When Schenley Plaza was purchased by the City of Pittsburgh from Mary Schenley, the area was known as St. Pierre's Ravine. In 1897, the Bellefield Bridge was built across the ravine, serving as the primary entrance to Schenley Park. But the City's Director of Public Works, Edward Bigelow, envisioned a grand entrance to the park. In 1911, Frederick Law Olmsted Jr.'s report Pittsburgh Main Thoroughfares and the Down Town District suggested filling in the ravine and creating a formal entrance plaza. In the next year or two, the ravine was indeed filled, likely with the remains of the Grant Street "hump," a small hill in downtown Pittsburgh.
Also in 1911, a design competition was held to create a memorial to Mary Schenley. The winning design, Victor David Brenner's A Song to Nature, was announced in 1913, by which point it seemed logical to locate the massive sculpture on top of the now-buried Bellefield Bridge. A second design competition was held in 1915, this time to determine the future of the Schenley Plaza site. The winning design by Horace W. Sellers and H. Bartol Register placed A Song to Nature in a formal planted setting, with the landscape design later completed by James Greenleaf, who had served as President of the American Society of Landscape Architects. The memorial was dedicated in 1918 and the Plaza completed in 1923.
With Oakland's growth came the demand for more parking spaces, and gradually the Plaza lost any function as a park. Forbes Field, the Plaza's immediate next-door neighbor, brought thousands of spectators to Pittsburgh Pirates games from 1909 through 1970. The expanding universities, businesses, and healthcare community all created a shortage of parking in the area, and the Plaza was officially designated a parking lot in 1949, a far cry from the envisioned grand entrance to Schenley Park.
The restored Schenley Plaza, as you experience it today, is the result of ten years of planning and partnership to revitalize and reclaim a prized piece of historic Schenley Park. Work officially began in 2004 to convert the parking lot back into a park, including the creation of a new traffic plan that would add street parking to replace most of the spots lost with the demolition of the parking lot. Less than 100 parking spots were actually eliminated as part of the Plaza's transformation.
Schenley Plaza finally fulfilled the vision of its original planners in June 2006, when a grand opening event brought 40,000 people into Oakland to visit the new park. The design for Schenley Plaza was modeled after New York City’s Bryant Park. This historic park, once a rundown haven for illicit activity, has been called one of our country’s “great urban redevelopment success stories.” The Schenley Plaza design team incorporated Bryant Park’s best design features, such as permeable edges, lush gardens, a carousel, quality lighting, a great lawn, food kiosks, space for programming events and activities, and moveable tables and chairs. The Plaza has continued to grow each year under the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy's management, and it has become a destination for families, students, businesspeople, and community groups looking for a great space to appreciate what the city has to offer.
While the revitalized Schenley Plaza is certainly welcoming and vibrant, we’ve got bigger ideas for the future. Your support can help make these amenities and programs come to life:
- Free lending library offering on-site use of newspapers, magazines and books
- Games, including backgammon, checkers and chess
- Carriage rides
- Winter programming
- Public art