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Mellon Square restoration aerial / Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy

Pittsburgh’s Mellon Square, an icon of mid-century Modern design,  has been finally restored after a six-year process. A precursor to today’s trendy green roof movement, the plaza was the first in the nation built over a subterranean parking garage. Today, Mellon Square is a showcase for urban revitalization through historic preservation, with a contemporary sensibility and the latest technologies.

Upon its initial completion in 1955, Mellon Square unified Pittsburgh’s central business district and “typified the spirit” of the city, post World War II. Locally-based architects Mitchell & Ritchey brought in landscape architect John Ormsbee Simonds, Simonds & Simonds and author of the seminal textbook, Landscape Architecture, to collaborate on the public space. The square features a majestic central fountain comprised of nine cast-bronze basins; a distinctive triangle-patterned “Rustic Venetian Terrazzo” paving, inspired by Sarah Mellon Scaife’s travels to Europe; elegant evening lighting; lush plantings; and a second multi-leveled fountain cascading down to street-level. Simonds described the square as “an oasis in an asphalt desert.”

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1950s postcard of Mellon Square / Collections of Senator John Heinz History Center, Pittsburgh

Some more thoughts on the original design: Patricia M. O’Donnell, FASLA, Heritage Landscapes LLC, lead for the park’s restoration, notes the original design team’s “masterful manipulation of urban fabric . . . layered with three-dimensionally-nested planes unfolding to a serene interior of skydome, sunlight, shimmering water, and native forest plants.” In The Post-Gazette, Arthur Ziegler, president of the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation, calls Mellon Square “a fine example of mid-century Modern design, but not in the sense of so many results of that time, when urban renewal was really a harsh New Brutalism. Here you had a real attempt to still use decoration and refined design in a clean-lined modernistic statement.” And, The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) tells us that, as viewed from the buildings, “the harlequin patterned terrazzo of the sizeable plaza played against the tiles and jets of the fountain and with the diamond patterned façade of the Alcoa headquarters building by architects Harrison & Abramovitz.”

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Original artist’s sketch from early 1950s / Simonds & Simonds and Mitchell & Riley from the Heinz collections

Despite a restoration project in the 1980s, years of little maintenance resulted in cracked paving, drainage issues, broken fountains, and dying trees and shrubs. But even with these issues, the park was named one of the 2008 Great Public Spaces by the American Planning Association (APA), who noted the “striking example of Modernism with its triangular-patterned paving and asymmetrical order of planters, bronze fountains, and granite benches.”

In 2009, the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy and a team headed by Heritage Landscapes developed a comprehensive restoration plan for Mellon Square. In addition to the two year $10 million restoration process, the funders established a $4 million fund for ongoing maintenance to ensure the park would not again fall into disrepair.

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Proposed design restoration rendering / Heritage Landscapes LLC

Post-restoration, the park’s bronze basins have been re-patinated. The uplighting and paving has been restored. The cascade fountain was recreated and is flowing again; the water choreography was re-established. O’Donnell tells us: “the cascade and main fountains were both completely reconstructed using modern best practices and technologies.”

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Bronze fountains restored / Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy

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Cascade fountain restored / Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy

Contemporary updates include an elevated terrace overlooking Smithfield Street (inspired by early design sketches discovered in the Heinz collections), energy-efficient lighting technologies, and a new plant palette of hardy trees, flowers, grasses and shrubs which will “provide a year-round display of textures, forms, and colors,” writes Susan Rademacher, parks curator at Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, in a recent article for Docomomo US.

Now that the plaza has been restored, attention will turn to its perimeter. Along retail shops on Smithfield Street, a permanent display will highlight Mellon Square’s “history and national significance, its relationship to the Mellon family and its important role in Pittsburgh’s Renaissance,” writes Rademacher. “Garage entrances will be upgraded in keeping with the modernist aesthetic, while new site furnishings, banners, and planters will bring the four street edges into harmony with Mellon Square.” Already, the park’s reemergence has contributed to the revitalization of the surrounding business district as millions of dollars fund new restoration and development projects.

Check out a detailed history and description of the restoration process in this upbeat video from the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy:

The 2009 Mellon Square Preservation, Interpretation & Management Plan Team was led by Heritage Landscapes LLC: Preservation Landscape Architects & Planners, with contributions by Environmental Planning & Design,MTR Landscape Architects, LaQuatra Bonci Associates, and The Cultural Landscape Foundation. The 2011 Restoration Project Team included Heritage Landscapes with Pfaffmann + Associates Architects.

Yoshi Silverstein is the ASLA 2014 communications intern. He is a Masters in Landscape Architecture candidate at the University of Maryland. He focuses on landscape experience and outdoor learning environments.