Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

Currently ranked first as the Most Livable City by the Rand-McNally annual survey, Pittsburgh is reveling in media exposure comparable to the boosterism of the town of Zenith which writer Sinclair Lewis satirized in his novel, Babbit. Accompanying the zealous, self-proclaimed promotion, however, has been a healthy dose of self­-examination, with the city’s less enviable qualities suddenly viewed as annoying blemishes on an otherwise fair urban com­plexion.

One feature to emerge triumphantly from this critical self­-examination is historic Schenley Park. Located in the Oakland section of the city amidst lauded universities and hospitals, the park is a 456-acre oasis of verdure amidst an educational and scientific community. A combination of nineteenth-century ro­mantic landscaping, rugged southwestern Pennsylvania terrain, and twentieth century recreational facilities, the park will ob­serve its one-hundredth anniversary in 1989. Recently voted “Best Park” in a popular local magazine survey, Schenley Park in 1985 was nominated to the National Register of Historic Places, the nation’s official record of properties deemed worthy of pres­ervation.

A city which has always self-consciously compared itself to other, more cosmopolitan ones, Pittsburgh began its parks sys­tem after decades of watching eastern cities develop theirs. When it finally jumped on the park-building bandwagon in 1889, Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park was more than twenty years old and New York’s Central Park was more than thirty. It was as if the city needed to experience the accumulated grit of the nine­teenth century Industrial Revolution before it could envision the creation of a public park where air would be fresh and greenery would prevail.

By 1889, Pittsburgh was immersed in its greatest period of industrialization. The glass and iron industries were thriving on the city’s South Side. The first iron-smelting furnace had been put in operation in 1859, and in 1875 the Homestead Steel plant opened, followed by a second plant at Rankin in 1884. In 1888, the first commercial aluminum production began in the city’s “Strip” district.

Not only were industries rapidly expanding, the city itself was undergoing enormous expansion, fueled by an influx of immi­grant workers. Streets were laid out and workers’ houses built on the city’s precipitous slopes, while downtown, exuberant Victo­rian architecture was replacing elegant Greek Revival styles. It was a phase of great – and gaudy – expansion.

Several factors combined to make the time right for a park in Pittsburgh: the precedent of parks in other cities and the tremendous success with which they had been greeted; the enormous, largely untapped wealth available for philanthropy; and the growing population of workers who were often perceived as the needy beneficiaries of essentially philanthropic endeavors, such as the creation of public parks.

There had been earlier attempts to create a park in Pittsburgh. Gen. James O’Hara, a major landowner in Pittsburgh who had established the city’s first glassworks, bequeathed the city a strip of land along Second Avenue which became public property in 1820, but was never actually developed as a park. It was, as fate would have it, O’Hara’s granddaughter, Mary Croghan Schenley, who enabled the creation of Schenley Park seventy years later.

Mary Croghan set Pittsburgh society on its ear in 1842 when, at age fifteen, she eloped from a fashionable New York boarding school with Edward Schenley, a twice-widowed military captain twenty-eight years her senior. The couple moved to London and lived there for most of their thirty-six year marriage. When she finally won control of her vast inheritance – the O’Hara real es­tate fortune and that of her successful father, William Croghan, Jr. – Mary Schenley held one of Pittsburgh’s largest fortunes. She rarely returned to the city, remaining in London after her hus­band’s death in 1878, a widow until her own death in 1903, at which time her Pittsburgh real estate holdings alone were worth more than fifty million dollars!

The Schenleys first began negotiating with the city of Pitts­burgh over the “Mt. Airy Tract,” the land that is now Schenley Park, as early as 1869. They offered to sell the land to the city, but the proposed bond issue to purchase the land was defeated in a public referendum. Subsequent attempts to acquire the tract either by city purchase or condemnation ended in failure. By 1872, the Schenleys, frustrated, broke off negotiations, and the future of the park remained in limbo for almost twenty years.

The ultimate catalyst for the creation of the park was E. M. Bigelow, Pittsburgh’s first Director of Public Works and later known as “Father of the Parks.” Bigelow heard that Schenley was considering selling the Mt. Airy property to a real-estate devel­oper and he persuaded R. B. Carnahan, a Pittsburgh business­man who had close dealings with Schenley, to race the developer to London and plead the case for a city park. Carnahan took the first train to New York and then a ship to London, reportedly arriving only days before the developer. Whether it was the ur­gency or the sincerity of his appeal that moved Mrs. Schenley most is unknown, but the donation of land to the city was se­cured. In his Annual Report on the Public Works Department for 1889, Bigelow was able to claim that “the general condition of things … has been wholly changed by the imperial gift made to the people by Mrs. Schenley. She has given to the toilers an opportunity for relaxation and recreation that in its good results must prove beyond all price, in the benefits that it will confer on the masses, morally and physically. It remains for the city to spare no effort to make her offering to the people a public bless­ing.”

