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!