August 30, 1974, was a hot day in Pittsburgh. It rained in the morning (naturally), but the skies cleared in the afternoon as crowds began to stream into Point State Park. They were there to see the new fountain and to experience firsthand the news that finally, after 30-odd years, construction of the park was complete.
A button was pushed and the fountain's 150-foot central column of water bubbled out of the great granite basin and ascended sky high as the exclamation point on a monumental -- and unprecedented -- civic achievement. That afternoon saw the fulfillment of a vision and powered a turning point of pride for Pittsburgh.
When the idea for a green open space on the Pittsburgh peninsula germinated in the 1930s, the Point was an industrial wasteland choked with smog, rail yards and derelict buildings; neither a place where you wanted to spend time nor a place to feel a connection to the surrounding rivers and hills. But the new vision persisted, guided through complicated times by an expansive partnership, as Robert C. Alberts wrote in his definitive history of the park, "The Shaping of The Point":
"The basic concept [of Point State Park] had been set forth in the early years to build and maintain a simple, unified park of monumental sweep, uncluttered by buildings, memorials and statues, with the open space that is so rare in modern cities."
As Pittsburghers we often take that monumental sweep for granted. The view beyond the fountain to the headwaters of the Ohio River is marked by dramatic hills, rolling water and an immediacy to nature that few cities enjoy. It was this gateway to the West that captivated native peoples, explorers, generals and industrialists. This location, where three rivers converge to form the Point, is the reason Pittsburgh exists.
Over the past seven years, Point State Park has undergone a massive renovation -- the largest such park project in Pennsylvania history.
Was it worth it? The answer depends on how much value you place on civic pride, on an icon of Pittsburgh's resurgence and on the enjoyment that millions of people get from the park every year.
Improvements were badly needed. After nearly constant wear and tear over the course of three decades, the Point was tattered and the fountain broken. Surfaces were cracked and the park's capacity was stretched to the limit for hosting the growing festivals that are part of Pittsburgh's DNA. Nearing its first half-century of life, Point State Park required some affectionate redesign and reconstruction.
Just as the original park planning in the 1950s brought together an unlikely alliance, led by Democratic Mayor David L. Lawrence and Republican heavyweight Richard King Mellon, the renovation of the Point shows us that when there is a job to be done, Pittsburghers unite.
In the best tradition of public-private partnerships, the Point State Park Planning Committee formed in 2001, bringing together public agencies with philanthropists, historians and civic leaders. They engaged the services of premier design experts and preservationists and set about listening to the community's needs during dozens of public meetings.
Collaborations like this are as unique as our topography. I am proud to have been a part of that broad coalition of foundations, businesses, elected leaders, individuals and families who came together to make this civic investment.
Leading the charge have been Riverlife, the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and the Allegheny Conference. They moved heaven and (literally) earth to renovate Downtown Pittsburgh's most cherished public open space.
The task hasn't been easy. Imagine renovating your house one room at a time while continuing to entertain 3 million annual guests. Remarkably, Point State Park has remained open throughout the project as nearly every surface has been replaced, improved or replanted. The people's park has remained open to the people, setting attendance records and drawing more visitors every day.
That's important for Pittsburgh. Our riverfront developments give us a competitive advantage and define the future face of our city. All across America, forward-thinking cities and regions are rediscovering their waterfronts, but few if any can lay claim to the sort of exceptional riverfront potential we have in Pittsburgh.
Nearly 40 years ago, Point State Park was Pittsburgh's opening salvo to reconnect the city to the water, and the recent renovations ensure that the park remains the gem at the center of our network of riverfront parks and developments -- open to all.
The renovated fountain will rise again on Friday during a grand event called "Riverlights at The Point." There will be lights and music and speeches and lots of cheering. Regardless of who pushes the button, they will be doing it on behalf of an entire community that has yet again embraced a big opportunity.
If you visit the Point on Friday, or on any sunny day, you'll find scores of people there -- children playing soccer, students toting books, downtowners with dogs and bikes and Frisbees. Whether they know it or not, they stand on ground that is sacred to many, ground that embodies the history of Pittsburgh and represents the cooperative spirit it has displayed through eras of turmoil and tumult. They stand on a Point that shaped the destiny of our nation and of our great American city.
Grant Oliphant is president and CEO of The Pittsburgh Foundation. First Published June 2, 2013 4:00 AM