Schenley Park began as "Mt. Airy Tract," which was property willed to Mary Elizabeth Croghan by her maternal grandfather, General James O'Hara. In 1842, 15-year-old Mary created an international scandal by leaving her Staten Island boarding school and eloping to England with the 43-year-old Captain Edward Schenley. Distraught by the news, Mary's father initiated a lengthy legal battle over her inheritance, successfully winning the title to all her property. Mary and her father eventually reconciled, and she received her inheritance upon his death in 1850.
Click here to read an article by Parks Curator Susan Rademacher about the fascinating life and legacy of Mary Schenley.
Edward Bigelow, Pittsburgh’s Director of Public Works, envisioned a grand park system for Pittsburgh, and no piece of land was more desirable than Mt. Airy Tract. When Bigelow learned in 1889 that a real estate developer's agent planned to travel to London to convince Mary Schenley to sell them her land, he sent an East Liberty lawyer who hopped a train for New York and then boarded a steamer for England - beating the real estate agent by two days.
The appeal to Mary paid off, and in 1889 she gave the city 300 acres of Mt. Airy Tract with an option to purchase 120 more, provided the park be named after her and never sold. The city bought the extra acres in 1891, and later purchased some adjoining land to complete the park.
Bigelow's plans for the park system included a system of boulevards that would link them together, and he began constructing bridges in Schenley Park to make it easier for travelers to reach the park. The first, constructed in 1897, was the Bellefield Bridge, which spanned St. Pierre's Ravine and linked Bigelow Boulevard to the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University). When St. Pierre's Ravine was filled in around 1911 (providing a solid foundation for what is now Schenley Plaza), the Bellefield Bridge was buried along with it and is today the foundation for the Mary Schenley Memorial Fountain. The Panther Hollow Bridge opened in 1897, followed by the Junction Hollow Bridge in 1898.
While two of the three bridges remain, many of the attractions to which they provided access in the 1890s have disappeared. Among them: a 120-foot circular electric fountain on Flagstaff Hill that offered nighttime light shows; the marvelous Schenley Casino (on the site of the present-day Frick Fine Arts Building), which featured Pittsburgh's premier indoor ice skating rink but was destroyed by fire after only a year; and a band shell designed by architects Rutan and Russell on the site of the present-day Anderson Playground.
1907-1909 saw the development of park features that are still present today: the Schenley Oval and racetrack, the tufa bridges in Panther Hollow, and Panther Hollow Lake, which was created from an existing small body of water.
The park also underwent large-scale planting in its early years. Bigelow's reports indicate that the land was mostly barren when the City acquired it, and he pursued the highest standards of horticulture in hiring William Falconer, who was trained at London's Kew Gardens, to take charge of Phipps Conservatory and of the park's landscape. Falconer's tenure lasted from 1896 to 1903.
Schenley Park underwent a second period of growth in the 1930s and 1940s during Ralph Griswold's tenure as the Director of Public Works. Griswold designed several gardens around Phipps Conservatory, but the park's biggest change was the construction of the Anderson Bridge, which brought the Boulevard of the Allies through the park and linked Squirrel Hill to Downtown. Since then, there have been few major changes to the park as a whole, as certain amenities (like the Panther Hollow Boathouse) have disappeared while others (the ice skating rink) were introduced.