Mellon Square gets attention in $8 million update

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Mellon Square, Downtown Pittsburgh's first green space and the centerpiece of a 1955 renaissance effort, is undergoing an $8 million restoration as part of what Mayor Luke Ravenstahl called "our third renaissance."

Phase one of the project was marked with a ceremony Monday on the 1.3-acre park bounded by Smithfield and Oliver streets, Sixth Avenue and William Penn Place.

Mellon Square is the oldest surviving park and parking garage combination in the nation. It was named a National Historic Place in 1985. It was built in 1955, when the state was still assembling parcels to establish Point State Park, which was completed in 1974.

"The old lady looks pretty good at 56," said Dan Booker, co-chairman of the Committee for Mellon Square, "but she needs attention. To be a competitive city, you have to provide and maintain high-quality public spaces."


The Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy is partnering with the city in shared maintenance, for which an additional $3 million fund is being established, "so that the work being done today will benefit generations to come," said Richard Reed, vice president of the conservancy.

The walking surface is one of Mellon Square's most noticeable deteriorations. Also, the cascading water feature is dry and some of the plantings are in poor condition.

George Greer, the committee's other co-chairman, attributed the deterioration to the city's limited revenues. He said the committee believes that a restored square has the potential to reverse falling occupancy rates around it.

The American Planning Association calls Mellon Square "Pittsburgh's enduring downtown oasis" and named it one of its top 10 "great public spaces" of 2008. The APA further describes the square as "a striking example of Modernism with its triangular-patterned paving and asymmetrical order of planters, bronze fountains, and granite benches."

As the roof of a parking garage, the square -- home to shrubs, rows of sweetgum trees and other plants -- was a green roof before most anyone had ever heard of one. Part of the restoration will be new plantings and a green roof on the canopy over the retail shops on Smithfield.

The canopy will be home to sedum plants, which suck up water but tolerate dry spells.

The original design by John Simonds included a terrace overlooking Smithfield Street that was never implemented. The terrace, with tables and chairs, will be part of the new look.

Susan Rademacher, parks curator for the conservancy, said a lawn panel would be placed on the terrace "so people can take off their shoes and wiggle their toes in the grass."

Besides the terrace, the two grand staircases leading up to the square from Smithfield will be restored, lighting that was removed in the 1980s will be reinstalled and the cascade fountain along one staircase will be repaired to run consistently, said conservancy spokesman Mike Sexauer.

The Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership and the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation approached the conservancy to encourage it to play a role in the stewardship of the property, Mr. Sexauer said.

Mr. Ravenstahl said public-private partnerships such as the city's with the conservancy and foundations were the only way projects like this restoration could happen.

The square is the site of a summer music series and most consistently used by people who work nearby and guests of the Omni William Penn Hotel.

The first phase will include the $3 million maintenance plan. That money came from The Colcom and Richard King Mellon foundations.

Funds for the next phases -- which will include terrazzo and fountain restorations -- have been committed by the Heinz Endowments, the Patterson Charitable Fund and the Benter, Buhl, Eden Hall and BNY Mellon foundations.

Diana Nelson Jones: or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at . First Published June 14, 2011 4:00 AM


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