Countdown to 1 Million: Schenley Plaza History

June 24, 2010 by Parks Conservancy Staff

We're expecting our one millionth visitor to Schenley Plaza in July, which we'll be celebrating with a free celebration at our Kids Day on July 11 from 2:00 to 5:00pm. In addition to activities like face-painting, balloon animals, and rides on the PNC Carousel, visitors can register to win prizes with the grand prize winner receiving a personalized brick, a tree planted in his or her honor, and a lifetime membership to the Parks Conservancy.

To celebrate this momentous occasion, we're taking a look back at all the things that make Schenley Plaza special. We'll be posting blog entries from now to July 11 highlighting some of our favorite memories from the past four years. We'd love to hear your memories too! Leave us a note or post some photos on the Schenley Plaza Facebook page. You can also find more historic photos like the ones below posted on the page's Photo section.

Today's focus: the history of Schenley Plaza.

The City Acquires the Land

In 1889, heiress Mary Schenley, who was living in England, donated 300 acres of land to the city of Pittsburgh thanks to the efforts of Pittsburgh's Director of Public Works Edward Bigelow. In 1891 the City purchased an additional 119 acres which contained Schenley Plaza. The deed contained a provision about the land, “limiting the use of said property to an entrance for Schenley Park and to park purposes.”

At the time of purchase, Schenley Plaza was known as St. Pierre's Ravine. In 1897 the Bellefield Bridge was built, extending 100 feet over the ravine and connecting Bigelow Boulevard to the back of the Carnegie Institute. The bridge served as the primary entry to Schenley Park.

St. Pierre's Ravine

The Ravine is Filled

In 1911, the idea was proposed that a memorial to Mary Schenley should be placed in this area, and from that concept grew the sense that there should be a great public square surrounding it. The Bellefield Bridge and the ravine no longer fit into the plans for the site. In the early part of the 20th century, an immense amount of fill was produced from downtown development and the removal of the Grant Street hump. The fill from Grant Street was dumped into St. Pierre's Ravine, completely covering the 200-foot-high Bellefield Bridge. The bridge remains buried to this day and serves as the foundation underneath the Mary Schenley Fountain.

Design Competition

By 1914 the ravine had been completely filled and the city of Pittsburgh decided to hold a national design competition for Schenley Plaza, to create an acceptable location for the Mary Schenley Fountain and an entrance to Schenley Park. The winning designers were Horace Wells Sellers and H. Bartol Register of Philadelphia, who proposed a public space in the City Beautiful style. By 1917 the Art Commission had endorsed a plan asking that it be officially adopted, stating, “This area is not only the entrance to the most important large park in the City, but… has already become in a sense the Civic Center of the Municipality. It is a general gathering place of visitors to the City and its importance as a centre of interest seems certain to increase.”

The design was slightly modified (as you can see in the photo below, the Mary Schenley Fountain was originally conceived with a grand backdrop of columns), but the general concept of a large lot lined with rows of trees remained. The tree planting was delayed until the early 1920s, when the Garden Club of Allegheny County brought in landscape architect James Greenleaf, who planted the Plaza's signature London plane trees.

Schenley Plaza circa 1930

Encroachment of Parking

Several issues that contributed to the Plaza’s gradual transformation into a parking lot that few would ever consider to be a public space. The design of the grand entry was immense in scale and included a great amount of asphalt for parking. The median of green space provided a visual break from the concrete but was unusable as a public space. In addition, Forbes Field, the Carnegie Museums and Library, and the University of Pittsburgh were all a huge draw for many throughout the region and the convenient and obvious location of the plaza made it a tempting target for parking use.

Schenley Plaza circa 1950


In 1999, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette sponsored a competition for the best ideas to improve Oakland. One of the two winning ideas was creating an open space at Schenley Plaza that would serve as a grand entrance to Schenley Park. In his submission, landscape architect Fred Bonci said, "Oakland is supposedly our cultural center. It should have a great civic space." A Post-Gazette survey several months later indicated 3-to-1 support for the new plan despite concerns over the loss of parking spaces.

Momentum grew around the idea of a reimagined Schenley Plaza, with a working group formed by the University of Pittsburgh, Heinz Endowments, Kennametal Corp., R.K. Mellon Foundation, Carnegie Mellon University, Carnegie Museums and Library, UPMC, the City of Pittsburgh, the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, and Oakland Task Force. The state of Pennsylvania contributed $5 million to the project, which Governor Rendell said was "an easy call." Extensive focus groups were conducted to determine what people would want from such a space. Looking to New York City's Bryant Park as a model, the group shaped a plan that would create a lively, welcoming space with amenities for the whole family.

The rest, as they say, is history. Ground broke in 2005, and by summer 2006 Schenley Plaza was welcoming its first visitors. Now, four years later, it's almost ready to welcome its millionth visitor. We hope you'll be able to be part of the celebration.

Parks History, Parks Conservancy Programs, Schenley Plaza