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New Schenley Plaza plan could benefit from earlier schemes

Tuesday, October 14, 2003

By Patricia Lowry, Post-Gazette Architecture Critic

Over the span of a century, that strategic square of Oakland known as Schenley Plaza has had more makeovers than, well, someone who's had a whole lot of makeovers.

In Sasaki Associates’ plan for a redesigned Schenley Plaza, the counter-flow street along Forbes is eliminated and traffic moves in both directions on Pennant Place, Clemente Drive and Schenley Park Drive Extension. A pedestrian path would cross the plaza diagonally, flanked on the east by a lawn with movable chairs and on the west by a grove of trees and a restaurant. The diagonal path leads to a stage area opposite the Mary Schenley Fountain. The Stephen Foster statue would move from its present location near Carnegie Library to opposite the Stephen Foster Memorial. Three small gardens, which could be themed, line Forbes Avenue.
Click image for larger view.

Bordered by University of Pittsburgh buildings and the central Carnegie Library, the plaza has served as both car park and public space, never reaching its full potential as either.

It's not for lack of plans. There have been plenty of those, and with a $5 million design on the table, detailing the plaza's proposed conversion from parking lot to town square, it's a good time to look back at earlier schemes and see how they might inform our thinking about the present one.

Schenley Plaza has been a parking lot for so long that it's easy to forget it was designed in 1915 as the main entrance to Schenley Park. But it wasn't the park's first entrance at that location. That came in 1898, as a piece of Edward Bigelow's big dream.

As public works director, Bigelow created Schenley and Highland parks and planned to link them with grand boulevards. Grant (now Bigelow) Boulevard would run from Downtown's Grant Street to Schenley Park, but what was a linear road blasted out of the side of Herron Hill became a zigzagging street through Oakland.

During the boulevard's construction in 1895-96, it replaced St. Pierre Street, which ran for a single block between Fifth and Forbes -- the same part of Bigelow that the University of Pittsburgh unsuccessfully tried to close for public space seven years ago.

St. Pierre Street, named for Legardeur de St. Pierre, commandant of Fort Le Boeuf during the French and Indian War, was adjacent to St. Pierre Ravine, which ran from the end of the street into nearby Junction Hollow.

In 1898, the city spanned the wild ravine with the rustic stone Bellefield Bridge, connecting Grant Boulevard and Schenley Park. That same year, the Pittsburgh chapter of the American Institute of Architects announced that it would hold a competition to design a stone entrance or gateway to the park, one that would be monumental in character and "correspond in style and finish with the library," then new.

No entrance seems to have been built and whether the competition was even held is unknown. But with it, the AIA had sought to fill a vacuum created by the absence of both a planning department and a citywide plan.

This 1937 photograph taken from the Cathedral of Learning shows Schenley Plaza’s groves of London plane trees enclosing an oval lawn surrounded by a phalanx of cars.
Click photo for larger image.

To fill the void, Mayor George Guthrie appointed the Pittsburgh Civic Commission in 1909. One of its first acts was asking landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. to prepare a plan for Downtown and the city's main streets. Among the far-reaching proposals in Olmsted's 1910 plan was something called the Bellefield Improvement, which offered two options for dealing with St. Pierre's Ravine and its rustic stone bridge.

Plan A kept the ravine and the bridge, and announced the park with an entrance feature, perhaps a fountain or statue, at the corner of Forbes and Bigelow.

"[T]he whole scene, the little valley with its informal groups of shrubbery and trees, spanned at one end by a stone bridge, is extremely interesting and pictorial and peculiarly characteristic of the Pittsburgh topography," Olmsted wrote. "The novelty of such a scene, in contrast to the stiff formality of the city all about it, gives it not a little value, and there is reasonable doubt if it should not be saved even at some sacrifice."

Olmsted suggested taking the adjacent Junction Hollow for parkland, with bench-lined walks leading from the ravine into the hollow. But in one of the tantalizing what-ifs of Pittsburgh, the city opted for Plan B.

Plan B was a formal entrance plaza, and in 1911 the newly created art and planning commissions co-sponsored a national competition for its design. Between 1912 and 1914, the ravine slowly filled up with earth shaved from "the Hump" on Grant Street, Downtown. The massive bridge, which had taken two years to build just a dozen years earlier, was buried like yesterday's trash.

The plaza competition brief called for a plan of monumental proportions that would "afford an impression of dignity and importance appropriate to the park" but "without excessive cost."

It also was to make "ample provision for the entrance of vehicles and foot passengers" and provide an appropriate setting for "A Song to Nature," the Mary Croghan Schenley memorial fountain, designed (but not yet built) to honor the park's donor.

