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A Plaza's Return

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How do you restore a landscape or building that has been many different things over time? Do you freeze it in one particular era, or try to represent its many changes through the ages?

 

Eugene-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, the 19th-century architectural theorist and restorer, struggled with this perennial issue in cathedrals such as Notre Dame in Paris. His solutions allowed features that never existed simultaneously to be shown all at once. The results often look more like 19th-century architecture than the 12th- or 13th-century versions they were supposed to re-create.

 

A similar set of issues applies to Oakland's Schenley Plaza, where, after decades of use primarily as parking, a newly designed landscape is nearly complete, with official ceremonies to take place June 8. The $10 million design by Sasaki Associates is not intended as a restoration, but you could hardly consider the latest version without contemplating its rich history of distinguished neighbors and unrealized schemes. Also, because the prominent space between Oakland's Carnegie Library and the University of Pittsburgh's Hillman Library has been incomplete for so long, it bears an unusual burden of high expectations. Whether you believe the plaza meets them depends heavily on how you view the space's past.

 

In 1889, Mary Schenley donated to the city a 300-acre swath of picturesque but nearly unbuildable land, providing the nucleus of Schenley Park. In ensuing decades, City Public Works Director Edward Manning Bigelow worked to incorporate this acreage into a citywide network of green space and boulevards. While he always hoped to give Schenley Park a grand entrance, what we know as Schenley Plaza was essentially a ditch, the St. Pierre ravine, into the 1910s. At that time it was leveled with fill from the removal of the Grant Street "hump," Downtown.

A 1915 design competition awarded a prize to landscape architects Horace Wells Sellers and H. Bartol Register, of Philadelphia. Their design, says Barry Hannegan in an elegant and rigorous history of Schenley Plaza in the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation newsletter, "boils down to paving and trees ... lots of both." Of course, it also engaged the City Beautiful-era sense of axis and entry, using trees to artfully balance interactions among buildings, vehicles and people ... including, importantly, those traveling into Schenley Park.

 

A 1921 revised design by (appropriately named) landscape architect James Greenleaf gave the plaza what Hannegan calls its "definitive version" in the 1920s: an axial space centered on the Schenley Fountain, with allées of sycamores on either side. There was plenty of pavement to allow traffic ... adjacent Forbes Field had opened in 1909 ... but a grassy oval in the center asserted the space's nature as a park.

 

As Patricia Lowry writes in another fine history of the plaza in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, "over the years, the plaza became less and less a park entrance and more and more of a parking lot."

So it is a great triumph that what has been a parking lot for so long has finally re-emerged as public green space. Credit should go to the group including Barry Hannegan, landscape architect Fred Bonci, Architect Michael Stern and Parks Conservancy Director Meg Cheever, who started pushing for the plaza's re-emergence in the late 1990s.

 

And yet some in this group are quick to point out that the resuscitated plaza as designed is not quite what it should be historically. Sasaki Associates emphasizes that they modeled the new space on the highly successful Bryant Park, in New York. But as Hannegan and Stern have said, Bryant is an enclave, sheltered from the bustling street, whereas Schenley Plaza still needs to function as a grand entrance. Lowry has also leveled this criticism.

 

Indeed, the new park is not perfect. It picks up the axis of Bigelow Boulevard, but not as emphatically as it should. Its pavilion buildings are pleasant enough, but their siting could have helped mitigate Pitt's ugly modernist buildings, instead of seemingly ignoring them. And the people who failed to give you a Pirate ship at PNC Park have given you a tiny, ridiculously misplaced carousel here.

 

The most knowledgeable critics are right that this should be more of a gateway to Schenley Park. But for some reason that doesn't bother me. On a recent, random late spring evening, relaxed teens and giddy middle-aged men were frolicking in the grass where so recently asphalt and automobiles used to dominate. That in itself is historic.

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