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Frick Park restoration unlocks details of noted architect

Remaking a grand entrance

Wednesday, January 24, 2001

By Patricia Lowry, Post-Gazette Architecture Critic

By the early 1930s, when he was asked to design the entrances to Pittsburgh's Frick Park, John Russell Pope was the last of a dying breed -- those architects who studied the great buildings of Greece, Italy and Paris in the late 1800s and came home to spread the gospel of classicism.

In the final phase of the Frick Park entrance restoration, workmen install clay roof tiles, similar to the original tiles, which had been replaced by asphalt shingles at one time. (V.W.H. Campbell, Jr. Post-Gazette)

To the end, when other architects were turning to modernism in the 1930s, Pope remained an unabashed neoclassicist; his last building was the Jefferson Memorial, completed by his successors after his death in 1937. Among his more than 200 commissions were the National Gallery of Art and National Archives in Washington, the Baltimore Museum of Art, wings for the British Museum and Tate Gallery in London, and many public buildings, monuments and country houses in historical styles.

Needless to say, the Frick Park structures are minor works in the Pope canon; they merit only a small-print mention in the back of Steven McLeod Bedford's 1998 monograph on Pope, in the chronology of buildings.

But why would Pope, who was usually inattentive to clients after receiving even a plum commission, bother to take on such a small job in a city where he had no other work?

At the time the park pavilions were on the boards in his office, Pope also was designing the addition that would expand Henry Clay Frick's New York home into The Frick Collection, including the museum's most memorable space, the enclosed courtyard with its central pond and fountain. To this day it looks almost exactly the way Otto Eggers, Pope's longtime co-designer and delineator, envisioned it in 1932, right down to the small palms in planting beds in the room's four corners.

According to a note found five years ago in a file at Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, Eggers, who joined Pope in 1909, worked on the design of Frick Park's pavilions. The anonymous note, probably written in or around the 1960s, not only linked the pavilions to Pope's firm, but also attributed the design of the park to two nationally prominent landscape architecture firms, Lowell and Vinal (for the years circa 1927-1934) and Innocenti and Webel (1935-1957).

For the style of the pavilions, Pope and Eggers turned to the French countryside, where they had found inspiration before.

Pope had designed Chateauiver, a country house completed in 1908 for Charles A. Gould in Greenlawn, N.Y., with a central pavilion drawn from the stone "hunting boxes" or lodges of Louis XII, who ruled France from 1498 to 1515. Bedford mentions one hunting box, at Huisseau sur Cosson in the Loire Valley, as a source for Chateauiver, and it seems just as likely a source for the Frick entrance pavilion at the corner of Reynolds Street and Homewood Avenue, newly restored by the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy at a cost of $475,000. The stone two-story symmetrical structure, with a central arched entrance, was topped by a steeply pitched roof pierced by chimneys and dormers.

Gould was a hunter, so the association was appropriate. And Henry Clay Frick had envisioned his gift park as a wilderness reserve in the city, where Pittsburghers could intimately experience flora and fauna, if not obliterate it.

Pope, as an architecture student at Columbia University, had won both the McKim Traveling Fellowship and the Rome Prize in 1895, scholarships that afforded him the opportunity to measure and draw buildings in Europe. He spent the last three years of the 19th century in France, preparing for or studying at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and drawing and photographing in and around Paris. So he would have had plenty of opportunity to see hunting lodges throughout the chateaux country.

Back in America, Pope worked for or with other architects, including McKim, Mead and White, before opening his own office in New York in 1905 -- the same year Richard Morris Hunt's gatehouse for Biltmore, the George Washington Vanderbilt house in Asheville, N.C., was completed, also modeled on the French hunting lodge.

Eggers had been working with Pope for 13 years by 1922, when he wrote an article about the firm's design process. At the beginning, architect and client would discuss an appropriate style, consulting books as well as Pope's collection of large-format photographs taken as a student or on later vacations to Europe.

But for Frick Park, who was the client?

According to a four-page history of the park written in June 1999 by Barry Hannegan, PHLF's director of historic landscape preservation, the design of the park was in the hands of the executors of Frick's will. For the Frick pavilions, the probable client was one of Frick's children, Helen or Childs, who may have sought to relate the donated park land to the Frenchified Clayton, the Italianate house their father had architect Fred Osterling blow up into a chateau in 1891.

The Homewood Avenue pavilion is one of four structures or groups of structures Pope designed for the park and completed in the summer of 1935, including an unmatched pair of French gate lodges at the Beechwood Boulevard entrance. The others are a small shelter on Forbes Avenue, near Braddock Avenue, and a copper-roofed cairn at the juncture of Beechwood and Forbes, marking one of the park's boundaries.

Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy director Meg Cheever stands before the newly restored Homewood entrance to Frick Park. The restoration of the entrance, designed by renowned architect John Russell Pope in the 1930s, is one of four "showcase" projects planned by the conservancy. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

Frick Park's entrances would have looked entirely different, Hannegan suggests, if the Frick interests had accepted Ralph Vinal's design for a much more modest entrance at Beechwood Boulevard, with gate piers and metalwork. Lowell and Vinal of Boston had planned the trails through the park, but Lowell had died by the time the park opened on June 25, 1927. While Vinal continued some level of involvement in designing park structures through 1934, a Pittsburgh engineering firm, Blum, Weldin and Co., took over the park's planning in 1927.

