Mellon Square: A Modern Masterpiece

Mellon Square: Discovering a Modern Masterpiece  / Princeton Architectural Press
Mellon Square: Discovering a Modern Masterpiece / Princeton Architectural Press

Recently restored to much ado through a six-year process, Mellon Square in Pittsburgh was the first Modernist space in the nation built over a subterranean parking garage. Considered a precursor to today’s green roof movement, Mellon Square is a showcase for urban revitalization through historic preservation, with a contemporary sensibility and the latest technologies. In the foreword of Susan Rademacher’s Mellon Square: Discovering a Modern Masterpiece, series editor Charles Birnbaum, FASLA, head of The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) says the result of the restoration is “a renewed, enhanced, and revitalized Mellon Square that carefully balances the highest historic preservation standards with clearly articulated performance benchmarks and sustainability standards.”

Mellon-gouache
Henri Marcus Moran, “View of Mellon Square – Looking North,” ca. 1955, Gouache on board / Princeton Architectural Press

As Rademacher, parks curator at Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, tells the history of the civic space itself, she reflects Pittsburgh’s ups and downs throughout much of the twentieth century – from booming steel town to post-WWII slump, when it was nicknamed the “Smoky City” due to its heavy blankets of regular smog. Mellon Square was a key player ushering in Pittsburgh’s first renaissance, drawing innovation, entrepreneurs, and civic life to the downtown “Golden Triangle.” But the square also succumbed to the decline characterizing Pittsburgh through the 1960s to 90s. As Rademacher tells it, Mellon Square is a proxy for the status and reputation of the entire city of Pittsburgh.

Mayor David Lawrence with R.K. Mellon, in Life magazine, May 1956 / Margaret Bourke-White, Princeton Architectural Press
Mayor David Lawrence with R.K. Mellon, in Life magazine, May 1956 / Margaret Bourke-White, Princeton Architectural Press

Also woven into the narrative are personal histories of key players such as project architects James Mitchell and Dahlen Ritchey, and landscape architects John Simonds and Philip Simonds. Students and practitioners of landscape architecture will recognize the former Simonds as author of seminal text Landscape Architecture, still widely used as a foundational textbook for landscape architecture courses. We learn about his life and entry into the profession in the 1930s, and find fascinating glimpses of a highly tenuous time for the field. In a 1999 letter, Simonds recounts asking Walter Gropius, his mentor at the Harvard, about the future role for landscape architecture in contemporary society. Gropius “looked at [him] long and thoughtfully without speaking. It was quite possibly one of the most eloquent statements ever never stated.” Simonds would go on to graduate as part of the “infamous 1939 ‘class of rebels,’” we learn from Landscape Architecture co-author Barry W. Starke, FASLA. In these records, the mythos of the profession is alive and well.

Iconic copper fountains elegently lit and choreographed early in Mellon Square's history / Princeton Architectural Press
Iconic copper fountains elegantly lit and choreographed early in Mellon Square’s history / Princeton Architectural Press

At the heart of the book, of course, is the history of Mellon Square itself. Readers looking for historical details will not be disappointed. Design notes, sketches, photographs, and planting details are generously interspersed throughout the text. Just about every planting choice considered, implemented, and replaced is included, with nuggets, such as the “early use of the new thornless form of the honey locust tree,” now common and well-known to practitioners. And we learn that early design concepts discussed including “live animal displays within the pool, such as flamingos, penguins, and sea lions, which were favored for their comical movements and expressions.”

John Simonds' earliest known concept sketch / Princeton Architectural Press
John Simonds’ earliest known concept sketch / Princeton Architectural Press
Planting detail with circular platforms for sea lions are featured in an early concept sketch / Princeton Architectural Press
Planting detail with circular platforms for sea lions are featured in an early concept sketch / Princeton Architectural Press

Also noted is Simonds’ “elaborate and precise statement of design intent,” in which that the square must simultaneously act as a platform, structure, island, space, focal center, civic monument, gathering place, and oasis. “Simonds and his collaborators created a powerfully original landscape architecture and urban design solution . . . [placing] nature in high relief against the building-lined streets of downtown.”

Those hoping to gain insight for approaching a historic restoration in other cities will also find much to learn from. Mellon Square, which also features essays by Patricia O’Donnell, FASLA, Heritage Landscapes, lead landscape architect on the restoration effort, and Richard Bell, FASLA, champions the efforts of all involved. Rademacher is careful to give credit to all involved parties, from the first glimmers of an idea through the recent full restoration. As important as reconstructing the historic details of the copper fountains and rustic terrazzo paving was the building and maintaining of partnerships across disciplines. Though Mellon Square underwent a partial restoration in the 1980s, funding issues – along with design modifications largely reversed to better align with the original design – led to a lack of proper maintenance. Key to the future success of the square will be an ongoing $4 million maintenance fund devoted to perpetual stewardship of Mellon Square.

Editorial cartoon, Cy Hungerford, 1955 / Princeton Architectural Press
Editorial cartoon, Cy Hungerford, 1955 / Princeton Architectural Press

One of few Modernist landscapes fully preserved and restored, proponents hope Mellon Square will be not an anomaly but a model for other locations. Up next: how about designation as a National Historic Landmark?, suggests Birnbaum.

Read the book.

Yoshi Silverstein, Associate ASLA, is founder and lead designer-educator at Mitsui Design, focusing on landscape experience and connection to place. He was the ASLA summer 2014 communications intern.

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