The competition drew 45 entries, most from New York, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh but from as far as California, images of which are housed today at the Carnegie Mellon University Architecture Archives. Looking through them, I felt like a kid on Christmas morning and found myself thinking more than a few times, if only we'd had the vision to build that one!

The plans are almost evenly divided between formal and informal solutions.

The formal ones offer rigid, geometric designs inspired by European cities and gardens and the City Beautiful movement in America. Their plazas, while accommodating traffic nicely, also are designed for the pleasure of pedestrians. A few are almost unbelievably ornate, with elaborate parterre gardens, complicated paving patterns and platoons of trees.

The informal plans, or in some cases simply less-formal plans, create a diagonal road through the plaza, directly linking Grant Boulevard with the park. Some treat it as a winding, romantic road surrounded by curvilinear paths, others as a straight, axial street flanked by nearly symmetrical planting beds.

Two of the jurors -- architect Henry Hornbostel and engineer George Davison -- awarded first prize to Horace Wells Sellers and H. Bartol Register, Philadelphia architects who apparently teamed just for this occasion. The third juror, landscape architect Berthold Frosch, suggested that the best features of the top three plans be embodied in a new design.

The Sellers & Register scheme seems to have been chosen because it best answered the call for a simple, monumental plan that could be realized at minimal cost. Perhaps Sellers and Register knew better than others just how little the city wanted to spend, for Register and Pittsburgh city planner Frederick Bigger had been associates in the same Philadelphia firm.

Hornbostel and Davison praised their scheme's "least confusing plan of driveways" and its provision for automobile parking, even though parking was never mentioned in the brief and only one other entry seems to have provided it. The rules -- or at least the judges' criteria -- appear to have changed after the fact.

The plaza, with an oval island flanked by double allees of London plane trees, was completed in 1921, although two elements were never built -- a columned exedra behind the Schenley Fountain and, along Forbes Avenue, a pair of columned gateposts with sculptures like those at the entrance to Highland Park; the latter especially would have given park visitors a greater sense of arrival.

By the 1930s, Schenley Plaza, then also bordering Forbes Field, was filling up with cars. Over the years, the plaza became less and less a park entrance and more and more a parking lot, with the city finally giving up all pretense of a pedestrian space and removing the oval island in 1990 to accommodate 72 more cars.

In 1968, a Pitt master plan proposed giving the plaza exclusively over to pedestrian use by building a garage beneath it, a project that, then as now, proved too expensive because excavation would have required blasting through rock.

Today, the university and six other partners are part of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development's Oakland Investment Committee, which, together with the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, has put forth a new design, by the Boston office of Sasaki Associates. Construction could begin in the spring, if the sponsors can raise an additional $750,000 -- the amount the city was expected to contribute in infrastructure improvements and can no longer afford.

With a great lawn, small flower gardens, food kiosks and movable chairs, the Sasaki plan is modeled on Manhattan's Bryant Park, which has enjoyed great popularity since its 12-year restoration, redesign and reprogramming were completed in 1992.

A critical difference is that while Bryant Park is a green oasis in the city grid, it does not serve as the entrance to something greater than itself. And that is where the Sasaki plan, for all its amenities, falls short.

Schenley Plaza's main entrance would be at its northwest corner, at Forbes and Pennant Street, leading to a path that would run diagonally across the lawn and establish an axial view from the terminus of Bigelow Boulevard to the Mary Schenley Fountain. The diagonal path is in the same location as the diagonal park entrance road of many of the informal schemes of 1915, but here it plays a lesser role in the larger urban context, leading pedestrians to a bandstand.

The design sacrifices the plaza's original symmetry and monumentality, mostly to gain a restaurant within an informal bosk of trees. This grove would replace the depleted but still majestic London plane allee on the west side, while incorporating some of its trees. There is nothing that compensates for those losses, nothing that communicates that Schenley Plaza is more than just another green oasis in the grid.

Trees bordering Forbes Avenue and Clemente Drive were removed from the plan before it was approved by the Historic Review Commission, opening up the site line from Forbes to Clemente Drive and improving the design but a little.

As the schemes of 1915 show, it's possible to make a plan that both invites pedestrian use and tells drivers they are about to enter a great public park, one that was designed for pedestrians and motorists.

In borrowing the programming of Bryant Park, the plan's sponsors have missed a larger lesson: that its amenities and activities are framed and contained within a symmetrical, highly structured space.

As every gardener knows, a great garden needs great bones.


Patricia Lowry can be reached at plowry@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1590.

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