Gold Letters and Silver Linings: A Birthday Celebration for George Westinghouse

Happy 167th!

This past Sunday, George Westinghouse would have celebrated his 167th birthday. Almost 100 years after the passing of this American titan of entrepreneurship and engineering, The Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy and the City of Pittsburgh are honoring his memory, not by cutting cake, but by cutting granite.

This week, we were surprised by what was probably one of the only silver linings in the current government shutdown. McKay Lodge Fine Arts Conservation Lab, a leading national art and artifacts conservation center and the studio that brought Mary Schenley’s fountain and the Highland Park entry gates back to their original splendor, couldn’t work on their scheduled government contracts, which left an opening for them to start work on the Westinghouse Memorial on Tuesday. We like to think of it as a gift to Mr. Westinghouse.

McKay Lodge starting work on the memorial

This stage of restoration is necessary not only to clean up the appearance of the memorial, but also make foundation repairs that will allow for additional improvements. Keeping the memorial clean and cared for actually works as a deterrent against future vandalism. When visiting the site today, the contractors remarked at some new graffiti in the center of one of the panels that appeared overnight. One remarked, “It’s like fighting a Sisyphean battle!” Without the restoration, the memorial is a target for even more tagging and vandalism.

During this stage, shifted foundation stones will be reset, cracks and missing chinks in the granite will be repaired, and all mortar and caulk will be replaced.  The monument’s granite and bronze surfaces will be cleaned, and the crowning touch will be long-missing gold leaf applied to the carved locomotive and lettering.  All of this is a lead-in to the next stage of progress that will take begin in late 2014, when the pond, pathways, and surrounding landscape will be restored and enhanced.  A meadow and rain garden will help protect the memorial from flooding, and lighting will subtly showcase the beautiful sculpture and its reflection in the lily pond at night.

All of these improvements would not be possible without very generous donations from Pittsburghers that care about this historic monument. Please consider a donation today to invest in further work to maintain this wonderful Schenley Park staple. And don’t forget to check out this great video on the history of the memorial and drop by the site this month to wish Mr. Westinghouse a happy 167th birthday!

Sundown at the memorial

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!).

Westinghouse update

The pond as it looks today

The pond as it looks today

Westinghouse Pond is disappointing a lot of brides this summer.

As we first wrote back in March, Schenley Park’s Westinghouse Memorial and Pond has encountered a whole host of problems since a rough winter caused damage to numerous parts of the site.  For a while, the water in the fountain was back up and running thanks to repairs done by the City of Pittsburgh Department of Public Works, and the site appeared to need some cosmetic improvements, but was still a pretty attractive spot for photos.

But the severe storm that came through Pittsburgh in June flooded the fountain.  After that, it started to leak again and it hasn’t been functional since.  We suspect that the volume of water that went through the pond’s plumbing system was too great for the pipes to handle, and that one of the pipes beneath the basin is broken and causing the leak.  However, we can’t tell for sure until the City’s plumbing contractor can visit the site with a camera that can probe underneath the basin. 

The monument itself looks better than it has in years.

A little good news: thanks to conservation work, the monument itself looks better than it has in years.

If the inspection reveals that the problem IS a broken pipe that can be repaired without digging up the basin, then the issue is relatively minor and could be fixed fairly quickly.  But if the inspection reveals that the pipe isn’t broken, then the basin will have to be dug out in order to figure out what is really causing the pond to empty.  That would be a much more costly and time-consuming project.  So now we wait.

No more graffiti

No more graffiti

There is some good news, though: Westinghouse, whose employees originally funded the creation of the memorial, donated funds that allowed us to undertake conservation of the bronze this June.  This was crucial because delaying the work on the bronze would only have made its problems worse.  Our conservator was able to come in and clean and wax the statue and the monument, restoring their shine and removing many of the stains.  Now “American Youth” no longer has graffiti on his chest, his shoes are polished and shined, and Daniel Chester French’s signature practically pops out at you when you look at the sculpture.  So we are very grateful to Westinghouse for helping us out there! 

