Pittsburgh ready to reopen 'front door' — Point State Park

| Friday, June 7, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Years ago, Dan Wright took his young children to the fountain and watched them splash in the water on warm summer days.

His five kids grew up and moved out. His wife died 12 years ago. Nowadays, the 65-year-old Penn Hills retiree visits Point State Park alone.

“It's so beautiful here,” Wright said, sitting on a bench and pulling the brim of his Pirates hat low to shade his eyes. “This is Pittsburgh. The Point is Pittsburgh. You got the city right there, all three rivers, the bridges, the ballparks — look at the mountains all around us.

“... I can't get enough of it, to tell you the truth. And it sure beats sitting at home.”

The Point, as locals call it, is not only Pittsburgh's signature landmark, it has become one of the most iconic cityscapes in America.

Featured in movies and visible from key entry points to the city, it's where Downtown workers stroll on lunch breaks and where tourists shed long-held stereotypes of Pittsburgh as a dirty, ugly city. Here, the brown water of the Monongahela mixes with the blue-green Allegheny to form the mighty Ohio. It is where a large fountain traditionally greeted visitors by shooting water 150 feet into the air.

“It's our front door ... and the city's living room, where we go to celebrate by boat, by bike and on foot,” said Lisa Schroeder, CEO of Riverlife Pittsburgh, a riverfront advocacy and planning group.

On Friday, after four years of construction, the fountain will reopen with a celebration to mark the end of the $39 million renovation of Point State Park.

“I've never seen a place like this,” said Dylan Bierman, 13, of Brighton, Mich., who visited The Point with his parents as crews laid sod to replace the still-closed lawn. “You have Big City over here, the rivers going by over there, mountains up there. There's nothing like it anywhere else.”

‘Empires collided here'

The park's beauty is matched only by its historical significance.

“It's a really important place,” park manager Mathew Greene said. “Empires collided here.”

Home to four forts between 1754 and 1792, Point State Park was considered such an important military location that Patrick Henry urged Colonial troops in 1777 to consider Pittsburgh “the bulwark of your country” in defending it against the British.

In the 18th century, Fort Pitt, which took 2½ years to build and cost millions of dollars, was considered a state-of-the-art military facility. Its stone walls, nearly 15 feet high and more than 7 feet thick, were faced with 1.2 million bricks.

Over the decades, the area grew. Crews dumped construction debris from Pittsburgh's Renaissance, extending the land surface into the rivers, said Andrew Gaerte, education manager at Fort Pitt Museum. Today's fountain is about 400 feet downriver from where the water's edge was 250 years ago, he said.

When the frontier pushed westward, urban markings moved in.

Tenement housing and railroad yards replaced the fort's ramparts and bastions, Gaerte said. A Ferris wheel was built.

Former Pittsburgh Mayor and Pennsylvania Gov. David L. Lawrence was born in the Old Point District on June 18, 1889. By the 1940s, the area had deteriorated into a commercial slum, its military importance largely forgotten.

Mayor Cornelius D. Scully in 1937 named members of the Point Park Commission to establish a 36-acre park at the point. The state acquired almost all the property for the site by 1949 at a cost of $7.5 million. The park, completed in August 1974, was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1975. The National Park Service put an area of Downtown encompassing The Point on the National Register of Historic Places two weeks ago.

Treasure within the city

Today, it is a serene escape within the city.

“It's quiet,” said Downtown architect David Pudimat, 54, of Upper St. Clair, who worked on a crossword puzzle during a recent lunch break. “It feels very remote from Downtown, though it's only a few steps away.”

Sylvia Weise and daughter Farrah, 2, moved from Altoona to Reserve in February. Moving closer to a big city frightened her, she said. Finding The Point and strolling its grounds with her family erased that trepidation.

“You don't feel like you're in the big city here,” Weise said. “It's a nice place to walk. It's beautiful.”

It holds a potential windfall archaeologically.

“It's such an amazing place, and we don't know a whole lot about it,” said Christine Davis, an archaeologist who prepared a cultural resource analysis of the park in 2003 as part of its comprehensive master plan. “There was a cemetery there, a trading post, a drawbridge, Native Americans.”

The past is not buried too deeply, Davis said, but money for such an exploration remains elusive.

“We don't have a very good archaeological record of The Point,” Davis said. “What do we have there?”

For now, we have what Nicole Marie Story, a professional dog-walker who visited the park with two canine clients, calls “the epicenter of the city.”

“It's very New York — it's alive,” she said.

Chris Togneri and Craig Smith are Trib Total Media staff writers. Reach Togneri at 412-380-5632 or ctogneri@tribweb.com. Reach Smith at 412-380-5646 or csmith@tribweb.com.

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