The Point reborn: Renovations update and honor original design

John Conti
| Saturday, June 1, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Point State Park is the centerpiece of our city, and you're going to see it this summer as you've never seen it before.

Not only will the magnificent geyser of the rebuilt Point fountain be rising some 150 feet into the air again when it is restarted June 7 for the first time in four years, but the entire park itself has undergone a gradual, nearly 10-years-long, $40 million restoration with rebuilt walkways and esplanades, restored planting areas and lawns, all new park furniture and lighting and subtle tweaks to its initial design.

The overall result is a park far superior to the rather neglected one of recent years, but one that still hews faithfully to the dramatic intent of the park's original designers.

Point State Park encompasses one of the most important sites in the history of the European settlement of our continent. Yet, by the 1930s, the ground that it now covers was a huge, grimy jumble of rundown houses, factories, warehouses and railroad yards. In smoky old Pittsburgh, you could be right in the middle of the Point area and have no sense of its history or even of the three rivers around it.

It took about 40 years — from the mid-1930s to the mid 1970s — to plan and build the park. It was delayed by World War II, by skepticism among the citizenry, by numerous competing visions for the park and by differences over how to honor the history of the Point. Demolition started in 1950 and construction in 1953. Then, as completion neared in 1970, arguments again arose, this time over the preservation and reuse of two old bridges that met at the apex of the point, about where the fountain is today.

But the park eventually did get built, the old bridges eventually did come down, and when the fountain was completed and started up in August 1974, the full park emerged, with a design that offers visitors experiences both subtle and grand.

Consider for a minute just how this park “works” when you visit. The two main entrances to the park sweep in broad curves from Commonwealth Place to bring you to “the portal” — the elegantly designed underpass beneath the highway. The sweep of these curves around the “festival lawn” has been enhanced in the recent renovations by a continuous row of benches on each side, a small but important addition to the visual impact of entering the park.

Then, after you get to the low portal, you step over a graceful bridge and reflecting pool that's under the highway and you now have, suddenly, before you a spectacular view across a second huge lawn down to the Point, the fountain, and the broad rivers beyond it. At this instant, you are experiencing the impact of the location exactly the way the original designers intended. Your view is framed by dense clumps of trees to your right and left, so this sudden, striking scene beckons you forward across the lawn.

This elemental experience works for you even when the fountain isn't running, but it's an especially powerful vista — one of the most dramatic urban vistas anywhere — when it is. All the elements of the park were brilliantly arranged and scaled to provide for this view.

In the recent renovations, two distractions have been removed. On the river side of the portal, an ill-placed bandstand erected some 40 years ago has been removed, and on the city side, the former dug-out profile of one of the Fort Pitt bastions has been filled-in, creating an uninterrupted space for major events in the park.

The loss of the dug-out bastion may be lamented from a historical perspective — it was a 1950s reconstruction but with some parts of the original still there. Yet, few people ever walked down into the dug-out moats to enjoy the history, and many, many more today enjoy the broad lawn that resulted from filling it in. The outline of the old fort is shown today by paving.

The park's planners were an amazingly talented bunch — and they were all local. The three key planners were landscape architect Ralph E. Griswold, architect Charles Morse Stotz and bridge and highway engineer George S. Richardson. All had national reputations even as they began their work.

They were ahead of their times in several ways. It's lately become a fad to create parks with plantings native to an area, but that was a key element of Griswold's plan for the park from the start. When you visit, as you walk in under the bridge, look over to your right — there is a huge, almost-forested area planted in all native plants some 50 years ago and recently touched up with removal and replacement of some undergrowth. Such a mature landscape is a total delight in an urban park, and it presents an almost picturesque experience as you walk through it.

One key to the design of the park became finding a way to, in effect, subdue the huge highway interchange that we all drive on today getting to the Fort Pitt tunnel or the North Shore. Richardson (who designed the Fort Pitt and Fort Duquesne bridges) particularly struggled with this issue and considered it a minor triumph in the design process when he could find a way to eliminate even one automobile ramp through the park.

The big break came though when the planners learned that the streetcar lines connecting Downtown to the west were to be eliminated and replaced by buses. Not having to accommodate streetcars enabled Richardson to simplify his designs and create the relatively smooth (by comparison) design we have today where you enter the city on the upper level of the Fort Pitt Bridge delighting in the now-celebrated full view of Downtown that opens up before you.

Still, there was a remaining big worry about the interchange. It was to be elevated, for sure. But could this be done without it becoming a “wall” or having a dismal tunnel under it, or, worse, just a routine highway underpass, as was loudly feared by Edgar Kaufmann and others city leaders involved in the planning process? A great park needed something more.

The solution came when H.J. Heinz II offered the services of Gordon Bunshaft, the chief designer for Skidmore, Owings and Merrill architects in Chicago and one of the best-known modernist architects of the mid-century. Bunshaft was then working on projects at the Heinz headquarters on the North Side. Stotz and Bunshaft collaborated on the design of the graceful portal that we have today, an improbably low and wide archway underneath the highway, with a reflecting pool and a wide and beautifully shaped pedestrian bridge over that pool. After the architects did their design, Richardson had to work overtime to get the engineering right for such a low arch. But he clearly did.

The recent renovations to the park have been a joint project of the state; Riverlife, the riverfront planning and advocacy organization; and the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, the group that originally led the creation of the park. Pressley Associates of Cambridge, Mass. provided the design services.

John Conti is a former news reporter who has written extensively over the years about architecture, planning and historic-preservation issues.

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