An Oasis Restored

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1950s postcard of Mellon Square / Collections of Senator John Heinz History Center, Pittsburgh
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Mellon Square restoration aerial / Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy

The Modernist design of Mellon Square is a product of the Pittsburgh’s first renaissance, beginning in the late 1940s. The plaza was a focal point in the re-imagining of what was a gritty city. Positioned above streets, storefronts, and a subterranean parking garage, the space ascended above the hustle and bustle, forming an oasis.

I gathered a wealth of documentation, observing use, studying context, and investigating details. All of this led to an analysis of the plaza’s original design and built character.

What emerged was a clear picture of the original design team’s masterful manipulation of the urban fabric to revitalize this area of the central business district. Although this was a Mitchell & Ritchey and Simonds & Simonds collaboration, documents pointed to John Simonds as the author of sketches that embodied the design concepts. These studies drew on diverse historical and contemporary sources, such as the grace of ancient Roman villa cascades, the exuberance of colorful Latin American estates, the geometries of modern French gardens, and the clarity of Japanese Zen compositions. This urban green space crystallized multiple ideas in a Modernist character. The companion elements were the new U.S. Steel and Alcoa towers flanking two corners of the plaza. This adjacency brought the views from above to the foreground of design considerations.

The intensive, compact Mellon Square design was layered, with three-dimensionally nested planes unfolding to a serene interior of skydome, sunlight, shimmering water, and native forest plants. As Simonds espoused, it served as a platform, civic monument, and oasis — both within and separate from the surrounding city. The plaza invited access from the street, fostered leisure, and supported lively events. Mellon Square was an integral part of re-imagining Pittsburgh as a place of commerce and innovation and remains an ascendant urban space today.

However, by 2008, Mellon Square had lost the clarity and grace of its original layered composition. Missing were the graceful reflective central basin, the pastel brightness of the cascade, the continuous filigree of canopy foliage, the complete green perimeter edge, the crisp geometry of harlequin paving, and the overall evidence of polish and care. With the revelation of original design concepts in hand, the effort turned to finding ways to restore the masterwork while addressing contemporary issues.

The Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy’s emphasis on balancing historic integrity, current uses and functions, and operations and maintenance provided an effective framework for addressing preservation interventions at Mellon Square. To reinstate the richness and intricacy of its multi-faceted, dense and compelling design, the integrity of the Modernist composition had to be re-established.

Approaching the work of a master requires both insight and humility. The original design intent and execution must remain the paramount guide, even as multiple factors are addressed. The conservancy and Heritage Landscapes team chose to restore 85 percent of the plaza, while re-imagining the large planter above Smithfield Street as a terrace and overlook with an adjacent green roof. The project brief — addressing authenticity, use, function, durability and ongoing management — led to designing anew this vestigial planter that had twice failed.

Mellon Square’s transcendent character is palpable once again. It has been our challenge and pleasure to collaborate with the conservancy to contribute to this third renaissance of Mellon Square in the great city of Pittsburgh.

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Mellon Square fountain / Heritage Landscapes

This guest post by Patricia M. O’Donnell, FASLA, is a complement to the coverage of the renewal of Mellon Square. O’Donnell is founder and principal of Heritage Landscapes LLC, Preservation Landscape Architect & Planners

One thought on “An Oasis Restored

  1. Noel D. Vernon 06/26/2014 / 6:24 pm

    Excellent story! Thanks to Jared and ASLA for covering Mellon Square and to Patricia O’Donnell for posting the story. Beyond this, congratulations to all those who participated in the project: cultural landscape preservation rocks!!!

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