11 Things You Didn't Know About Mellon Square: Part 1

May 21, 2014 by Parks Conservancy Staff

Walking into Downtown Pittsburgh's "elegant outdoor living room," as Mellon Square was called by architectural historian James van Trump, it's easy to see why it's such a well-loved greenspace. Sixty years after it's original opening, Pittsburghers are just as excited for the grand reopening next week.

Beyond the welcoming feel of this vibrant park, Mellon Square has an exceptionally unique history. Did you know that the Square is located over a prehistoric stream? That it's a Mad Men masterpiece? That sea lions were a part of some of the early plans?

As we count down the days to the Square's grand rededication, join us in digging into historic Mellon Square. (Many thanks to Parks Curator Susan Rademacher for providing the information below!)

1. Mellon Square was radical green infrastructure

Image from www.lifeprint.com.

Pittsburghers, sorry to tell you, but the American Sign Language sign for our city was decided during some of our filthiest years. The sign for Pittsburgh is the gesture for dusting dirt off of your shoulder -- and we don't mean in the Jay-Z kind of way. Presumably, in the way that steel workers, city workers, and just about everyone dusted themselves off after a day in the sooty air.

In addition to the dismal air quality, Pittsburgh had the kind of traffic that would turn the Golden Triangle into a nightmare on the daily. A comprehensive traffic study identified the block that now houses Mellon Square as an ideal location for a parking garage. Thinking big, Richard K. Mellon had a better idea -- put those unsightly parking spaces underground, and give the people of Pittsburgh greenery, space, and a place to enjoy their city. With Mellon's decision, the first modern garden plaza on a parking garage was born.

Existing buildings and parking had to be removed for the construction of Mellon Square. Photo courtesy Historic Pittsburgh Image Collections, circa 1951.
An aerial shot of the completed Mellon Square. Photo courtesy Historic Pittsburgh Image Collections, circa 1955. 

2. Strong women shaped the Square

Like so much of Pitttsburgh's park history, wise women played an influential role in shaping Mellon Square. Two in particular -- Sarah Mellon Scaife and Constance Mellon -- had a direct pipeline to Richard King Mellon while he was dreaming up Mellon Square.

Sarah Mellon Scaife (left). Constance and Richard K. Mellon (right).

While staying at the William Penn Hotel on one trip to Pittsburgh, Constance Mellon, Richard's wife, couldn't even see the Mellon Bank Building across the street because of the smog. She urged him to do something, or no businessperson (or his wife, for that matter) would want to live in a city that was so heavily polluted.

Sarah Mellon Scaife, Richard's sister, was not impressed with the initial paving design -- a plain rectangular pattern -- for the Square. After visiting Venice's St. Mark's Square, she returned to challenge the Mellon Square designers to come up with a more intriguing pattern. And thus, the iconic terrazzo pavement that resonated with the nearby ALCOA building (now the Regional Enterprise Tower) came to be.

3. What lurks beneath...

Fundamentally, the six stories of parking was built atop a prehistoric stream bed. The stream bed predicated where all of the support structures were placed and determined where to put the trees and heavy loads on the plaza. Looking at the Square from a birds-eye vantage, you can get a rough sense of where the stream was by where the trees are planted.

Construction of the garage and Square. Photo courtesy Historic Pittsburgh Image Collections, circa 1954.
The Square at the time of restoration groundbreaking. Photo by John Altdorfer, 2011.

4. Nine-of-a-kind basins

Have you ever taken a good hard look at the nine gorgeous bronze basins in the Square? These 3,500-pound behemoths are reportedly the largest basins cast as one single piece. It's common in bronze casting to create pieces in multiple casts before welding them all together. The basins in the Square were made up of one cast, which by today's safety standards would not be allowed. And so, these are reportedly the largest single bronze basins ever cast.

Refurbishing these basins during the Square's restoration was no small feat. Moved with great care to Matthews International where they were cast, all nine basins are back to their original splendor. Read more about that here.

Finishing the surface of one of the nine bronze basins for Mellon Square. Image courtesy Matthews International.
Positioning the last basin after its repair and refinishing by Matthews International.

5. Classy and sophisticated

When opened, Mellon Square had a quintessential Mad Men style. A promenade for men in flat-brimmed fedoras and ladies in white gloves, Mellon Square provided the perfect backdrop for classy Downtown gentlepeople. Designed by the distinguished firms Mitchell & Ritchey and Simonds & Simonds, Mellon Square has been named one of America's Ten Great Public Spaces.

Mellon Square after opening. Photo courtesy Historic Pittsburgh Image Collections.

With the rededication of the Square next week, we're looking forward to this restored image of classic glamour, Downtown's emerald oasis. We hope you'll join us in celebrating this gem being polished back to its dazzling splendor!

For more information about the rededication, visit our website and check back here next week as we finish off the list of Mellon Square things to know!

Content for this blog was adapted from a presentation by Parks Curator Susan Rademacher.

Parks History, Mellon Square, Photography, Stormwater and Green Infrastructure