John Beale, Post-Gazette
A view of Schenley Plaza in Oakland shot from the Cathedral of Learning in May.
By Patricia Lowry, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Monday a week ago was a beautiful fall day that felt more like summer. In Schenley Plaza, students stretched out on blankets, soaking up the sun; a father tossed a football with his children; mothers took their toddlers for rides on the PNC Carousel. Pitt students and teachers bought lunch at the food kiosks and ate it at movable tables and chairs. The big tent likewise was full of diners and readers and passers of time.
Thanks to the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, its Oakland-based institutional partners and $10 million in state funding, life has come to a city block that not so long ago saw nothing more than the coming and going and parking of cars. It's been an extraordinary and positive transformation.
One of the things I most like about the plaza is the way it causes you to see the Cathedral of Learning and Carnegie Library as if for the first time. They are in a new frame and context and have a new role to play, as the walls of an outdoor room, and they've never looked better.
The devil is where he sometimes lurks, in the details. And the plan, for all its social success, represents an opportunity lost.
The designers -- the Boston office of Sasaki Associates -- had two choices: stick with the symmetry of the original 1915 Beaux Arts scheme oriented to the Mary Schenley fountain or ditch it for an informal one. They chose the latter, eliminating rather than restoring two depleted rows of London plane trees and introducing a diagonal path. It's easy to see why they ran with this plan; except for the great lawn and small gardens, they could accommodate most of the ambitious program on the west side of the path.
But the city has missed the chance to right the long wrong wrought by the parking lot and honor the original vision of the plaza as the formal, symmetrical entrance to Schenley Park. There was, in Sasaki's first iteration of this asymmetrical design, some tribute paid to Beaux Art ideals: The pedestrian path was on axis with its terminal view of the Mary Schenley fountain. But soon the tent was introduced, interrupting that vista and becoming the focal point of the path and the plaza.
The original design was a link from the City Beautiful movement through Paris and Versailles to ancient Rome. Oakland was where the City Beautiful movement came to roost in Pittsburgh, and here was a chance to strengthen ties to the long tradition of Western design in the civic and cultural heart of our city. We chose not to do that.
Maybe it wasn't possible to do that and accommodate all the program called for. The classical ideals of the City Beautiful movement were always a difficult overlay on Pittsburgh's hilly terrain, with its limited flatlands. And formalism may seem a foreign dialect, and a dead language to some, in these casual times. The plaza and its tent, which provides shelter, shade and social space, certainly are honest expressions of today's values.
Sometimes, though, a little artifice is in order.
We see too much of the business end of the plaza from the Forbes Quadrangle approach (where Forbes Field used to be); a little screening, natural or man-made, would block our view of large electrical boxes.
The wood fence that corrals the tables and chairs at night is too casual and domestic a material for a great public open space. Trellises have been attached intermittently for climbing vines; that should help.
The concrete coping around the beds of the small gardens is cheesy and unattractive but likewise could be masked with plants. The bowls atop the entrance piers should overflow with trailing plants, too.
The carousel? Only a heartless curmudgeon would dis a carousel, yet in the context of the monumental buildings around it, this one looks like a Happy Meal toy.
If it's well maintained, Schenley Plaza, which also boasts wireless Internet access, will only improve with age. In 10 years, when the 126 plane trees newly planted in and around the plaza should be about 35 feet tall, it may well have established itself as the region's premier place to meet, greet, Google and ride a camel.
The plaza exhibited
For a look at the plaza's history, mosey over to the Frick Fine Arts Building for "From Pavement to Paradise: The Evolution of Schenley Plaza," a large exhibit that fills the five rooms of the University Art Gallery with panoramic photographs and plans of the plaza, its surrounding buildings over time and some never built, as well as 16 botanical specimens collected from Schenley Park since 1883.
There is a lot to absorb here, even Forbes Field memorabilia, and the organizers have done us no favor by providing a catalog that is sequentially out of sync with the exhibit's design. But a great richness of material has been gathered in one place, and for that, and for Don Simpson's three catalog essays and other interpretive material, the exhibit is worth going out of one's way for.
Its $5 catalog in format is a good example of what you can produce on a limited budget, including not only the footnoted essays but also the descriptive labels for all 139 objects. In the essays, Simpson, a Pitt undergrad studying the history of art and architecture, dissects the nature of Mary Schenley's philanthropy and the adversarial roles planners Edward Bigelow and Frederick Bigger played in the plaza's creation.
He also dispels the recent legend that earth from the 1910s removal of the Grant Street "Hump" was used to fill St. Pierre's Ravine to create the plaza (as do John Bauman and Ted Muller in their forthcoming book on planning in Pittsburgh, "Before Renaissance"). Both sources report that fill from the Hump went to the riverfronts. Simpson traces the error (which I've passed along in print) to Pitt prof Frank Toker's 1986 book, "Pittsburgh: An Urban Portrait."
Inspired by art and architecture history department chair Kirk Savage and curated by gallery director Josienne Piller, the exhibit presents Sasaki's alternative plans but mostly focuses on the more distant past. It continues through Saturday.
Architecture critic Patricia Lowry can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1590.