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City Neighborhoods
Fire guts Frick Park's environmental center

Monday, August 05, 2002

By Jan Ackerman, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The Frick Environmental Center, which has provided programs about Frick Park's habitat, history and ecology for 23 years, was gutted by an early morning fire yesterday.

Firefighter Tom Niemiec rests in the shade after battling a five-alarm fire yesterday morning that caused as much as $1 million in damage to the Frick Environmental Center. The cause of the blaze is under investigation. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

"It is a terrible loss for the neighborhood," said Tito Braunstein, who lives nearby, as he stood outside the Squirrel Hill gate of the center at 2005 Beechwood Blvd. at about 10:30 a.m.

"It is so sad for the children who come to the center for nature programs," he said.

The interior of the rustic, steep-roofed center was heavily damaged by the five-alarm fire that broke out about 3:47 a.m. Though it was brought under control at 7:20 a.m., the fire still was smoldering at 10:30 a.m. as firefighters worked on the roof to contain it.

"It's bad in there," said Second District Fire Battalion Chief Michael Mullen. He said the damage estimate may be as high as $1 million, and the cause is under investigation.

The fire destroyed the interior of the nature center and heavily damaged the sloped roof which overlooks walking trails around the park. But the woods around the center were not burned.

Mullen said city officials already were talking about how they would like to rebuild the center, which had a library, lecture rooms, a laboratory and exhibit areas and offered year-round programs to the public including workshops on birding, wreath-making, weed identification, backpacking, cross-country skiing and nature photography.

It was funded by the Frick Trust, an outgrowth of the philanthropy of Henry Clay Frick. At her debut in 1908, Helen Clay Frick asked her father to donate a park for children.

When he died in 1919, Frick donated 151 acres of what is now Frick Park to the city, along with a $2 million trust fund for its upkeep. Trustees eventually enlarged the park to 476 acres.

The Frick family continued to play an important role in the growth of Frick Park and the nature center that eventually developed there. In the 1930s, Helen Clay Frick funded a Frick Nature Center that supported an educational program that earned national recognition as one of the most outstanding conducted by a park system in the country.

Dick Wilford, who works in Frick Park maintenance, said his understanding is that the original center was in an old residential house at a different site, which also was destroyed by fire.

During the 1960s and 1970s, the Frick family continued to be deeply involved in the development of the center that burned yesterday. Childs Frick, a son of Henry Clay Frick, donated funds for it to continue the educational programs. Helen Clay Frick was influential in making sure the design of the building fit into the contours of the surrounding landscape.

Groundbreaking for the nature center took place in 1977. It opened in 1979 as headquarters for the city's Environmental Education Program.

Doris Klein, a neighbor, said her children learned about animals and bugs at the center, even though they never learned to love them.

"The programs were very inexpensive, so they got a real cross-section of kids," Klein said.

"It is totally good," she said about the center. "It's not controversial, but just here to help the kids.

"It is so terribly sad."

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