Mellon Square: Discovering a Modern Masterpiece

Susan Rademacher, Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy’s Curator, has written a new book on Pittsburgh’s Mellon Square, its history and its recent rehabilitation by the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy which, at first glance, is a paean to great landscape design. It is a jewel of an example of how a small public space when designed right can have a huge impact on a downtown or in this case, an entire city and over time.

Mellon Square: Discovering a Modern Masterpiece, the second in a series by the Cultural Landscape Foundation (Princeton Architectural Press, $24.95, Jan. 2015), traces the Square from its original design and construction in 1955 through its evolution as a public space that manages to stay relevant and foundational for over 50 years in a city that suffered its share of economic ups and downs.

girl on park bench

The Square, now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, not only transitions the city’s socio-economic setbacks but provides a focal point for revitalization efforts time and again. The strength of its original design and defining features continue to define the character of the new space even in its most recent renewal.

The book provides historical context for both urban renewal and landscape architecture, featuring the acclaimed Simonds & Simonds landscape architectural firm and a setting that reminds us of how the field of landscape architecture was evolving as a design discipline when the Square was first designed.

Designed by landscape architect John O. Simonds, in collaboration with architect James Ritchey, of Mitchell and Ritchey, Simonds worked to mix the tradition of landscape gardening with city planning to meet the city’s goal for the site: a quiet, unspoiled haven of beauty, rest and relaxation for individuals and small groups open to the public at all times.

But for me, what is of most interest is that alongside the book’s history of the design of the Square – and message of the enduring values of good design – is a compelling backdrop story of the leadership, partnership and city planning initiative that was critical to creating the original Square and its most recent rehabilitation.

The Allegheny Conference on Community Development, an organization backed by Mellon was created in 1943 to improve air quality, control downtown flooding and revitalize downtown; in 1946 the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) of Pittsburgh was created to work as a partner to the ACCD to carry out major municipal development projects – and one of their first challenges was to meet the city’s growing need for parking. They were some of the first organizations of their kind to focus on a city’s development.

girl on park bench

In addition to the ACCD and the URA, Susan tells of the leadership that aligned around the city’s revitalization goals – Edgar Kaufmann, a businessman, Mayor David Lawrence, and Richard King Mellon in particular – and who used the city’s parking challenge to devise a new vision for the city, including the creation of a downtown park.

Mitchell and Ritchey, along with Simonds & Simonds and consulting engineer George Richardson developed the framework idea of a square or park over a garage. Kaufmann also invited Frank Lloyd Wright into the city to devise a new civic center and later invited Mitchell and Ritchey to develop ideas for shaping the future of downtown.

The nascent public-private partnership that, “…combined public authority with civic leadership and private funding…” was instrumental in influencing the design, funding and building of the Square in such a way that their vision and their partnership did shape downtown development following the completion of Mellon Square.

In the 1980s when demographic shifts and economic decline took over the city a renewed public-private partnership emerged to rescue the Square from overuse, maintenance challenges and evolving purposes; but like many downtown public squares, plazas and parks, even with privately supported planning and capital improvements, public maintenance did not keep up with need and by 2007 Mellon Square was once again showing signs of disrepair.

By 2007, the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy had been in existence for just over ten years and was well-respected for its work on some of the city’s other historic public parks – Frick, Highland, Riverview and Schenley – and had completed 14 capital projects for the city, raising over $76 million in the process. With major funding from the Richard King Mellon Foundation and the Bank of New York Mellon – and a partnership with the City, the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation, the Pittsburgh Parking Authority and the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership – the Conservancy began work on a new plan for restoration of the Square and engaged a planning team led by Patricia M. O’Donnell.

2014-12-09-MellonSquare2014_1_RichardSchiavoni2014.jpg Their goal in the redesign was to balance the strength of the original design with newer needs and newer resource limitations. In addition to preservation and restoration they understood the need for an extended partnership that could develop a plan along with the resources to maintain the space, make it safe and sustainable.

They wanted to increase usership and create a more engaging experience – and like most park conservancies today they wanted to appeal to those users who could become stewards and a stronger constituency for helping to manage and maintain the Square.

The completed project is a beautiful success and is being welcomed as one of the most important landscape architecture projects of the year. The Conservancy has entered into an operating agreement with the city for a 29-year period that requires the city to continue to provide its current level of maintenance resources with the conservancy meeting custodial, security, programming and repair needs.

One of the important things that the book highlights is that Pittsburgh thrives on public-private partnerships. When I interviewed Meg Cheever, the Conservancy’s Executive Director, in 2013 she told me when I asked her about the challenges of creating a good partnership that, “…there’s a different mindset in Pittsburgh. People in the city are used to government only being able to do so much. And people care about the parks and less about who does it.”

Susan’s book on Mellon Square captures that culture nicely with a thorough design history of the Square, the underlying evolution of the field of landscape architecture and the role a significant public plaza has played in Pittsburgh’s downtown development – all woven nicely together with a captivating look at the civic partnerships that continue to set the tone for a city comfortable with innovation around planning, design and governance.

All photos from the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy web page