A garden glows in Mellon Park

November 9, 2009 by Melissa McMasters

If you've walked by the Walled Garden in Shadyside's Mellon Park recently, you've probably noticed that it's beginning to look like a garden again. The Management and Maintenance staff at the Parks Conservancy has spent a lot of the last four months in Mellon Park, working alongside Department of Public Works crews and contractors to restore this beloved space in memory of one who left it too soon.

The project had to balance several things: it honors the life of Ann Katharine Seamans through an art installation that mimics the pattern of the stars in the night sky over Pittsburgh on Annie's birthday. It also returns several historical elements from the garden's 1929 design by Alden and Harlow for the Richard B. Mellon estate. And finally, the garden had to be a welcoming space for today's visitors, with plenty of seating, well-maintained plantings, and a beautiful, open design.

With work just about finished for this year, we wanted to give you a look back at how the project has progressed since our groundbreaking in July. We're planning on a June 2010 re-opening when the new trees are in full bloom and the grass has had a chance to grow into the lawn.

Before we get to the photos, Phil wants me to pass on something very important: if you're using Mellon Park between now and June, please keep your dogs out of the fenced area! The new grass needs time to grow in, and some larger dogs are leaping over the fencing and tearing up patches of lawn. We'll be working on some of the lawn area in front of the garden too, so you'll see more fencing in the months to come, but we ask for your patience in helping us make the park better for everyone.

And now for the pics!

In July, crews began removing the plant material in the garden borders so that work could begin.

Digging up plant material

In August, the whole lawn was dug up to prepare for the installation of the stars. Meanwhile, Eagle Scout Jake Meyer assembled a crew at Schenley Plaza to assemble the stars out of PVC piping.

Digging up the lawn; assembling the stars

The garden's signature fountain received a new water supply, and an underground vault was built that will serve as a mechanical room when a full restoration of the fountain can be undertaken. (That portion of the project has not been funded to date.) The fountain is once again able to flow but needs a little tweaking to do so properly. New pipes were run from the vault to the fountain--the water supply and a return line that will allow the water to recirculate.

Fountain repair

Electrical conduits were laid to power the fiber optics that make the stars glow. Then fill was added to the lawn that covered the stars up to their fiber optic tip. A nighttime lighting test allowed the garden to glow for the first time. The effect is unique and surprising, and as Phil says, "If you look closely, they wink at you."

Stars in the lawn

Lighting test

Each star's name and a short saying is affixed to a granite disc that covers up all but the tip of the fiber optic line. So not only will you be able to sit on the lawn without running into a bunch of poky lights, but you'll get to learn a fun star fact whenever you visit!

Star disc

October was a time for planting. A great crew of volunteers came out to help install shrubs, bulbs, perennials, and finally trees on the garden's borders.

Volunteers planting

The restoration includes two plaques, one honoring Ann Katharine Seamans and the other recalling Vitale and Geiffert's work.

Plaque honoring Annie Seamans

The original design had an octagonal planting bed leading up to the lawn, so this element is being brought back. The garden's much-loved frog has hopped over to a nearby pad but is still part of the garden. Its original location was at a pond in another part of the park, and it will likely return there if a restoration of the pond is ever undertaken. The two lions on either side of the steps are currently in storage. Historically, there were urns where they sat, so that's what you'll be seeing when the garden re-opens. The lions are likely to turn up somewhere in another park to be determined.

Octagonal garden

The distinctive iron gates by Samuel Yellin were partially restored as part of the project. Although a test revealed no lead paint on the gates, they are over 100 years old, so to be on the safe side they were sandblasted and repainted with lead-free, environmentally friendly coatings. (Don't worry, we didn't turn them white--this is how they looked between blasting and painting!)

Iron gates

And this is where we stand today. You can see that wooden park benches have been added, replacing some of the stone benches. The idea there was to add to the garden's airy feel by installing benches that weren't completely solid, allowing the other elements to show through to a degree.

Garden today

You can also see that a stepped terrace has been added near the front of the garden with another planting bed and a circular bench. This allows for a new and elevated perspective on the garden below.

Lawn and terrace

So come next June, this is what you should see: an attractive space that's lively yet intimate, bringing together an innovative new art installation with a stunning historical design and sustainable plantings. We can't wait to open this back up and see it filled with people again!

Artist's rendering

Thanks to Carlos Peterson for the sketch and Joe Seamans for the lighting photo!

Mellon Park, Park Design, Flowers and Gardens, Restoration Projects