That Mary Schenley’s “imperial gift” was motivated wholly by philanthropy may be questionable. She was an astute business­woman as well as a benefactor. In a letter to the editor of the Pittsburgh Press, one citizen pointedly noted that by her subse­quent sale to the city of a one-hundred-acre tract and two small tracts adjoining the park for three times their assessed value, Schenley benefited considerably from her gift of the three hun­dred acres of the rugged Mt. Airy tract that might have proved exceedingly difficult to develop for real estate. In fact, nearly two million dollars of city money was required for the initial grading and filling necessary for a park on the Mt. Airy tract. The escala­tion of land values that followed the development of Schenley Park was of even greater benefit to the Schenley heirs. In 1905, the remaining one hundred and three acres of Schenley land adjoining the park-acreage highly suitable for building – were sold to real estate developer F. F. Nicola for two and a half million dollars. Developed during the next two decades as Schenley Farms, this combined model suburb and City Beautiful civic center proved to be Pittsburgh’s showcase of the early twentieth century. The entire area has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places as a historic district.

A surveyor and engineer by training, the thirty-eight-year-old Bigelow approached park-building with a wholistic goal in mind. The City Beautiful planning movement, with its emphasis on monumental buildings in park-like settings connected by broad boulevards, captured Bigelow’s imagination and he was quick to apply it to Pittsburgh. His dream, never fully realized, was to create a scenic boulevard running from downtown Pittsburgh to Schenley Park, through it, and east to Highland Park, then the city’s only other major park, although it was about half the size of Schenley Park. Connecting center-city to Schenley Park, Grant Boulevard, as it was originally known, was rechristened Bigelow Boulevard about the turn of the century. To the extent that the City Beautiful movement had an impact in Pittsburgh, E. M. Bigelow was largely responsible.

With such vision and ambition before him, is it so surprising that Bigelow largely built the park himself? As the first Director of Public Works he acted in much more than a supervisory capac­ity. It was not until 1892 that the position of Park Superintend­ent was created, and not until 1896 that an identified landscape architect was hired as Park Superintendent. A landscape archi­tect appeared on the department’s payroll in 1891, but this indi­vidual’s contributions, let alone his identity, remain unknown. In 1896 New York landscape architect William Falconer – reportedly a friend of Bigelow’s – was hired; he served as Park Superintend­ent until 1903.

The ideas governing the park’s design echoed the late­-Victorian-era romantic landscape tradition. Applied to the rug­ged terrain of Pittsburgh, it produced dramatic, serpentine roads, stunning open amphitheaters and broad vistas. Rugged­-looking man-made features, such as stone retaining walls and staircases, and picturesque elements, such as rustic stone or wood bridges, fences, pavilions, and shelters, were all early features of the park. In plantings, too, vegetation was selected to appear natural-looking, rather than rigid or formal.

The original topography of the area was sufficiently rugged to require less earthmoving and landscaping than in, for instance, Central Park. Ravines and many of the steep slopes were re­tained for their natural scenic qualities. Bigelow bragged that Schenley Park would be as impressive but more economical than Central Park, because of the dramatic landscape that already existed before work on the park began. By the time of Falconer’s arrival, much of the park’s basic design had already been cre­ated. Six and a half miles of forty-foot-wide roads and one and three- fifth miles of twenty-foot-wide bridle trails had been laid out by 1896. Retaining walls and trail bridges had been built.

While Bigelow introduced the basic concepts of the park’s design, Falconer implemented and expanded upon them in his years as superintendent. His first years in particular saw a mas­sive planting program. In 1898, more than twenty-three thou­sand trees and shrubs were planted in the park. Careful thought was given to their distribution, speed of growth, short- and long­term appearance and even their ability to tolerate pollution. Regarding his decision to plant evergreens in the center of the park, Falconer noted with some prescience: “These trees are planted with the full knowledge that they do not thrive in a smokey atmosphere, but as they must be represented in the park and this is the most distant place from the smoke available, we have taken advantage of it, and should the evergreens fail, they can be interplanted with deciduous trees in a way that will not break the landscape effect. Besides our city won’t be smoky all the time.”

