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Prestigious award may park in Mellon Square

Pittsburgh Tribune ReviewBy Allison M. Heinrichs
Saturday, January 20, 2007

An unassuming, peaceful piece of green in the heart of Downtown has support from a national historic landscape expert to be honored as a landmark, the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy has announced.

Mellon Square — a block of green dotted with fountains and sculptures near the Mellon Bank Building — should be given National Historic Landmark status as the oldest-surviving park above a parking garage, said Charles Birnbaum, founder of the Cultural Landscape Foundation in Washington.

“Think about the green roof movement in America. This came before that,” Birnbaum said. “Think about the American fascination with the automobile in post-war America. This fed off that.

“Think about the civic-minded vision that the Mellons had: This is part of the city’s civic philanthropy.”

On Feb. 1, Birnbaum will be at The Pittsburgh Golf Club in Squirrel Hill to discuss Mellon Square’s eligibility for the national designation. His visit is sponsored by the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, which is considering to sponsor Mellon Square for National Historic Landmark status.

“We feel the space is very elegant,” said Meg Cheever, president of the conservancy. “Sometimes we take for granted what is in our own backyard.”

Mellon Square was designed by landscape architect John Ormsbee Simonds, of Kilbuck, who died in 2005. He also designed Equitable Plaza and Crawford Square — all in Western Pennsylvania — and the Chicago Botanical Gardens.

Work on the park started in 1948 and was finished in 1951.

Birnbaum said he is optimistic about Mellon Square’s chances of getting National Historic Landmark status because very little has been changed there.

Simonds directed the park’s restoration in the early 1990s — staying true to his original vision for the park, which he described as “a platform, a structure, an island, a space, a focal center, a civic monument, a gathering place and an oasis,” according to Birnbaum.

John Scholl, a senior principal at Environmental Planning & Design — a Downtown firm that Simonds founded — said Simonds would have appreciated Mellon Square getting landmark status.

“I think it’s very much appropriate, and I’m sure John would be delighted,” Scholl said.

Officials with the National Park Service would evaluate Mellon Square, based on its significance to national history and how much of its original design still exists, said national parks historian Caridad de la Vega. Usually landmarks must be at least 50 years old to get the designation.

“It’s an involved process; there are a lot of steps. You can’t just say: ‘I want to be a landmark,’ and become one,” de la Vega said.

The process usually takes about two years. If Mellon Square gets the designation, it would be among a select few.

“National historic landmarks number about 2,600 or so in America, and it is the highest honor in the U.S.,” Birnbaum said. “Of that, only 50 or so have significance in landscape architecture — so you’re talking about a very elite group.”

Allison M. Heinrichs can be reached at or (412) 380-5607.

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

100 West Station Square Drive, Suite 450

Pittsburgh, PA 15219

Phone: 412-471-5808  |  Fax: 412-471-1633