake’s edge.  Looking back along the Lake, I realized that the torrential stormwater rushing down Phipps and Panther Hollow Runs must have had tremendous volume and force.  (It reminded me of when I lived in West Virginia where walls of water would thunder down a hollow and wipe out creek-side communities.  The topography is similar, but in WV there’s the added problem of strip mining.)

Hairy woodpeckerI help fundraise for the Conservancy, so my work keeps me in the office most of the time.  It had been a long time since I’d been in the park, and I realized how much I missed being in the woods.  My shoulders — full of tension from the week — began to relax.

Heading for Lower Panther Hollow Trail, I was stopped by a sharp tapping sound and spotted a hairy woodpecker on a black locust tree.  (Full disclosure: I had to later look at my tree and bird field guides to be certain about what I saw.)  There must have been a feast of tasty insects in the bark’s deep grooves because the woodpecker stayed in one place for a long while.

I continued to look for the effects of the storm and, from debris left behind, guessed that Panther Hollow Run —  now about 18″ wide — must have been 20′ to 30′ wide at the storm’s height.  I wished I could’ve been there to see the swollen stream, but knew I would’ve been swept off my feet.

Fallen bloom from a tulip treeDespite the violence of the storm, the woods still offered many delights.  A young tulip tree – a favorite from my childhood.  Chipmunks scampering across the trail and chattering away until I passed by.  The WPA-built bridges take me back in time, and I am surrounded by the many people who walked the woods before me.  One tufa bridge on the trail evokes Bilbo and the Shire.  Out of the thick moss blanketing its coarse surface are growing small columbine plants and ferns.  End-of-season wildflowers stun me with their beauty, but I can’t share their names.  (My husband is now planning to get me a wildflower field guide for my birthday.)

Daisies in the Bartlett Meadow

Daisies in the Bartlett Meadow

The trail took me to Bartlett Shelter and its wildflower meadow, which still stood after the rain.  I stuck to the park roads after that and wound my way through the golf course.  Behind me I suddenly heard a thin eerie scream and looked up to see two hawks (I think red-tailed hawks) soaring and circling the tree tops, talons ready.

A half hour later, I was back at my car, calm and happy — sated with the beauty and wildness in the park.