Coming-out party for Mellon Square

Three years after its restoration began, Mellon Square reopens this week looking pretty much the way it looked in 1955, when it opened in Downtown to great fanfare as Allegheny County's first public green space on top of a parking garage.

Occupying an entire midtown block, Mellon Square has been hailed as a refined example of Modernism, a mid-20th century minimalist style at the core of an industrial city. But by the time it closed for renovations in 2011, many people didn't know it existed, even though the American Planning Association had listed it among the 10 great public spaces in America three years before. It made the National Register of Historic Places in 2013.

On dedication day in 1955, Richard King Mellon, the leading proponent and funder, called it "the most important day of my life in Pittsburgh." Sooty old Downtown finally had an oasis, 1.3 acres of trees, shrubs, flowers, benches and fountains.

Reopening ceremonies feature a cocktail reception Wednesday and a public dedication from noon to 1:30 p.m. Thursday. The cocktail event is from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Ticket prices vary, starting at $100. To reserve tickets and for more information, call 412-682-7275.

Designed by landscape architects Simonds & Simonds and architects Mitchell & Ritchey, Mellon Square is bounded by Smithfield Street, William Penn Place and Oliver and Sixth avenues. Its entrance across from the Omni William Penn Hotel is flush with the sidewalk, while the slope of Sixth and Oliver on each side required steps from Smithfield.

The original construction replaced a block of three- and four-story retail buildings, solving the need for refreshing outdoor space and parking. It also was intended to lure executives to the city and keep Alcoa from moving to New York City.

After a late 1980s renovation, no funds were set aside for maintenance, and the next three decades saw the square little used by office workers and torn up by skateboarders and stunt cyclists. Drainage failures cracked the terrazzo surfaces and caused mineral deposits. The fountain mechanisms corroded. Many trees and shrubs died.

In 2007, the future of surrounding buildings was tenuous. The Oliver Building was for sale, the Alcoa Building was empty, the Reed Smith Building largely was empty and Lord & Taylor -- in the former Mellon Bank Building -- had recently closed.

"The Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership was concerned and asked us to take a look at Mellon Square," said Susan Rademacher, parks curator for the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy.

The Richard King Mellon Foundation and Colcom granted funds for a plan, and two years later the plan was hatched by a team representing the city, the conservancy and the Pittsburgh Parking Authority. It called for a $10 million restoration, with $4 million set aside for perpetual maintenance. The R.K. Mellon Foundation and BNY Mellon put up the bulk of the money.

The Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation furnished historical documents and reviewed plans and drawings, with a particular eye on future restoration of the Smithfield retail portion beneath the terrace, said Arthur Ziegler, president of the landmarks foundation.

He said Mellon Square's historical importance goes beyond being a pioneering example of a park on top of a parking garage.

"It is surrounded by major historical buildings that represent decades of industry and commerce that built our city," he said. "It is a fine example of mid-century Modern design, but not in the sense of so many results of that time, when urban renewal was really a harsh New Brutalism. Here you had a real attempt to still use decoration and refined design in a clean-lined modernistic statement."

The Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy has an agreement with the city to operate and oversee the square, which returns to public use with particular relevance in post-industrial Pittsburgh -- as an early prototype of a green roof. The restoration does not include rain water containment, however.

A new feature, a terrace overlooking Smithfield, was part of the original design but not originally installed. It expands the usable area by 15 percent, Ms. Rademacher said.

The lines of planters, seating and walls are smooth Iridian and Georgia gray granite with ribbing at intervals.

The fountain along one stairwell is cascading again, with up-lighting in each pool. The fountain at the square's center roars with its nine fully restored copper basins. Light panels that were removed from the sides of planters have been returned with LED lighting, and many original species of flora include spirea, azaleas and silver linden trees. The large, perimeter trees were saved, as were several interior species, including magnolias, Ms. Rademacher said.

Lighting and water systems are automated to include a sensor in the cascading fountain to diminish flow to prevent misting pedestrians in case of high winds.

Ms. Rademacher said that the tenor of the Mellon Square experience will be tranquility.

Which brings up the subject of pigeons.

According to city ordinance, wild animals are not to be fed in public places, and the conservancy is bound to comply, said Chris Fletcher, the conservancy's content officer. "We are not against pigeons, but they can become overcrowded, which is not healthy, and what they don't eat will attract rodents."

READ another neighborhood story, about a barber in Oakland.

Diana Nelson Jones: or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at First Published May 26, 2014 11:03 PM

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