Mellon Park, 33 city-owned acres straddling Fifth Avenue in Shadyside and Point Breeze, soon could get Pittsburgh historic designation for its landscape design.
Dating to 1910, the property consists of pastoral parkland, formal gardens, a fountain and several buildings that once were part of estates belonging to the Mellon, Marshall, Scaife, Frew and Darsie families.
The city retained aspects of original architecture and landscapes when it acquired the estates and made them into a park in the 1940s and 1950s, Matthew Falcone of Preservation Pittsburgh explains in a presentation to the Pittsburgh Planning Commission. Falcone and Elizabeth Seamans of Friends of Mellon Park are nominating the property for historic status.
“It’s a prime example of landscape design and representative of a culture of philanthropy that shaped Pittsburgh throughout its history,” says Falcone. “It’s also clearly a beloved green space in the city’s East End. It’s been absolutely wonderful to see the community spearhead this preservation project.”
The park’s buildings are leased by nonprofit organizations dedicated to the arts and horticulture.
“The Mellon house, once the largest and grandest of the mansions that lined Fifth Avenue, was demolished prior to the creation of the park, but its associated gardens and landscapes remain, with varying degrees of integrity,” Falcone says in the nomination which was researched and written by Angelique Bamberg. “The Frew and Darsie houses are also demolished. The 1911 colonial revival Marshall mansion still stands near the intersection of Fifth and Shady avenues.”
Facing Shady Avenue is the Tudor revival house once home to the Scaife family and donated in 1943. The Marshall property was added in 1944, and the Frew and Darsie properties, east of the Mellon estate, in 1948.
The Mellon house site today is a teardrop-shaped lawn surrounded by walking paths. Architects Alden & Harlow had angled the house to face both Fifth Avenue and Beechwood Boulevard, giving its occupants views of the gardens and neighborhood beyond.
The essential architecture of Alden & Harlow’s Terraced Garden remains, though its plantings have changed. The Walled Garden was designed in 1929 by Vitale and Geiffert of New York. The Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy rehabilitated the Walled Garden in 2009, installing large decorative urns alongside the stairs at its eastern entrance.
In an agricultural area of Mellon Park is a single-story, U-shaped, stucco building informally known as “the chicken coop.”
“Whether it ever housed animals is not known,” Falcone says in his history of the site. “It is shown, but not labeled, on historic property maps and park plans beginning in the 1920s and may date to the construction of the estate in the early 1910s. This building was adapted for use as the activity headquarters of the Pittsburgh Council of American Youth Hostels after the estate’s conversion to a park.” It has been vacant since 2003.
Other historic aspects include Belgian block paving in the service court area of the Mellon estate; the Mellons’ carriage house, leased to Phipps Garden Center since 1945; and two stone statues originally located in the Terraced Garden.
“A cast-iron drinking fountain stands on a concrete base … in front of the garden center,” says Falcone. “It was manufactured by the Murdock Company of Cincinnati, Ohio, which began supplying water hydrants and fountains for public infrastructure in 1853, and was probably installed by the city upon the Mellon estate’s conversion to a park.”
A rock garden across Mellon Park Road from the garden center was established in 1976 by the Allegheny Chapter of the North American Rock Garden Society.
According to Falcone, Mellon Park is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places for its landscape architecture. Its landscapes and gardens, he says, “are examples of the best private landscape design money could buy in those years.”
The park is situated along a section of Fifth Avenue that became known as “Millionaires’ Row,” where wealthy 19th-century families kept East End estates “in what was then the countryside to get away from the commerce, industry, crowding and pollution at Pittsburgh’s Point,” says Falcone.