Mellon Square: Pittsburgh's Seminal Modernist Park

By Susan Rademacher, Parks Curator
Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy
 
The rededication of Mellon Square on May 29, 2014 marked the celebration of a $10 million project by the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy to restore a celebrated, but long-neglected, Modernist landscape. Hailed as a masterwork when it originally opened in 1955, Mellon Square was the first modern garden plaza built atop a parking garage, and a forerunner of green roof design. Today it is once again an oasis of beauty in the city’s urban center.
 
The creation of Mellon Square was fueled by the vision of public and private civic leaders looking to rebrand Pittsburgh during its post-World War II Renaissance. This movement to shed the city’s gritty, smoky image and solve its parking problems took many forms as leaders worked to clear away the effects of years of unfettered development. Pittsburgh’s first Renaissance resulted in the passage of clean air legislation, the beginning of work to detox the city’s rivers and control flooding, and the construction of such notable projects as Point State Park at the convergence of the city’s three rivers, new office buildings, and the recently demolished Civic Arena, in the city’s Lower Hill District.  
 
Construction of Mellon Square in midtown, where it would be the first greenspace in the city’s central business district, would not only provide a refreshing escape for office workers, shoppers and visitors, but also foster business retention and growth.  
 
A political, financial and community powerhouse consisting of then Mayor David L. Lawrence, financier Richard King Mellon, and the Allegheny Conference on Community Development moved the project forward, selecting a distinguished, Pittsburgh-based design team led by the landscape architects Simonds & Simonds and architects Mitchell & Ritchey
 
Financial muscle was provided by the A.W. Mellon Educational and Charitable Trust, the Sarah Mellon Scaife Foundation, and the Richard King Mellon Foundation, who together stepped up with $4.3 million to acquire and develop the 1.37 acre park space. (The additional $3.7 million cost of the garage was met through public bonds, parking revenue and rent from retail space.) Funding at this scale allowed the design team to conceive a grand civic space, at once lush and angular, atop a 1,000-space, six-level subterranean garage. 
 
And grand it was. Mellon Square featured a majestic central fountain that spilled into nine cast bronze basins; “Rustic Venetian Terrazzo” paving in a complex triangular pattern; granite planters with more than 35 varieties of trees, shrubs and ivies; elegant evening lighting; and a cascading fountain. 
 
Describing Mellon Square as “an oasis in an asphalt desert,” landscape architect John Ormsbee Simonds said, “A park must give the welcome relief of foliage, shade, splashing water, flowers and bright color…[an] urban park must be a place of pure delight—an inviting refreshing environment.”
 
At the Square’s October 18, 1955, dedication, Mayor Lawrence extolled the park’s role as foundational to the city’s continued metamorphosis, stating, “... we are, in a true and real sense, giving Pittsburgh a new symbol of this community’s character, its new confidence and its great expectation... this mid-city park of beautiful design and of skilled craftsmanship typifies the spirit of the new Pittsburgh.”
 
 “The Square in the Heart of the Triangle” would prove up to the challenge of its role as a civic and economic asset. Downtown workers and visitors flocked to the space, and property values along the Square’s perimeter increased 10-fold. In 2008 the American Planning Association named Mellon Square one of America’s Ten Great Public Spaces, calling it “one of the country’s most enduring and outstanding places.”  
 
Over the next 50 years, however, a lack of resources for maintenance allowed time, weather, use and vandalism to take their toll. Sporadic repairs and maintenance, including a $3.1 million renovation in the late 1980s, changed significant aspects of the original design. Ground-level lighting was removed,  a tree planter was replaced with a stage, water choreography was eliminated and a granite seat wall was built around the main fountain.
 
Eventually, the Square’s automated fountain controls, along with its mechanical, electric, drainage and plumbing systems, failed. Water frequently leaked into the underground garage and street-level businesses, causing stairs to be coated with thick mineral deposits and leading to the disintegration of some of the Square’s signature terrazzo paving. Many trees and shrubs died, unable to weather Pittsburgh’s harsh and windy winters atop an unheated garage.
 
Mellon Square’s deterioration began drawing attention and criticism, with suggestions for improvement, running from replacing it with a public garden to turning it into a skate park. Recognizing that Pittsburgh stood to lose a park of historical and architectural significance, the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation, the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, and the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy came together to strategize a plan to save the iconic landscape.
 
In 2007, the collaborative invited Charles Birnbaum, FASLA, founder of The Cultural Landscape Foundation, to deliver a lecture on Mellon Square to an audience of civic leaders. This first step proved a turning point in building public and private support for the effort to revive the Square. Two years later, with funding from the Richard King Mellon Foundation and the BNY Mellon Charitable Foundation, a team led by the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy and headed by Patricia O’Donnell, FASLA, of Heritage Landscapes, developed the Preservation, Interpretation & Management Plan for Mellon Square. This comprehensive and thoughtful restoration plan honored the landscape’s original vision while meeting and appealing to contemporary urban needs, desires and sensibilities.  
 
Equally important, the plan established a blueprint for creating a permanent investment fund for long-term maintenance, and facilitated an agreement with the City of Pittsburgh giving the Parks Conservancy a significant role in the ongoing management and maintenance of the space. These commitments, together with a robust and successful fundraising effort, enabled work on the Square to move forward with the assurance that the restored elegance of Mellon Square would endure for years to come.
 
