History's growing at the Fort Pitt Block House

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For more than 250 years, the Fort Pitt Block House has gotten by without much of a garden. Over the past week, it gained two, both with historically appropriate plants.

On Tuesday, volunteers weathered a steady rain to plant winterberry holly, clethra alnifolia, perennial geranium and low-growing blueberries in the area just outside the block house fence in Point State Park.

"We started this project two years ago, and it lost steam ... so this has been a re-imagining of the (original) project," said Philip Bauerle, interim Penn State Master Gardener coordinator for Penn State Center in Pittsburgh, who oversaw the planting.

Besides master gardeners, volunteers from American Eagle Outfitters and the Student Conservation Association showed up to install the plants. The volunteers also helped with cleanup of a new garden inside the fence, said Emily Weaver, curator at the block house.

That garden was dedicated on Thursday to Edith Darlington Ammon, the woman who fought to keep the block house at the Point. This garden was designed by the landscape architecture firm of LaQuatra Bonci Associates Inc., with the specification that the design and plants "fit the theme of the park." Included in the plan are dwarf fothergilla, 'Jim Dandy' winterberry, 'Heavy Metal' switch grass, 'Purple Dome' asters, 'Flying Saucer' and 'Sweet Dreams' coreopsis, Turk's cap lily, 'Husker's Red' penstemon and obedient plant.

Ms. Weaver hopes the new plantings are just the beginning. The garden outside the fence is a work in progress, Mr. Bauerle said.

"We have a very clear goal of returning its historical relevance," said Mr. Bauerle. "More of this project will be to make signage for this area, as well as master gardeners will be tending this building weekly, on Wednesdays."

And while they have been careful to use native plants in this go-round, the two remaining trees on the lot, ironically, are gingkos, native to China. Their very presence sparked a war of sorts in 1962 when park architect Ralph Griswold said the trees had to be removed because they would not have been at the Point in 18th century. The argument became so heated that the site's owners, the Daughters of the American Revolution, "were very much afraid the state would take their property simply because of the gingko trees," Ms. Weaver wrote in her new book, "The Fort Pitt Block House."

Complicating the matter is the fact that three separate entities own portions of the 36 acres in Point State Park. The DAR's Fort Pitt Society owns the block house and its fenced area, the Pennsylvania Historical Museum Commission owns the Fort Pitt Museum, which is operated by the Heinz History Center, and the state owns and operates the rest, which is the largest portion of the property.

While it wasn't always true in the past, these days all three try to work together to further the mission of the park, which was originally formed to mark the site of Fort Pitt, the British fort built between 1759 and1761, close to the burned ruins of the French Fort Duquesne, according to park ranger Mathew Greene,

The gingkos at the center of the dispute had been planted when little else would grow in the polluted, industrial environment that surrounded the block house in the first half of the 20th century. By 1950, they had become "sentimental features to the ladies of The Fort Pitt Society, a memory of those who came before them," according to Ms. Weaver.

Cooler heads finally prevailed and an agreement was reached allowing the removal of a caretaker's house that had been built in 1905 but letting the gingko trees remain. Remain they did until 2007 when many of them were cleared away, except for two male trees that had been planted in the 1970s.

Ms. Weaver says at some point these two sentinels may be removed, but they are no longer a point of contention. Instead, they stand as a reminder of the gumption of a group of ladies who wouldn't back down.

Post-Gazette garden editor Susan Banks: sbanks@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1516.

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