Places: Celebrating Mellon Square and its designer

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Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette
Mellon Square, the seminal 1955 landscape by John Ormsbee Simonds, is the subject of Thursday's talk by Charles Birnbaum.

By Patricia Lowry, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Charles Birnbaum thinks Mellon Square doesn't get the respect it deserves.

Designed by the Pittsburgh firm Simonds and Simonds and completed in 1955, Mellon Square is the first modernist park above a parking garage. That's one of the reasons Birnbaum thinks it should be a National Historic Landmark, and he's coming to town to talk it up.

"I think people don't realize the jewel that it is," said Birnbaum, a landscape architect who coordinates the National Park Service's Historic Landscape Initiative. He'll speak at the Pittsburgh Golf Club Thursday evening at a dinner sponsored by the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy.

Birnbaum will tell the story of the park's evolution, using original drawings as well as the slides he's been taking there during five visits over almost 20 years.

In addition to helping communities develop preservation strategies, one of Birnbaum's roles with the park service is to travel the country and discover potential landmark landscapes.

"I go into communities and I stir the pots," he said, adding that people often don't appreciate modernist works in their midst because they are relatively new and because they are abstract, which "can make it hard for people to love them."

Birnbaum wondered if Pittsburghers were aware of the square's pedigree: "Do Pittsburghers know who designed it?"

Most Pittsburghers, safe to say, don't know who designed Mellon Square, but their fondness for it can be measured by their use of it. A 1982 city planning department study of Downtown open spaces found Mellon Square "the most successful open space of the Downtown at peak time," and that enthusiasm hasn't diminished.

And official Pittsburgh's high regard for the square can be seen in its $2 million renovation in the early 1990s, which disassembled the square entirely and, under the counsel of John Ormsbee Simonds, its designer, put it back the way it had been.

Not entirely, Birnbaum said, adding that some small water sprays were eliminated and the planting plan was altered a little. He will show the original planting plan, which appeared in Landscape Architecture magazine.

"A number of the plantings have just sort of changed over time, but the hardscape and much of the plantings are as they were intended," Birnbaum said.

He thinks the square could be used more on weekends and could benefit from some programming.

He's encouraging Pittsburghers to nominate it as a National Historic Landmark. National designation mostly would bring prestige, although it does trigger a review process if change or demolition is proposed, but only if federal funds are involved.

"What's amazing to me about [Mellon Square] is that it just hasn't reached that point where it's been recognized for its national significance," Birnbaum said. "Every single element in that landscape doesn't look like anyplace else. It's a unified whole. Nothing came out of a catalog because this was before the catalog culture. I defy people to say show me another place that looks like this."

Tickets for the dinner, which begins at 6:30 p.m. and benefits the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, are $75; registration deadline is today. Call 412-682-7275.

New edition

Birnbaum regards Mellon Square as John Simonds' masterpiece, but Simonds himself thought his greatest professional achievement was his book, "Landscape Architecture." It's an apples and oranges comparison, of course; they are both seminal works.

Since its first appearance in the early 1960s, "Landscape Architecture" has been an essential text for several generations of landscape architecture students and practitioners.

"In a larger sense it is a guide book on how to live more compatibly on planet Earth," Simonds wrote in the foreword to the fourth edition, published late last year (McGraw Hill, $89.95). In December 2004, five months before he died, Simonds, who lived in Ben Avon Heights, asked Virginia landscape architect Barry Starke to co-author the new edition, updated with examples of recent projects, including designs for the World Trade Center site.

It also includes a short essay about the life and work of Simonds, one of the most influential designers of his generation and one who practiced and preached an organic, environmental, community-based approach. He was also one of the most selfless and self-effacing of men. None of his own work is in the book, whose margins are stacked with quotations from others. Liberally illustrated with photographs and drawings, it offers many points of entry into the text.

He finished the manuscript before his death in May 2005, after which his wife and lifelong partner, Marjorie -- his help and inspiration, he called her -- took over the final edit. She and other family members will attend Birnbaum's talk.

Architecture critic Patricia Lowry can be reached at or 412-263-1590.


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