Of course, we realize that the monument is only part of the project, and the rest is an eyesore.   There’s grass growing in the pond, and entire chunks of the walkway have come loose and are piling up to the side.  So stay tuned.  I wish we had a better answer and a more solid timeline on the project for you, but we need to do a little more diagnostic work to determine exactly what the costs are going to be.  (Cross your fingers for that broken pipe!)  Then we’ll need to seek out the funding so that next summer’s brides can hopefully go to Westinghouse and find the area even more scenic than they remember!

American Youth gets a shoeshine; photos from March and August 2009

American Youth gets a shoeshine; photos from March and August 2009

Westinghouse Quandary

How does a park landmark go from this…

June 2008

June 2008

to this?

March 2009

March 2009

And can it ever be put back together again?

These are the questions the Parks Conservancy started asking several weeks ago when the ice melted from Schenley Park’s Westinghouse Pond to reveal that most of the water had drained from the basin, replaced by leaves, sediment, and a whole lot of mud.   What was a pleasant place to feed the fish six months ago is now an eyesore.  Here’s what happened, and what the Parks Conservancy is doing about it.

The Pond
The pond’s problems were caused by a collapse in multiple aspects of its infrastructure.  In the middle of the pond, there are several concrete slabs that anchor the fountain and aerate it during the seasons it is operational.  The liner of a basin underneath the fountain failed, along with a water line flowing from behind the pond.  This washed away the soil that forms the impermeable layer of the pond.  This water was then lost through another pipe and valve that failed, draining the pond of almost all its water and leaving behind a couple of feet of mud.  The valve has now been replaced, and new masonry will be installed around it. 

Another source of damage to the pond is the stream that flows into it.  Because the pipe that feeds water into the pond has filled in with sediment and branches, water is not flowing into the pond at a rate healthy for sustaining an aquatic habitat.  Because the pond is typically stocked with fish like koi, bluegills, and bass, restoring a proper flow rate is critical for bringing the fish back.  (Many of them found new homes when the pond was revealed to be silted in, but quite a few didn’t survive.)

The Monument
Winter has taken a toll on the monument, which was created by architects Henry Hornbostel and Eric Fisher Wood.  Water that became trapped in seams in the monument’s granite base expanded during the freeze-thaw cycle and created huge cracks.  As a result, the granite is dislodging from its foundation.  Water intrusion has also caused cracks in the blue stone walkway around the pond and on the riser surrounding the American Youth sculpture.  The Conservancy will likely replace the riser’s blue stone with a more stable material, such as exposed aggregate concrete, and use the pieces of blue stone from the riser to replace cracked stone in the walkway.

American Youth, by Daniel Chester French

American Youth, by Daniel Chester French

The centerpiece of the Westinghouse Memorial is the “American Youth” sculpture, which was created by Daniel Chester French, sculptor of the seated Lincoln statue at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC.  The statue’s young man looks toward the rest of the memorial, taking inspiration from the work of inventor and industrialist George Westinghouse.  Today this bronze sculpture, which critics called “the finest portrayal of American boyhood,” is turning green.  A vandal has spray-painted “WAR” across his chest.  Restoring the sculpture is imperative at this point, because any delays could vastly increase the cost of the restoration of this important work of American art.

The Landscape

Magnolia trees, April 2008

Magnolia trees, April 2008

In any project the Conservancy undertakes, the surrounding landscape is a critical part of the restoration plan.   When Hornbostel and Fisher Wood designed the pond in the 1930s, they were precise in their design of elements such as trees, benches, and walkways.  A collection of Japanese cherry trees was dedicated on the site in 1931, and then again in 1965, and the Conservancy has continued to plant cherry trees in this area.  Future landscape restoration will continue to emulate the historic collections of the site.  Accompanying the cherry trees in a burst of pink every spring is an impressive group of magnolia trees.

The blue stone walkway that contributes to the area’s charm has also become a problem for the pond.  When pieces of stone come loose, people throw them in the pond like giant skipping stones, contributing to the clogging of the fountain drain.  As part of the restoration, City crews will mortar the stone down to give it a more solid foundation while preserving the historic look of the site.

Of course, none of this restoration work can be accomplished without community support. Stay tuned for ways you can help–including donations and volunteer efforts that may develop around the site in the future. Or if Westinghouse Pond means a lot to you and you’d like to get involved right away, give us a call at 412-682-7275 and tell us what you can do to help.