Phil Gruszka is too young to remember the tiers of azaleas that lined Schenley Park’s Flagstaff Hill in the 1930s. But he is part of the effort to bring the hill, which faces Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Oakland, back to its former glory.

“There are things lost years ago and the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy is looking at identifying key elements in the park’s design and bringing them back,” says Gruszka, the conservancy’s director of horticulture and forestry, who was born in Chicago but moved to Pittsburgh about 20 years ago from Philadelphia.

“We don’t bring them back to reflect the landscape as it was,” he adds. “We try to improve on it.”

The Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy is set to break ground this week on a restoration project to preserve Flagstaff Hill’s historic integrity, improve its ecological health and increase its use.

The first step of the project for this popular landmark — a favorite spot for those looking for panoramic views of Oakland and the city skyline — is restoring the historic hand-hewn stone entry steps, retaining walls and the overlooking terrace. The project will also address pedestrian barriers by reconstructing the dilapidated main path connecting the east and west entrances, where the conservancy will soon create gardens.

The first step of the project is restoring the historic hand-hewn stone entry steps, retaining walls and terrace. Photo courtesy of the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy.

“It’s a beautiful spot — where it’s located, near the universities and Phipps Conservatory,” says Brandon Riley, capital projects manager for the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy. “This project will not only address cosmetic issues that impact the park, but will also improve the overall ecology through the installation of green materials.”

The new gardens will frame the east and west park entrances using sustainable native plants, the conservancy said. In addition, a reduction in impervious paving will help handle stormwater runoff and mitigate erosion issues that have plagued the site.

The cost of the project is approaching $900,000, with some state-level aid, officials say. The conservancy is accepting additional donations.

In the second phase of the project, the restored terrace will be repaved with permeable pavers to improve its use, and there will be substantial drainage improvements, Riley says.

A new woodland garden will be planted using native plants, bringing back the essence of the historic landscape with ecological sensitivity, Riley says.

The park also will include some non-native species, such as the Cornelian cherry dogwood tree, Gruszka says.

“It’s not native [to Pittsburgh] but it’s a fantastic urban tree,” he says. “It doesn’t get quite large but it blooms bright yellow in the spring. It’s a really attractive accent tree to the woodland garden. When we do the garden, we’ll try to work with plants that are historically represented. But we know some of them are candy to the deer.”

State Sen. Jay Costa, whose legislative district includes Schenley Park, says space for outdoor recreation is important for health, wellness and the community.

“I’m pleased to see updates and upgrades planned for the park, and always happy to support projects like this for state-level funding,” Costa says. “These improvements will be to all of our benefit in the years to come as Schenley Park remains an asset in our neighborhood.”

“It’s a nice, signature park space — and it’s definitely a wonderful Pittsburgh open space,” Riley adds. “I’m confident this park improvement project will make this popular space accessible and allow Pittsburghers to create more memories than ever before.”