The Parks Conservancy is headed downtown

June 3, 2010 by Melissa McMasters

Mellon Square tiles

For the first time in its 14-year history, the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy is bringing its park management expertise to downtown Pittsburgh. The Parks Conservancy will undertake a partnership with the City of Pittsburgh to oversee the restoration of Mellon Square by implementing a plan that will re-establish the park’s historic character and improve the user experience.

The Mellon Square partnership will be similar to the strong and successful working relationship at Schenley Plaza. The City’s Department of Public Works will provide basic maintenance, with the Parks Conservancy offering enhanced services such as periodic cleaning and sealing of the terrazzo paving. The concert series organized by Citiparks will continue, and the Parks Conservancy will sponsor some additional programming, including docent-led lunchtime tours on the third Wednesday of every month. (For a schedule of free Mellon Square programs, click here.)

Because of Mellon Square’s intricate design, overseeing its maintenance requires a careful eye for detail. “It’s like a Swiss watch,” says Susan Rademacher, the Conservancy’s Parks Curator. Many different components all need to perform in harmony to achieve the desired effect: plantings, drainage systems, irrigation, plumbing for the fountains, the condition of the tiles, etc. And because the park sits above a parking garage, everything on top has to work together with what’s below, and things like the depth of a tree’s roots become even more important than they would in an ordinary landscape design.

But the Parks Conservancy is up to the task. “Mellon Square is an extremely significant historic and cultural landscape, and we are excited to bring the Parks Conservancy’s experience to its care, restoration, and management,” Susan says. “Everything will be done with an eye toward enhancing Mellon Square as an oasis in the heart of the city, as it was originally envisioned by its designers, Mitchell & Ritchey and Simonds & Simonds.”

Mellon Square historic

Phase 1 of the Parks Conservancy’s restoration project will address the area from the top of the two staircases down to Smithfield Street. Plans include:

  • Renovating the stairs, which have sustained water damage and are stained with mineral deposits
  • Restoring the fountain cascade at the corner of Smithfield and Oliver Streets and removing its heavy granite walls to restore its original light and refreshing character
  • Planting a green canopy over the Smithfield Street storefronts
  • Improving lighting and signage over the storefronts
  • Installing permanent interpretive signage on the black granite at the corner of Smithfield and Sixth Ave.
  • Creating a new open-air terrace to provide a new gathering space for events, dining, and socialization
  • Cutting two passageways in the existing planter space that will allow easy access to the terrace

Mellon Square today

The terrace is an exciting new component to the project and is an example of the Parks Conservancy’s philosophy of preserving historic design while working to serve the needs of modern users. (A past example was the terrace added to the Schenley Park Café and Visitor Center during its restoration; though not part of the original design, the terrace is what really allowed the building to become a “window on the park.”) The Mellon Square terrace is rooted in John Simonds’ design vision, however; the project team uncovered many drawings showing an open-air area filled with people in this location.

Susan believes the Parks Conservancy’s attention to detail will be apparent as some important design elements from Mellon Square’s history are re-implemented. She points especially to the horticultural design. “There are some important colors and textures from the original design that are missing,” she notes. As the plants begin to fill back in and eventually flourish, the feeling of being in an urban oasis will only increase. The fountains will eventually be repaired as well, adding a sense of liveliness that has been missing as they’ve been turned off for long stretches due to malfunctioning parts.

Now that an engineering study by the Pittsburgh Parking Authority has been completed, design work on the project is underway. Construction on Phase One will begin later in the year.

The Mellon Square restoration project was made possible by lead grants from the Colcom Foundation and the Richard King Mellon Foundation, with additional funding by the W. I. Patterson Charitable Trust.

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Ecological Restoration, Mellon Square, Park Design