As important to the park’s appearance as the plantings was the grading that occurred during Falconer’s administration. The purpose of grading was both functional and aesthetic: to make certain sections of the park accessible and to render the land­scape more pleasing to the eye. “Grading … does not mean a simple smoothing over of the surface of the ground. Prominent, rigid, abrupt banks or breasts of rock and clay have been re­moved wide and deep enough to allow the introduction of natural-appearing graceful sloping waves instead.” The park’s present two broad, grassy hillsides-Flagstaff Hill in the west and Overlook Hillside in the south-were among Falconer’s major grading projects.

Once the topography had been made “natural-appearing,” areas of it were ironically made civilized. In 1897, Falconer cre­ated an assortment of specialized gardens throughout the park, including a lily pond garden, a rhododendron garden, a mixed flower and shrub garden, a rock garden, and a collection of fox­gloves. They were impressive, but not overly formal. The Super­intendent explained, “Bedding plants in a public park have to be used with great discrimination; while their free use in the neigh­borhood of the conservatories is legitimately admissible, to scat­ter them broadcast throughout the park would be in very bad taste; other ways of decorating the grounds must be considered for such positions. In the woods and ravines we preserved and encouraged the native flowers . . . and added thousands of oth­ers from the park nurseries, thus securing greater variety, and more beauty and interest.”

The great availability of plants and flowers for the park was, in part, due to the establishment of Phipps Conservatory in 1892-93 and its large growing houses, added four years later. As ad­ministrator of the conservatory, Falconer managed a year-round flower show to the public and supervised the acquisition of nu­merous plant collections, most of which were donated. The Con­servatory’s original collection came partially from the Columbian Exposition of 1893, which was just ending. The construction of Phipps Hall of Botany adjacent to the conservatory in 1901 to teach students botany indicated the rising importance placed on nature study in that era of rampant industrialization.

By the time George Burke became superintendent of the park in 1903, its roads and major landscaping were in place. Burke, however, was responsible for the construction of the unusual tufa-stone bridges in the park’s picturesque ravine, Panther Hol­low. The next major phase of improvements took place during the Great Depression, when the Works Progress Administration provided funds for the construction of stone steps and walls in Panther Hollow.

In addition to their specific commemorative or utilitarian purposes, the works of art and architecture in the park had a dual purpose: to provide a civilized and uplifting influence, and to complement the romantic landscape. The park features several notable works of architecture dating from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries. Phipps Conservatory, a glass and iron struc­ture designed by the architectural firm of Lord and Burnham, claimed for Pittsburgh immediate notoriety in the horticultural field. Nearby Botany Hall, a compact beaux arts building, was designed by Rutan and Russell, one of the city’s most successful firms of the period.

One of several early picnic shelters built in the park is vaguely shingle-style, although it has been extensively remod­eled. Another extant shelter is a simpler brick pavilion that has been little changed since its construction about 1910. These are the only architectural remnants of the Edwardian period, when a number of “modern” buildings and structures were added to the park, including a casino, band shell, an electric fountain, and boat house. In marked contrast are the Neill and Martin log houses, homes of early settlers which predate the park. Both houses reinforce the consciously American character of the park and recall the wilderness that preceded the park.

The generous amount of sculpture within the park reflects its romantic origins and commemorates local or regional figures. Giuseppe Moretti’s bronze mountain lions and the granite foun­tain commemorating Indian chief Catahecassa introduce, in a civilized manner, figures of the American frontier. Celebrating the twentieth century is the George Westinghouse Memorial, a monument to the great Pittsburgh inventor and his discoveries in a shrine-like setting designed by Pittsburgh’s outstanding archi­tect, Henry Hornbostel, with a statue and central relief by noted sculptor Daniel Chester French. Augustus Saint-Gaudens is represented by the Magee Memorial, a bronze relief that exem­plified the preeminent American sculptor’s work. Dedicated in 1908, it honored prominent Pittsburgh politician Christopher Lyman Magee. E. M. Bigelow was memorialized as early as 1895 by a bronze statue by Moretti, which stands paternally near the park’s primary entrance. The combining of notable figures, both modern and romantic, in noble form within an atmosphere of stylized informality was central to the romantic park experience, in which the visitor could enjoy healthful and innocent relaxa­tion and be uplifted and awed by human achievement as well.

