A glimpse into the past

July 19, 2009 by Melissa McMasters

It's been a busy few weeks of looking toward the future at the Parks Conservancy: breaking ground on the restoration of the Mellon Park Walled Garden, getting set to develop a plan for restoring Mellon Square downtown, setting up lecture series and symposia, to name a few. But then one day I got an e-mail that allowed us to take a very interesting look into the past, specifically one of the golden periods in Highland Park's history.

Mar-Jean Zamperini was recently looking through some old family photos and came across a number of shots that appeared to be taken in a public park. Closer inspection revealed that the shots were all taken in Highland Park around 1916-1917, and so she was kind enough to allow us to share some of these photos on our blog. I also thought it would be fun to compare them with some of the popular postcards of the era that we're lucky enough to have in our office archive.

Highland Park, 1916 - 1917

First, here is a shot of the reservoir, which existed ten years before Highland Park was officially dedicated. Opened in 1879 to supply drinking water to the citizens of Pittsburgh, Reservoir No. 1 was initially a failure--when the pumping system was turned on for the first time, it was discovered that someone had forgotten to connect the outlet pipes! The problem was soon repaired, and the reservoir became such a popular gathering place that it inspired Parks Director Edward Bigelow to build a park around it. Highland Park is a fine example of capitalizing on an opportunity, and making an already-beloved place even better for its users.

After acquiring enough land to dedicate the area as a park in 1889, Bigelow's next project was designing an entry plaza just below the reservoir that would connect the highly-used area even more to the neighborhood. The Highland Park Entry Garden, which was created in the 1890s, was considered the finest public space in Pittsburgh in its early days, and it's obvious from these old photographs why people were so drawn to it. The landscaping was meticulously planned and cared for, and walking paths encouraged people to linger in the garden and its Victorian splendor.

The postcard from 1901 shows off the formal design of the garden beautifully. There were several iterations of the garden over the years, and you can see from Mar-Jean's photo that by 1916 the fountain had become somewhat less emphasized, with plantings around the central feature. As parks became less of a priority over the decades and funding decreased, the fountain basin was completely turned into a planting bed, with trees in the center. In the Parks Conservancy's 2005 restoration, we opted to restore the fountain closer to its original design, providing a central gathering place and a focus for the garden.


Another popular new feature of Highland Park during that period was the zoo, which originally opened in 1898. Both Schenley Park and Riverview Park had zoos at this time, and their collections were eventually transferred over to the larger Highland Park zoo. Mar-Jean's family is pictured here outside one of the glass houses, and the distinctive dragon lighting sculptures visible in the postcard are shown in striking detail here. During this period, the zoo was mainly a display for a menagerie of exotic plants and animals. The focus turned to conservation and animal habitat starting in the 1930s, when the first bear habitats were built. Although the zoo certainly looks much different today from an architectural perspective, we can probably all agree that the animals are much happier in the more spacious habitats that mimic their conditions in the wild.

Highland Park, 1916 -1917

Mar-Jean's family also paid a visit to Lake Carnegie, which at this time was a much larger, more open place for recreation. Imagine a boat on today's Lake Carnegie--it would have nowhere to go! The lake was originally not a lake at all, and in fact predates the park. It was built in the 1870s to serve as a halfway station for water being pumped from the Allegheny River up to Reservoir No. 1. Andrew Carnegie provided a good deal of the funding for the project, which is why the lake bears his name. By the time the basin had been dug and it was ready to use, a pump had come on the market that was strong enough to allow water to go straight from the river to the reservoir with no need to stop in the middle. So the stone lining the lake bed was instead used for walls and bridges, and the lake was opened to boaters and swimmers.

A popular boating destination, the lake ultimately fell victim to the popularity of swimming. After several divers were injured in the lake, in 1932 more than half of the space was converted to a swimming pool that would be safer for its users. Today what's left of the lake is great for the geese but not so fun for people, who no longer have a safe way to use it. Restoring the lake is an eventual goal of our Regional Parks Master Plan.

highland Park, 1916 - 1917

And finally, I wanted to share a photo of Mar-Jean's family on some steps leading down from the reservoir and tell a little bit of their story. The little boy in knee pants is Mar-Jean's grandfather, James Patterson, Jr., who was born in McDonald, PA in 1912. His mother, Katie Patterson, is the woman beside him wearing white, and her brother John Chemiel is one of the men in the straw hats. His father, Katie's husband, is notably absent from the photos, which Mar-Jean says is because they had gone back to Lithuania to visit family, and he was kidnapped by the Russians and forced to join their army! For years they didn't know whether he was alive or dead, and then one day he returned home to New Kensington and just resumed his life. James Jr., Mar-Jean's grandfather, grew up to work for Alcoa and served on the New-Ken-Arnold school board for more than 25 years.

Highland Park, 1916 - 1917

I'd like to thank Mar-Jean again for sharing these wonderful photos with us. Not only do they provide a fascinating look at how our parks used to be and how people used to live, but details such as the planting patterns and iron work around the reservoir provide the Parks Conservancy with valuable insight into the planned design of the parks. We use information like this to help guide future restoration efforts so that we can remain as faithful to the original intent as possible.

If you have any historic photos, clippings, or information about the parks that you'd like to share, we'd love to see them! Simply write a comment below or email media@pittsburghparks.org

Highland Park, Parks History, Photography