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Oakland: An elusive dream

By Dan Fitzpatrick, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

On a warm spring day in 1890, Andrew Carnegie stood on a hill overlooking Oakland. The short, bearded steel baron could see horse cars pulling passengers up Fifth Avenue, to Millionaire’s Row. Oak trees waved in the distance. Farms stretched for miles.

Oakland, a flat swath surrounded by ravines, hills and the large homes of the East End, looked like a fertile setting for Carnegie’s new library, museum and music hall.

But he saw something else, too.

From Carnegie’s vantage point on Heron Hill, Oakland appeared to be a place where Pittsburgh could start anew. Most days, Pittsburgh looked like a city devoted to money and industry, with smoke and soot billowing from its uneven landscape at all hours. It had a national reputation for corruption, dirt and greed. Carnegie wanted to polish that image. Influenced by a "City Beautiful" planning movement and the white, neoclassical buildings at Chicago’s 1893 World Columbian Exposition, Carnegie and a gang of city officials, architects and developers made the decision to carve a dreamlike center of culture, education and architecture from Oakland’s farmland.

"Not only our own country, but the civilized world will take note of the fact that our Dear Old Smoky Pittsburgh, no longer content to be celebrated only as one of the chief manufacturing centres, has entered upon the path to higher things," Carnegie wrote in 1895, after the Carnegie Institute opened on Forbes Avenue.

The hope was that Oakland would become Pittsburgh’s "shimmering alter ego," wrote Pittsburgh historian Franklin Toker.

At the close of the 20th century, Oakland remains a place where Pittsburgh goes to dream and to plan. In some ways, the neighborhood lived up to Carnegie’s vision. In other ways, though, the urban Utopia articulated more than a century ago suffered instead from unchecked ambition, oversized ego and the rapid expansion of a city starved for space.

A few doubted the idea from the start.

"There are some people who want everything in the East End," Mayor Gourley told the Pittsburg Press on May 8, 1890, the day Carnegie gazed down on Oakland. "They want everything that will be an advantage to the people of that locality and which would enhance the value of property in that part of the city."

In the years since Carnegie stood on Heron Hill, Oakland has been the setting for many of the wildest and most fanciful urban development ideas to be proposed in Pittsburgh. Originally, there was talk of moving City Hall to the neighborhood, according to Toker’s "Pittsburgh: An Urban Portrait." There also was talk of building a convention center, an expressway, a massive research center in Panther Hollow and a series of 60 Greco-Roman style buildings on Oakland’s northern slope.

None of those projects happened.

Of those that did, the first and most influential belongs to Edward Bigelow.

At the end of the 19th century, Bigelow was the city’s public works director. Like Carnegie, he wanted Pittsburgh to compete with cities such as Boston and New York for national attention and respect.

"Becoming cosmopolitan is part of that," said Edward K. Muller, a history professor and director of urban studies at the University of Pittsburgh.

Bigelow’s big idea was to carve a scenic park from Oakland’s wilderness.

To do that, he needed help from Oakland’s largest landowner -- Mary Schenley. The granddaughter of the first U.S. quartermaster general, Schenley controlled about 1,000 acres of choice property in the heart of Oakland. Her grandfather, James O’Hara, accumulated the land before and after the American Revolution.

But Bigelow had a problem: Schenley’s land was in play. Another real estate developer wanted it for housing. Hoping to get to Schenley before the developer did, Bigelow dispatched his lawyer to Schenley’s home in London.

The hurried trip worked. In 1889, Schenley agreed to give the city 400 acres.

Her donation set several projects in motion. It allowed Carnegie to take city land for his museum, library and music hall. It allowed Carnegie’s partner, Henry Phipps, to build an indoor botanical garden at the lip of the park in 1893. It allowed developer Franklin Nicola to build the Schenley Hotel in 1898, with Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, the Mellons, Henry Heinz and George Westinghouse as investors.

It also allowed the city to follow a Schenley Park entrance design authored by Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., son of the Central Park designer. Olmstead recommended the city cover the gully of St. Pierre’s Ravine with dirt from Grant Street and create a theatrical introduction to Schenley Park. That plan was known at the time as "Plan B." Plan A was that the ravine would be enlarged, not filled.

Near this entrance, called Schenley Plaza, Nicola was able to build Forbes Field in 1909.

The model for Schenley Park was New York’s Central Park. To make it accessible, Bigelow built a boulevard linking the park to the Golden Triangle three miles away. He supervised the design of four bridges connecting the park to different parts of the East End. He also made sure Schenley Park got an ice rink, a band shell, a race track, and a man-made lake. Landscape architects gave the park winding carriage lanes, wide-open kiting spots and enough trees to provide shade on a hot summer day.

Schenley’s donation also made Oakland a safer bet for Carnegie, who decided in 1903 to build a university at the lip of Junction Hollow. Three years earlier, Carnegie promised a school if the city could get him the land. Pittsburgh ward boss Christoper Lyman Magee, Bigelow’s cousin and a member of Pittsburgh’s Republican machine, offered a 32-acre cabbage patch that overlooked the Hollow’s 150-foot-deep gorge. Magee was part-owner of the land.

In design, the Carnegie Technical Schools borrowed again from the Beaux-Arts classicism displayed prominently at Chicago’s 1893 World’s Fair. The school, now known as Carnegie Mellon University, faced the Carnegie Institute across the yawning gap of Junction Hollow. Originally, Carnegie wanted the two institutions to have a physical connection. In fact, the first building to rise above the Hollow has an arch near its roof that would have supported a bridge.

But the bridge was never built. It was the first of several puzzle pieces that never quite fit into Carnegie’s vision of a City Beautiful.

