Frick center to be rebuilt at former site in park

The Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy and city are on the verge of finalizing plans for a new $15 million Frick Environmental Center that will rise from 11-year-old ashes in Squirrel Hill.

The new center -- which will allow for expanded classes beyond the 13 schools and adult groups that use the area now -- will be built in Frick Park just off Beechwood Boulevard on the exact site of the center that was destroyed in a 2002 fire. The burned-out frame of that building remains, and the steel, concrete block and cedar will be reused in parts of the project.

In addition to the center, the project will include adding an amphitheater behind the new building, refurbishing the gatehouses at the Beechwood entrance to Frick Park and reactivating the fountain in the courtyard that hasn't worked since the 1960s. More gardens will be installed and a lot of the original landscaping from the park's opening in the 1920s will be restored.

"We're just ironing out the details, but everyone is pretty positive about it," said Councilman Corey O'Connor, who chairs council's parks committee. "It's all coming together and we're ready to get started."

In keeping with the environmental theme of the site, the new facility is shooting for the platinum level for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design and will go a step beyond that by trying to meet the Living Building Challenge, which is based on how the facility operates once it is finished. The goal is a self-contained facility that produces all of the energy it needs, treats its own sewage and keeps all rainwater on the site.

The end of design and fundraising is the culmination of more than two years of public meetings and discussions with architects, said Marijke Hecht, director of education for the conservancy. She's looking forward to replacing the trailer that has served as a makeshift meeting place for environmental classes and camps that the center offers.

Although the project has been in design mode for the past two years, officials have been thinking and talking about it almost since the fire took place.

"Moving ahead on this expanded vision has taken some time -- integrating park users while restoring the historic design and expanding educational programs," Ms. Hecht said. "All of that hard work over the last 10 years is finally paying off. It's just a stunning, very exciting project."

The project will focus on about 35 acres of the original 151 acres Henry Clay Frick donated to the city and begins near the entrance to the environmental area, where the gatehouses will be refurbished as gathering areas for adults on one side, children on the other.

Parking will be added at the front of the lot to replace spaces lost at the rear, where a barn will be built with restrooms and storage, similar to the original design. The parking area, featuring permeable pavement, will be covered with trellises that hold solar panels to generate electricity for the center.

The concrete path joining the parking area with the new building will be replaced with paths through gardens featuring native plants, vegetables and "slavery to freedom" plants identified as part of an Underground Railroad display at the Heinz History Center.

Rows of elm trees that lined both sides of the approach to the fountain -- only to be damaged by disease over the years -- will be replaced by black gum trees.

The fountain will be reactivated with the capability of a 10-foot-high spray but it will only bubble on most days to save energy. It will spray on special occasions and Saturdays, the area's busiest day, and designers are developing a mechanism to allow visitors to create a spray by turning a crank. Piping for geothermal heat will be installed under this arrival area to provide about 55 degrees of heat to the building naturally, with added heating produced on site.

Instead of a direct approach up the center, the new building will have foot bridges from each side, making it easily accessible to people with disabilities. The three-story building will have about 15,000 square feet of space -- about 4,000 square feet more than the old building.

The entrance will be on the top floor and the rest will drop off the back down a natural hillside. The top floor will have a welcome area and classrooms; the second teacher preparation areas and offices; the third building mechanics, some of which will be on display.

One special feature of the building will be an art project that uses rainwater captured from the roof. The project designed by State College-area artist Stacy Levy will have water drop from the far end of the building, travel its length, then drop again as a waterfall down the side to stone steps and a retention pond.

"This is going to be such a neat feature," Ms. Hecht said. "I think kids are going to see it's raining outside and ask if they can go to the park to see this."

The other major feature will be the addition of an amphitheater in a natural hollow behind the center with sandstone seats.

"Almost every group we met with over the past two years, when we showed them pictures, the first thing that all wanted was the amphitheater," Ms. Hecht said.

Creating the amphitheater will involve clearing some space, but Ms. Hecht said the project is especially sensitive to native growth.

"I think what we've learned is that there are a lot of invasive, non-native plants growing here and our goal is to remove them and replace them with native plants," she said. "What we remove, we will replace tenfold."

The project will be paid for with about $5.2 million from the Frick Trust -- money that would have been used if the center had been open the past 11 years -- and other money raised from foundations and other sources.

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Ed Blazina: or 412-263-1470. First Published July 19, 2013 4:00 AM


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