11th-hour pitch made to save Fort Pitt wall

Preservation group, critical of renovation effort, offers plan as work crews continue at Point State Park

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The Fort Pitt Preservation Society has floated an "alternative plan" aimed at preserving a big portion of the historic Music Bastion wall that would be buried by the ongoing $35 million state park renovation project.

The plan, unveiled at a morning news conference yesterday at the Hilton Pittsburgh hotel across the street from the 18-acre park, would preserve more than two-thirds of the moat and wall in its current configuration except for a 100-to-150-foot section at the north end that would be filled in.

It also proposes a pedestrian drawbridge and walkway over the moat, at the original location of the fort's main gate, that would help facilitate pedestrian movement, a stated goal of the existing renovation plan for the 35-year-old park.

The 11th-hour proposal was made as work crews continued to rip out old landscaping, concrete and asphalt in the 18-acre park. Although some of that concrete and asphalt has been dumped into the north end of the moat and crushed, no new debris has been dumped into the moat trench for the past two days.

"The state should immediately stop all demolition, land clearing and excavation at this Historic Landmark," said Michael Nixon, an historic preservation consultant and attorney for the Preservation Society, "and prepare a comprehensive archeological and cultural resource management plan ... and adjust their work plans accordingly."

The restored Music Bastion is the only existing remnant of the original Fort Pitt, the largest British fort in North America, and contains original, 250-year-old hand-made bricks in a wall that sits atop the fort's original 71/2-foot-thick stone foundation.

The current renovation plan would fill in the entire moat to create a flat "great lawn" on the city-side of the park for concerts. A narrow, inlaid stone outline of the Fort Pitt walls would be imbedded in the lawn.

"The plan to bury the bastion is an abysmal idea, an historical sacrilege," said Richard Lang, an archeologist who was crew chief on the excavation that uncovered the bastion in 1953. "Pittsburgh is throwing away its roots if it buries this. A surface outline doesn't give any sense of Fort Pitt like this wall does."

Mr. Lang was highly critical of the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources' final cultural resources report on the park's archeological values, and of, what he called, the state's hastily conceived plan to protect the historic wall from damage as the adjacent moat is filled in with construction debris.

Mr. Nixon said the burial of the Music Bastion wall was a violation of the state constitution and historic preservation laws, but stopped just short of saying that the society would go to court to stop the filling of the moat -- the trench around the outline of Fort Pitt -- and the bastion's burial.

The DCNR has one last chance to recognize the historical significance of the National Historic Landmark and change its park renovation plan, Mr. Nixon said, "before they're ordered to do so by a higher authority."

He said the DCNR, which owns the state park property and is overseeing the renovation work, has recently refused to meet with the preservation society about its concerns.

Christina Novak, a spokeswoman for the DCNR, said the department won't respond specifically to the alternative proposal until it receives a copy from the preservation society and has a chance to review it. Mr. Nixon said a copy of the group's proposal will be sent to the department today.

"We would be happy to take a look at it, with the understanding that a contract with deadlines and a budget for the first phase of work at Point State Park is already in motion," Ms. Novak said.

Wilford Rouleau, engineering professor emeritus at Carnegie Mellon University and a preservation society board member, said the group's alternative proposal is a practical solution to the impasse, and, if addressed immediately, won't entail additional costs.

"While we can't prevent the damage done already to the historic resources on site, it's not too late for Governor Rendell and DCNR Secretary Michael DiBerardinis to do the right thing," Mr. Rouleau said. "We look forward to an invitation to meet with them again to resolve this major controversy."

Don Hopey can be reached at dhopey@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1983.


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