Stuff That's Gone: Schenley Park Edition

January 26, 2011 by Melissa McMasters

If you've been in Pittsburgh a while, you probably have seen Rick Sebak's Stuff That's Gone special (or perhaps you just remember a lot of stuff that's gone!). In the spirit of looking back at some of our lost treasures, today we're taking another look at our Schenley Park historic image archive.

For all the historic features of Schenley Park that remain--like Phipps Conservatory, the lily pond that become the Westinghouse Memorial, the Christopher Magee and Mary Schenley Memorial Fountains--there are others that now exist only in words and old postcards. Here are some of the late, great features of Schenley Park (along with one that survived). Click photos for larger versions.

Before the Schenley Oval was best known for tennis courts and running tracks, it was a horse-racing track. Built in 1895, it was declared by Parks Superintendent Edward Bigelow to be "a boon to all lovers and connoisseurs in fine horses." Races were held on weekends and on Wednesday afternoons. In 1904, the Schenley Matinee Club acquired rights to hold its own races there on Wednesday afternoons, and the next year this group began work on a new racetrack and stables. The new track included a grandstand, which you can see in the photo below. Today's tennis courts are situated where the grandstand used to be.

Schenley Oval

In addition to racing, horses had other entertainment value in the park, as you can see in the magazine cover at left: diving horses were another popular attraction.

Diving horses and skating rink

The photo at right above shows the interior of the Casino, a beautiful but short-lived attraction that sat on the ground presently occupied by the Frick Fine Arts Building. The casino may have been responsible for the first hockey night in Pittsburgh, boasting the city's first indoor ice rink. In summer, the rink was converted to a 3,500-seat theater. A rooftop garden was another modern feature. This admired and well-used structure only operated from May 1895 to December 1896, when the ammonia in its ice-making machine caught fire. The building first burned, then exploded, taking out the bridge over Four Mile Run along with it.

PittsburghHockey.net has a wonderful article and more photos of the Casino that's well worth a read.

Schenley Casino

This band shell opened in the early 20th century and was considered a beautiful addition to the park. Free Sunday concerts were held here for several years, and the audiences who attended were mostly upper-class. Later, it evolved into a more democratic space--reform groups used it as a rallying place, free movies were shown in the evenings, and city children held plays and musical events there. Today the band shell's location is occupied by the Anderson Playground.

Band Shell

And then there are the park shelters. This rustic woodland shelter has an ornate character that seems unusual by today's standards.

Shelter

A few more ambitious park shelters were built in the early 1900s by the celebrated architectural firm of Rutan and Russell, who also designed the Schenley Hotel (today's William Pitt Union) and Phipps Conservatory's Botany Hall. The Arts and Crafts-style buildings began as picnic shelters and evolved with the needs of the park. This one is labeled "athletic shelter" in a 1937 photo.

Athletic Shelter

You may recognize the signature eyebrow windows, because one of those buildings still exists as the Schenley Park Café and Visitor Center. Here it's shown in a postcard from 1912.

SPVC in 1912

The Café has been a lot of things to a lot of people in its 100+ years of life. In the 1950s and 1960s, it was a nature museum operated by the City Parks Department. It's been a tool shed for city workers and a concession stand for Phipps Conservatory visitors. But from 1935 to 1940, it was the Pittsburgh Civic Garden Center.

Garden Center

The idea for the garden center belonged to the Garden Club of Allegheny County, which wanted a place where children and families could learn to grow flowers, as well as vegetables to feed their families during the Depression. The women, assisted by a contractor and some young men, gutted the place and install plumbing and electricity, opening the center less than a month after starting work.

We have no notes on what type of event was being held at the Garden Center when these photos were taken, but I found it striking that Bartho Nietsch (who operates the Café) recently installed a little fireplace in the exact location where a fireplace used to sit 70 years ago.

Fireplace

Ladies at the Garden Center

We're glad to have been a part of keeping this building from disappearing, and grateful for the new generation of people who have made it part of their own history.

Hope you've enjoyed today's walk down memory lane!

Historic info from Ralph Ashworth's "Greetings from Pittsburgh: A Picture Postcard History" (2000)'; "Landscaped Visions: A History of Schenley Park, 1889-1990; R.J. Gangawere's "Schenley Park" (Carnegie Magazine, Summer 1979); Patricia Lowry's "Welcome to Schenley Park" (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, November 2001).

Parks History, Flowers and Gardens, Schenley Park