Twenty years ago, the Pittsburgh Aviary had a near-death experience. A city budget crisis motivated Mayor Sophie Masloff to consider the North Side institution expendable. The threat of closure set off a two-year drama that's a vague memory today, as the bird zoo, now the National Aviary, celebrates its 60th anniversary.
Even former director Lindsay Clack, one of the more colorful birds around whom so much drama swirled in 1992, says he "doesn't think much about it anymore."
The picture is so different today.
Patrick Mangus, the aviary's executive director, said it has not had a deficit since 2009, when it grew in size and in programming. Attendance hit 120,816 last year, 17,000 more than in 2010. Sales taxes distributed by the Regional Asset District, or RAD, make up 25 percent of its support, but the aviary gets almost that percentage in donations, including strong support from Pittsburgh-based foundations. Revenue from admissions, membership and education spiked last year at $1.6 million.
Most people wouldn't have projected such a future when the aviary went private after 40 years under the city's wing. It started its new life with a threadbare budget, a skeleton crew and a grassroots group doing CPR with a membership drive.
The state Legislature had resisted creating a regional funding source but did so in 1993. By all accounts, RAD kept the aviary from going under. The aviary celebrates RAD today with free admission from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
The North Side Conservatory-Aviary was built in Allegheny Commons Park in 1952 for $375,000, the equivalent of $2.65 million today. It occupies the site of the original Western Penitentiary, which closed in 1880 and gave way to the first Phipps Conservatory. The conservatory was badly damaged in a natural gas explosion in 1927 and ceased operations.
In 1949, the idea was to rebuild it as a nature conservatory with a mix of botanicals and wildlife. But the second Phipps Conservatory, launched in 1893 on Schenley Park in Oakland, was growing. To avoid duplication, the idea reverted to birds exclusively, said education director Patricia O'Neill.
At first, the aviary occupied the current greenhouse and what is now the tropical rainforest, a 70-by-52 foot glass room with a curvilinear roof. In 1967, the wetlands room and walk-through exhibits increased the space to 25,000 square feet. The parking lot and driveway were added in 1995, the gift shop and dome in 1997.
A capital campaign in 2008 raised $17.5 million, after which the property grew to 40,000 square feet with an interactive theater, roof deck for outdoor shows, a large classroom, a new entrance and lobby, Penguin Point and exhibit renovations.
Mr. Mangus said the expansion stops there: "We made a commitment to the neighborhood to stay in this footprint."
With more than 600 birds, the aviary still enjoys Mr. Clack's legacy as a world-class bird breeder who raised the institution's reputation and increased the population from 200. But his passion was more bird- than people-friendly, and his leaving was messy.
Under the city's management, Mr. Clack was able to be the bird guy, but the threat of closure in 1992 forced the grassroots group Save the Aviary to decide the institution could survive only with a strong manager. Mr. Clack did not want to be a manager, but he fought dismissal with a media campaign.
Mark Masterson, an original Save the Aviary member, recalled having breakfast with Jim Turner, Ms. Masloff's chief administrator, who suggested Dayton Baker. A wildlife biologist and husband of Pittsburgh Zoo & Aquarium president and CEO Barbara Baker, he also had business experience.
Michael Flinn, a lawyer with Buchanan Ingersoll, agreed to be on the board and apply his expertise in staff transitions; the bulk of the staff opted to stay with the city.
"The issue was whether to leave a unionized job or take a job with an organization of minimum net worth," Mr. Flinn said. "The people who stayed [with the aviary] certainly took a dip in benefits, and salaries were low at the start. The city was hopeful we could keep it alive, but I think they were highly skeptical."
Jim Bonner, now executive director of the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania, said he was the first new hire after Mr. Baker became director.
Mr. Bonner had been an aviary volunteer since 1990 and was hired as a keeper. He moved up to bird curator, then director of operations. "It really was day-to-day. It was probably something that shouldn't have happened and the fact that it did is a testament to everybody who was so engaged."
If RAD has been the aviary's main source of sustenance, Save the Aviary members yanked it from the brink of extinction.
"People knew it was a bad thing to lose," said Mr. Masterson, who got involved as a staff member at the North Side Civic Development Authority, now the Riverside Center for Innovation. He is now executive director of the Northside Community Development Fund.
The group sketched out a business plan that the Buhl Foundation paid for.
"Jim [Turner] was pretty straightforward," Mr. Masterson said. "He said, 'This probably has a 50-50 chance of succeeding, but that's enough to buy you a couple months,' " to stave off closing by the city.
In that time, the group went on radio talk shows "and volunteers went to shopping centers and any place they could think of to collect donations." he said.
Save the Aviary also was lobbying for passage of the Regional Asset District.
The group consulted with Barbara Baker, who had turned the similarly troubled zoo around. She connected members to the zoo's master planner, who agreed to do a plan for the aviary at a discount because he was going to be in Pittsburgh anyway, Mr. Masterson said.
Frank Moone was the development director whose expertise was fundraising, but his signature contribution was the rebranding name, the National Aviary. U.S. Rep. Bill Coyne introduced the renaming legislation and President Bill Clinton signed the entity into being in 1993.
"Lo and behold, contributions increased and people started coming," Mr. Masterson said. "We were charging maybe $5, but we didn't have anything new to offer."
The staff began giving guided tours and more interactive experiences, including public viewing of feedings. An outreach staffer was hired to take birds into schools.
No longer on the aviary board, Mr. Masterson said it was not his love of birds but his appreciation of the asset that bound him to the cause.
"What else could I have worked on that would have had a bigger impact on the North Side at the time?" he said. "I'm so glad I did. I met a lot of great people and learned how to negotiate with city officials, a lot about human nature and how to get people around you to bring off a success."
Mr. Clack, an Australian who still lives in Pittsburgh, said he has been to the aviary twice since he left its service.
"It's quite a nice collection," he said. Reflecting on his tenure, he said, "dealing with birds was fine. Dealing with the bloody people was the tougher part of it."
Interaction between birds and people, a visionary idea when the city built the aviary, has become the program ideal.
The glass conservatory was originally designed for birds to fly freely as people walked through. Roland Hawkins was the first director. He had been an ornithologist at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. In 60 years, Mr. Mangus is only the fourth director.
The aviary has 43 full-time employees and continuing needs.
The glass in the wetlands room needs to be replaced, a $330,000 expense for which Mr. Mangus said the institution has made a capital request to RAD. With a $50,000-a-year water bill, the aviary had a recirculating water system built in the tropical rainforest. The ceiling in the lorikeet exhibit will be raised to provide an educational area to teach people about man's impact on the environment.
"Birds are the front line," Mr. Mangus said. "What happens to them ultimately happens to us."
Former Mayor Masloff said that in 1992, she was concerned that the city was subsidizing attendance that was mostly from outside the city. A disproportion still comes from outside the city -- 37 percent from other parts of the county, 27 percent from other parts of the state and 14 percent from other states.
But the public outcry to the threat of closure proved how much the aviary was valued, she said. "I'm so glad we didn't do away with it because it is such an asset. That's one thing I'm glad I wasn't able to do as mayor."