Let's Learn From the Past: Frick Park

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During the late 1800s, air pollution from Pittsburgh’s mills and factories dirtied buildings and sickened city residents. While most laborers lived in tenement housing close to the city’s industrial core, many of the region’s wealthy residents moved to semi-rural areas outside of the city, such as Squirrel Hill, Shadyside, Point Breeze and Homewood. 

Eventually, industrialists and reformers realized that the city needed to improve its appearance and provide residents with natural settings for recreation and exercise. The effort – which became known as the City Beautiful Movement – caught the attention of industrialist Henry Clay Frick.

A millionaire who earned fame in the railroad industry and as president of Carnegie Steel Company, Frick promised his daughter Helen a special gift for her debutante party. When Helen turned 17 years old in 1908, she decided she wanted a park where Pittsburgh’s children could enjoy nature. True to his word, Frick provided Helen with a giant plot of land upon his death in 1919, bequeathing 151 acres to the city to be used for a park. With a $2 million trust fund from Frick to assist with the park’s long-term maintenance, the city soon acquired 190 additional acres, and in 1927, Frick Park opened to the public.

The park featured miles of walking trails through steep valleys and wooded slopes. In the core of the park was an undeveloped wildlife area now known as the Frick Woods Nature Reserve. On the edges of the park, athletic fields and playgrounds provided ample space to exercise. As the park expanded, baseball fields were added along with the only public lawn bowling green in Pennsylvania.

Many of Frick Park’s original features still stand today, including the Frick Park clay tennis courts, the only public red clay courts in the western half of the state. The most recent major expansion of the park occurred in 1996, when more than 100 acres were added as part of the conversion of an industrial waste heap into a residential community known as Summerset.

At 561 acres, Frick Park is the region’s largest park, and children still flock to the famous Blue Slide Playground while adults enjoy the red clay tennis courts and lawn bowling. Frick Park provides recreation for hundreds of thousands of residents each year and remains one of the most vital urban parks in America.

Visitors to the Heinz History Center’s long-term exhibition, “Pittsburgh: A Tradition of Innovation,” can learn more about the legacy of Pittsburgh’s innovators and industrialists. For more information, visit www.heinzhistorycenter.org.


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