Over the next five years, Mellon Square was selectively dismantled and reassembled, as workers under the Parks Conservancy’s direction meticulously carried out the construction plans by Heritage Landscapes, with Hilbish McGee Lighting Design, Pfaffman + Associates architects, .
 
Key elements of the project include:
 
  • The nine, 3,500-lb bronze basins that form the Central Fountain --  the focal point and heart of Mellon Square --  were removed and repatinated by Matthews International, the company that originally cast the colossal pieces in the 1950s. Elements that had been added to the fountain over the years were removed, including granite sidewalls and wall caps that were not part of the original structure. 
  • The project also directed the removal of Kenneth Snelson’s “Forest Devil” sculpture, which had been loaned by the Carnegie Museum of Art and installed in 1975 to grace an area where trees and shrubs had been lost. (The sculpture is now reinstalled at the Museum.)
  • An Elevated Terrace, based on an original concept drawing, was added overlooking Smithfield Street. The Terrace expands the Square’s useable space by 15percentreate [stet] an inviting setting for quiet lunchtime public programs and private events, and to present a new view of the Cascade Fountain and the façade of the 100 year-old Henry W. Oliver Building (by Daniel H. Burnham).
  • Mellon Square’s long-dormant Cascade Fountain is once again flowing, its sparkling water play visible not only from the Terrace, but also by pedestrians and traffic moving along at street level. The fountain provides a continuous display of sound and movement as water tumbles down through a series of elegant, elevated pools above Oliver Street, culminating in a basin at the corner of Smithfield and Oliver.  
  • Newer energy-efficient technologies have been employed to recapture the original appeal of the Square in the evening while also meeting current safety standards. Low-level lights have been installed in the walls to illuminate walkways and highlight the magnificently patterned paving, while up-lighting has been placed to emphasize the sculptural figures of trees. Additional lighting transforms the fountains, enhancing their visual beauty and prominence.   
  • Damaged areas of Mellon Square’s unique “Rustic Terrazzo” paving, noted for its signature pattern of marble chips and narrow bronze strips arranged to form interlocking triangles – were repaired, reinstating the splendid marble carpet that unifies the Square’s asymmetrical array of fountains, planters, plants and benches.
  • Throughout the Square, hardy trees, flowers, grasses and shrubs will now provide a year-round display of textures, forms and colors. While some surviving trees remained, replacement plantings were chosen both for their ability to thrive in the challenging conditions created by a rooftop construction, as well as to provide aesthetic characteristics similar to those of the original species. Tree installations include Persian ironwood,  sweetbay magnolia, crabapple, linden, pine, American smoke tree, and service berry.
  • A tapestry of eight types of Sedum plants is set into the rooftop canopy that hovers over Smithfield Street to not only conserve water, but also bring an edge of green closer to passersby, heightening the park’s visibility from perimeter streets and sidewalks. 
Even before its completion, Mellon Square’s reemergence contributed to a wave of economic development in Pittsburgh’s midtown business district. The Square is now at the hub of millions of dollars in new developments planned and under way around its perimeter. These include new businesses, hotels, residential housing and retail, all of which will contribute to a more vibrant and attractive midtown district and bring a robust influx of workers, visitors and residents to the Mellon Square neighborhood.
 
The Square’s grand opening on May 29 attracted crowds of downtown workers and visitors as well as civic and public leaders who gathered to celebrate the restoration effort. “Great cities deserve great urban parks,” said BNY Mellon president Karen Peetz. “As a financial institution, we recognize the return on investment for actively supporting our communities around the world. It is only fitting that BNY Mellon, along with a host of other generous donors, have come together to celebrate the restoration of this beautiful public park.” The event also served as kickoff to a new summer concert and entertainment series in the new space. Programming will be carefully selected to preserve the serenity of the space and protect its function as a refreshing retreat and breathing space in the midst of the city. 
 
Almost immediately after the grand opening of Mellon Square Park, Pittsburghers have once again fallen in love with their urban oasis. Downtown workers are taking breaks from the office, enjoying the cascading fountain. Families stroll through, and children splash hands in the main fountain. In the evening, couples share picnics, and visitors pull out their phones to capture photos of the illuminated waters. 
 
Now the attention turns to the perimeter. The story of Mellon Square will be highlighted in a permanent display with the installation of an interpretive wall next to the retail shops along Smithfield Street. There, visitors and passersby will discover the Square’s history and national significance, its relationship to the Mellon family and its important role in Pittsburgh’s Renaissance. A continuous illuminated sign band and renovated façade will replicate the bright and clean lined look of the original frontage. Garage entrances will be upgraded in keeping with the Modernist aesthetic, while new site furnishings, banners, and planters will bring the four street edges into harmony with Mellon Square. Public and private fundraising is under way for these perimeter improvements – a $1.2 million project.

 

“Mellon Square’s influence continues to this day,” said Bill Flanagan, executive vice president of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development. “This was one of the big initiatives of Pittsburgh’s first Renaissance, intended to be a catalyst for investment… It still is.”

 

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