Another ill-fated plan was the original 1908 design for the University of Pittsburgh.

New York architect Henry Hornbostel, who designed CMU’s campus for Carnegie and founded the architecture department there, proposed a campus of 60 Greco-Roman style buildings, all of them climbing Oakland’s northern slope. Under Hornbostel’s plan, escalators would have been used to take students several hundred feet in the air. Hornbostel wanted a replica of The Forum in Rome at the top. Hornbostel’s design had several European influences. The project’s nickname, "Acropolis," was a nod to the site in Athens where the Parthenon was built.

But few buildings from the Acropolis ever made it out of the dirt.

The university tossed much of the plan aside in favor of the Cathedral of Learning.

University of Pittsburgh Chancellor John Bowman began his pursuit of the gothic Cathedral in the 1920s by persuading financiers Andrew and Richard Mellon to buy the land for their alma matter, at a cost of $1.5 million. As it was originally conceived, the Cathedral was to be the second tallest skyscraper in the world after the Woolworth Building in New York. Its original name was the Tower of Learning.

Once completed, the building rose 42 stories and it took a slightly different name. It also took 11 years to build, needing a Civil Works Administration grant to finish the work and survive the Great Depression.

The Cathedral opened in 1937 as the world’s tallest schoolhouse.

Another University of Pittsburgh chancellor with outsized Oakland ambitions was Edward Litchfield.

His biggest plan, though, was a flop.

In 1963, a group chaired by Litchfield unveiled an idea that shocked Pittsburgh. He wanted to fill the gully of Panther Hollow with a self-contained, underground city of researchers and scientists. A mile long and seven stories high, the "upside-down" research center would have stretched from Forbes Avenue to the Monongahela River. Its roof would have extended Oakland’s Schenley Park, with rail cars and an expressway running through the bottom.

The plan, which made room for 5,000 scientists, was expensive and bold. A first phase would have cost $250 million. When the University of Pittsburgh ran into financial problems, the plan died a quiet death. Litchfield retired in 1965.

That would not be the last time Panther Hollow faced potential development. Because of its flat land and untouched wilderness, Panther Hollow is frequently the subject of grand plans. One that lingered for three decades was the Oakland Crosstown Expressway. First suggested by the Allegheny Conference on Community Development in the 1940s as a way to alleviate Oakland’s congestion, the Crosstown Expressway was to pass through the Hollow’s gorge and connect to a proposed North Hills-South Hills freeway.

The idea faded in the late 1960s, after costs rose to $250 million. In 1974, the Southwestern Pennsylvania Regional Planning Commission put the expressway on its long-range plan, but it dropped off the list later in the decade.

The problems of congestion still plague Oakland, though.

Horse cars started trips to the neighborhood in 1859, taking slow and expensive rides from Downtown. By the 1890s, trolleys made the trip faster. Traffic became worse, though. The hospitals arrived in the 1920s, bringing more employees and more congestion. The University of Pittsburgh expanded greatly throughout the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, accumulating more than 50 buildings on 125 acres. Today, it owns 90 buildings on 132 acres.

Oakland became the state’s third-busiest urban traffic center, behind Downtown Philadelphia and Downtown Pittsburgh.

The growth prompted talk in the 1970s of a rapid transit line from Downtown to Oakland, with connections to Shadyside, East Liberty, Turtle Creek and Monroeville. The idea, though, went nowhere.

The idea re-emerged in the 1980s, at a cost of $388 million. It appeared a third time in the 1990s, only to die again. Paul Skoutelas, the Port Authority’s executive director, wants to take another look at the "Spine Line" in the next decade (See Skoutelas’ comments on page 5).

"We’ve never had a master plan that we’ve stuck to," said Allegheny County Executive-elect Jim Roddey, who also favors taking a new look at a rail connection (See Roddey’s comments on page 5).

As with transportation, Oakland’s many problems won’t go away.

The same issues raised by community groups in the 1970s are prevalent today. People want more short-term parking, less litter, tougher building codes, more trees, better student housing, better shops on Fifth and Forbes avenues and a cleaner, more interesting entrance to the neighborhood.

"We have not been very good stewards of this space," Muller said.

A 1978 community plan was one of the first to identify these problems and suggest solutions. But not much happened. Then, last year, the Department of City Planning issued a report that dealt with many of the same issues and offered many of the same solutions.

Unlike in 1978, community officials are confident that change is under way. Why the difference?

"There was no cooperation with the university at that time," said Susan Golomb, executive director of Oakland Planning and Development Corp., referring to the University of Pittsburgh and the 1978 plan. Now, the "university administration recognizes they are a part of Oakland, not that Oakland is a part of the university."

Eloise Hirsh, the city’s director of planning, agrees. "It’s has just been night and day," she said.

Golomb cited several signs of change. Her group now meets with university officials every two weeks to talk about development and community improvement plans. Those meetings, which started only six months ago, give community leaders a chance to talk about big plans while the development ideas are still in flux and thus changeable.

Several other community improvement projects are in the works, too.

Golomb’s group, for example, is working on a new gateway for the intersection of Forbes and Craft avenues (see letter on page 12). It also is trying to buy single-family homes as they become available, converting them from student units to homes for faculty, staff or graduate students. The university is building student housing on Oakland Avenue, and is considering more student housing close to its planned convocation center.

Last spring, property owners in Oakland agreed to create a Business Improvement District and help pay for street cleaning and litter pick-up (See letter on page 12). Property owners on Fifth and Forbes are also meeting on a regular basis, talking about ways to implement a unified retail strategy.

"The university wants Oakland to be better," Golomb said. "The city wants Oakland to be better. There are a lot of people saying it is time for Oakland to be better. Let’s make it better."

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