The lack of a monumental entrance to Schenley Park always displeased Bigelow and he tried for many years, in vain, to cre­ate one. Much of the problem was logistical: at the main entrance to the park, near the conservatory, Carnegie Institute, and Schenley Farms, was a ravine, and before that, a dank, boggy hollow. By 1915, however, when a competition for an entrance to the park was held, the money and inclination for something grand – such as the entrance to Pittsburgh’s Highland Park – had evidently dissipated. In spite of this, the very act of traversing the ravine, towards the conservatory and the grassy slope of Flagstaff Hill, today provides the appropriate sensation of entry into a different and serene world.

Because the park is separated from the surrounding neighbor­hood on three sides and bisected by a ravine, bridge construction was undertaken early. The Panther Hollow and Schenley bridges, completed in 1897 and 1898, are handsome stone and steel deck truss structures and are among the oldest of Pitts­burgh’s major and historic bridges.

Bigelow believed that fresh air, exercise and innocent relaxa­tion were imperative to the public’s well-being. Frequently he referred to parks as “public breathing spots.” While some of the features of Schenley Park catered to the upper rather than the working class – the bridle trails and horse-racing track, for instance – Bigelow intended to foster widespread use and appre­ciation of the parks. During his administration, the park was the scene of numerous public events, most notably the annual Fourth of July celebration, which Bigelow personally planned. On that occasion, the park provided the setting for a variety of entertainment, but also inspired civic pride and patriotism in a population with diverse ethnic and economic backgrounds. And in a general way, the park’s healthful influences mitigated Pitts­burgh’s “Smokey City” image. Bigelow envisioned not only a great park, but a great city, in which “a man will be as proud to say ‘I hail from Pittsburgh,’ as in the old times men were proud to say ‘I am a Roman citizen.'”

1n the first half of the twentieth century, Schenley Park under­went some changes, due to general evolution in thinking about parks. The “playground movement,” which held that active recreation, especially for small children, was more important than passive recreation, brought playsets, tennis courts, a swim­ming pool and a bowling green to the park, all of which en­croached to some extent on the original lawns and vegetation. Since then, however, a delicate balance seems to have been struck between original landscaping and newer facilities. Facili­ties which have been added in recent years – a new pool, an ice skating rink, an exercise circuit – have been sited carefully to minimize their visual impact on the landscape.

Today, the park maintains a high profile and is a well-loved and essential part of Pittsburgh’s urban fabric. For the universi­ties, the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie-Mellon, it is prac­tically an extension of their campuses. A product of the city’s late nineteenth-century industrial wealth and philanthropy, it con­tinues to re.fleet attitudes about landscape design and public recreation of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

How well has the park held up under nearly a century of public use? Its natural ruggedness may have enabled it to with­stand heavy use better than other parks; nevertheless, ninety-­eight years and a severe reduction in park maintenance by the city in the 1970s have taken their toll. Parts of the park are now severely deteriorated, particularly Panther Hollow with its steep slopes and network of trails. With the 1989 centennial in mind, Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation, an organization devoted to preserving the city’s historic resources, has initiated a campaign to restore the park, focusing on the landscape. A grant from the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy provided funding for a 1985 study of the park, and the organization has agreed to co-sponsor the campaign. With guidance from an advisory board of individuals, the Centennial Restoration Project will give the park a second century of life as rich as its first.


For Further Reading

City of Pittsburgh. Annual Report of the Department of Public Works. 1889-1909.

Evert, Marylyn. Discovering Pittsburgh’s Sculpture. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh, 1983.

Gangewere, R.J. “Schenley Park.” Carnegie Magazine. Vol. 53, (June 1979), 60-68.

Judd, Barbara. “Edward M. Bigelow: Creator of Pittsburgh’s Arcadian Parks.” Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine. Vol. 58, No. 1, (January 1975), 53-67.


Christina Schmidlapp received her bachelor of arts degree in history from Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, and did graduate work in city planning at Harvard University. A consultant in historic preserva­tion her interest in Schenley Park grew out of her preparation of a National Register of Historic Places nomination. She is currently work­ing with the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation as project manager for the Schenley Park Centennial Restoration Project. Previous projects have included historic district registration for Economy in Ambridge and documentation for the National Historic Landmarks nomination for the Carlisle Barracks of the Army War College.