By the beginning of 1935, a Long Island landscape architecture firm, Innocenti and Webel, had been hired as the park's planners -- the firm's first large-scale public park commission and apparently the beginning of a long association between Frick's children and the firm, founded in 1931 and still in business. Innocenti and Webel designed Childs Frick's Long Island estate in 1941, and in the mid-1960s, for Helen Frick, the open court at Pitt's Frick Fine Arts Building. The firm's records show it also worked for Childs Frick's son, Henry Clay Frick II, in New Jersey and on a residential project for Helen Frick in New York, perhaps at her Westmoreland Farm.

Innocenti was Italian-born, and Webel, like Pope, had won a scholarship to the American Academy in Rome, where he absorbed the Roman, Renaissance and Baroque landscapes he would translate to the American country house in the 1920s and beyond. As partners, they had complementary skills, with Webel designing the garden's architecture and Innocenti the planting plan.

For Frick Park, Innocenti and Webel planned two fountains, one just beyond Pope's entrance of two French pavilions at Beechwood Boulevard, the other deep in the park, at the summit of Clayton Hill. Cheever and Hannegan believe the latter was never built, but the former is thought to have been completed in the 1930s. Like Highland Park's great entrance fountain at Highland Avenue, it was allowed to deteriorate over the years and later became a planting bed.

The restoration of Frick Park's Homewood entrance and the estimated $1.5 million restoration of the Highland Park fountain, surrounding pool and garden are two of four "showcase" projects planned by the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, the group Meg Cheever founded in 1996. At Schenley Park, the nature center, closed for the past 10 years, will be renovated as a visitors' center, a $1 million-plus project. The modern addition at the front of the building will be razed and the 1911 Arts and Crafts design by Rutan and Russell restored. And at Riverview Park, the Chapel Shelter -- originally the Watson Presbyterian Church -- will be restored, with the cost still to be determined. All projects will be done with a combination of private and public funds.

Cheever grew up in Boston "living with Olmsted," spending a lot of time with her father exploring Frederick Law Olmsted's "Emerald Necklace" of parks, especially the Arnold Arboretum and Jamaica Pond. After law school, she moved to Pittsburgh as a young single woman in the mid-1970s to take a job with a law firm. After that, she worked for WQED for 18 years, first as general counsel, then in corporate planning and finally as publisher of Pittsburgh magazine.

Over the years, Cheever and her husband and children have been frequent visitors to the three East End parks, walking around the reservoir at Highland, hiking through Frick's woods and ice skating in Schenley.

Cheever watched the condition of the parks steadily decline, as more trees succumbed to the voracious wild grapevine and buildings and other built features fell into disrepair and disuse. Under it all, Cheever knew the parks had good bones, even though few -- if any -- Pittsburghers remembered Frick Park was the work of such nationally prominent firms.

The 20-year master plan outlining the renovation and restoration of the three East End parks, as well as the North Side's Riverview Park, is in the final draft form and should be ready for publication in the spring. The plan is the culmination of about 30 public meetings, telephone and user surveys and interviews with college students and community leaders.

"We're trying to get a sense of prioritization," Cheever said. "There's probably at least 40 projects in the master plan, so what we do first and how we roll things out is a question. The general advice [from parks conservancies in other cities] is work from the perimeter and go in."

Thus was born the showcase projects -- restorations that are highly visible, big enough to make an impact and small enough to do relatively quickly.

The Frick entrance's restoration, overseen by the Vermont landscape architecture firm Landscapes and by Pittsburgh-based architects Landmark Design Associates, was aided by the original Innocenti and Webel landscape plans as well as the discovery of the building's original construction drawings in the city engineer's office.

Built in variegated Neshaminy stone from eastern Pennsylvania, the entrance is flanked by stone walls that taper off into the landscape. All of the stone was washed and repointed, and one of the walls was so bowed from water damage it had to be rebuilt, after the drainage problem was corrected.

The little building's windows and the iron bars that protect them were replaced. Within the entrance arch, the original wood doors, which lead to refurbished storage rooms, had been replaced with metal ones; they have been re-created in cypress and the original hardware restored. Electricity to the building has been restored, with new lanterns flanking the gateway. At night, the two small rooms are lit from inside, giving the appearance of an occupied gatehouse.

The building's original clay roof tiles, later replaced by asphalt shingles, have been restored, using tiles from Ludowici and Celadon of New Lexington, Ohio, though to the same firm that produced the originals.

The entrance's Innocenti and Webel landscape, planned but never planted, has at long last gone into the ground -- surrounding the entrance with more than 50 new hawthorne, pin oak and lacebark pine trees, forsythia and more than 2,000 English ivy plants. The walkway in front of the entrance also has been restored, with new bluestone paving and granite curbs.

The neighbors couldn't be happier.

"Something that was quite nice and had deteriorated has been brought back to its former glory," said Ann Cutter, just after a morning walk with her husband through the park.

A class from nearby Sterrett Classical Academy used the restoration project to study designed landscapes, and as a class project designed another trailhead site in the park.

"If they understand and care about it, they're going to love it more and use it more," Cheever said. "That's the next generation of stewardship for the park."

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