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Park picnic shelter transformed into visitor center


By David M. Brown

A structure in Pittsburgh’s Schenley Park that started as a picnic shelter nearly a century ago has undergone a Cinderella-like transformation into a 21st-century gateway for one of the city’s popular nature retreats.

The Schenley Park Visitor Center – the old building restored for a new use – is nearing completion and will be ready for an open-house gala planned for the first weekend in December, said Meg Cheever, president of the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy.

“We’re thundering down the home stretch,” Cheever said of the $1.9 million undertaking that was launched two years ago.

The center is the second in a series of showcase projects spearheaded by the conservancy, in conjunction with a long-range plan to improve Pittsburgh’s parks system. It is located on Schenley Drive, near the park’s entrance, across from Phipps Conservatory in Oakland.

The conservancy entered a 30-year lease agreement with the city to operate the center.

The open house is scheduled from noon to 4 p.m. Dec. 1-2.

“We’re happy with the way it’s turning out,” said architect Ellis Schmidlapp of Landmarks Design Associates, the Pittsburgh architectural firm that designed the center.

The plan restored the two-story building into a 2,600-square-foot facility that retained the old shelter’s foundations, brick exterior walls, ornamental windows and heavy timber roof construction.

“The challenge always is to put as many uses into the building as possible. It started out life as nothing but a picnic pavilion,” Schmidlapp said.

Now the building will contain a visitor’s center, gift shop, cafe and public bathrooms.

The idea for restoring the structure – Schenley Park’s only remaining original building – stemmed from responses to studies the conservancy conducted in 1998.

“A unifying thread was that people said they loved the parks, but they would stay longer if some of their basic human needs were met, such as clean usable restrooms, a place to get a snack or a drink, and park information,” Cheever said.

The cafe will serve coffee and light lunch fare. A gift shop will sell nature-themed merchandise. An information kiosk will include a trip planner for outings in the park, a calendar of events and a survey to provide information about park use.

Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy praised the project as an outstanding example of investments the city is making in its parks. An avid runner, Murphy said he plans to make use of the center himself during jaunts through the park.

The center will give visitors a home base for exploring the park, said Abbie Pauley, conservancy spokeswoman.

“This building has had a lot of incarnations. It’s really a dramatic transformation. Not only is the building coming to life, but it brings new life to Schenley,” she said.

Constructed around 1904, the building first served as a picnic shelter. Later, it was used as a nature museum and concession stand.

In the early 1930s, the structure was converted into a tool shed. After being used from 1935 to 1940 as home of the Pittsburgh Civic Garden Center, the building fell into disrepair and has remained closed since the 1980s.

Barry Hannegan, director of historic design programs for the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, applauded the work to save the original building. The noted Pittsburgh architectural firm Rutan and Russell first designed the building.

“It’s an extremely important early building in the park. It was and is again now a very handsome example of the Arts and Craft style of architecture, and its restoration is a significant recovery for our architectural history here,” Hannegan said.

By spring, the center will offer nature-oriented lectures, slide shows and programming for all ages, Pauley said. Meeting rooms will be available for use in the evenings. The downstairs portion will serve as a substation for police, providing a police presence at all hours.

Sponsors of the project include the Allegheny Foundation, Eden Hall Foundation, Heinz Endowments, Rachel Mellon Walton Fund of the Pittsburgh Foundation, Hillman Foundation, Sanford N. and Judith Robinson Family Foundation, the Allegheny Regional Asset District, the city of Pittsburgh and the Neighborhood Needs Program.

Who is Mary Schenley?

Mary Schenley donated 300 acres of land in 1889 to the City of Pittsburgh, which later became Schenley Park.

The former Mary Groghan was the granddaughter of James O’Hara, a wealthy capitalist in early Pittsburgh. While in boarding school in New York at the age of 15, she met and fell in love with Capt. Edward Wyndham Harrington Schenley. They eloped in 1842.

The couple spent most of their married life in England.

Although Schenley had no desire to live in her native city, she made large donations here.

In addition to giving the city property for a park, she presented the Blockhouse, the city’s oldest building, to the Daughters of the American Revolution as a memorial of less peaceful times.

When Schenley died in 1903, her Pittsburgh real estate holdings were worth more than $50 million.

Source: Pittsburgh, by Stefan Lorant

This article appeared in the Pittsburgh Tribune Review. © Tribune Review

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