ON THIS DAY: April 19, 2005, Transformation of Schenley Plaza from parking lot begins

PITTSBURGH — For decades, the plaza between the main streets of Oakland and Schenley Park was nothing more than an ocean of asphalt and parking spaces. On April 19, 2005, the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy received funding from its community partners and the state to restore the plaza to its intended use as a public park.

Mary Schenley donated 300 acres of land to the city of Pittsburgh in 1889, after extensive lobbying by Edward Bigelow, the director of public works. Her only requirement was that the land’s use would be limited “to an entrance for Schenley Park and to park purposes.” The city purchased an additional 119 acres two years later, including an area known as St. Pierre’s Ravine that would become Schenley Plaza.

Bellefield Bridge was built in 1897, spanning 341 feet across the ravine and 100 feet above its bottom, and serving as the main entrance to Schenley Park.

Following Mary Schenley’s death in 1903, the idea for a memorial to her grew into plans for a grand public square to be built between the park and Oakland.

By 1915, the ravine was filled in following a redesign of the entrance to Schenley Park, burying the bridge that used to cross it. To create the plaza over 11,000 tons of fill were required, which is presumed to have come from the removal of the “hump” on Grant Street in downtown Pittsburgh. The bridge stood strongly under the fill and became the foundation for the Mary Schenley Memorial Fountain.

A design competition for Schenley Plaza was launched in 1914, with entries coming from around the country. The winning design was from Horace Wells Sellers and H. Bartol Register of Philadelphia and it was endorsed by the Art Commission in 1917. It featured a vast thoroughfare leading up the fountain and through the park beyond it, with trees lining the edges.

The plaza’s trees were planted in the early 1920s under the direction of landscape architect James Greenleaf.

Unfortunately, the incorporation of a large parking area in the plaza’s original design discouraged the public from enjoying the green space and encouraged the idea of converting it fully to parking. The proximity of major draws like Forbes Field, the Carnegie Museums and Library, and the University of Pittsburgh eventually tipped the scales, and in 1949 most of the plaza was paved over. In 1990, the city surrendered completely and removed the last remaining oval of island of greenery to squeeze in 72 more parking spaces.

A 1999 competition for the best ideas to improve Oakland was won by landscape architect Fred Bonci, who proposed the restoration of Schenley Plaza as a grand entrance to Schenley Park. The idea quickly morphed into a plan and momentum accelerated when major institutions and corporations backed it.

Designed by the Sasaki, the $12 million transformation of Schenley Plaza was paid for by a combination of institutional partners and state funding. The designers chose not to follow the landscape plan first drafted in 1915′s Beaux Art style, but instead created a wide walkway to host food vendors on one side, with a large lawn on the other, inspired by the 1992 restoration of Bryant Park in New York City.

The 5-acre park was opened in June 2006 and features one acre of lawn with native plants, wildflower plantings, seating areas, a tented area and dining kiosks. The lawn is often occupied on nice sunny days by students and professors looking for a sunbathed respite from the surrounding academic halls.

The plaza also features unlimited free Wi-Fi, wheelchair-accessible restrooms and 24-hour security.

For younger visitors and area residents, the PNC Carousel is an eye-catching attraction. Built by Chance Rides Manufacturing in Wichita, Kansas, the 20-passenger carousel is funded by the PNC Financial Services Group.

Every year from April to October, the PNC Carousel toots out old-fashioned pipe organ music as its wildly painted animals leap in circles, some touting annual sponsorships.

In 2008, a second phase of restoration was completed with the restoration of the Mary Schenley Memorial Fountain.

The Porch at Schenley, a full-service restaurant operated by Eat’n Park, opened in 2011 and also hosts honeybee hives in its rooftop garden.

The International Awards for Livable Communities honored Schenley Plaza with its Silver award in the “Environmentally Sustainable Project” category in 2009.