The semicircular arched bridge near Serpentine Drive is one of two concrete bridges in Schenley Park covered with tufa stone. Photos courtesy Matthew Falcone.

When they were built in 1908 as part of Superintendent George Burke’s romantic vision for Schenley Park, two rustic arch bridges covered in tufa stone were meant to serve a bridle path for equestrians. Today the bridges are on a path to historic designation.

Burke, who brought many improvements to Pittsburgh parks and the Victorian-era Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, deliberately chose shady locations near Schenley Drive and Serpentine Drive for the two tufa bridges, so that moss and lichen eventually would cover them, making them picturesque as well as utilitarian.

“They’re so beloved and so popular in Pittsburgh. Everyone has been so supportive through this process,” says Matthew Falcone, president of Preservation Pittsburgh, who nominated the city-owned bridges for landmark status in July. The Historic Review Commission in September recommended the designation; the Planning Commission will hold a public hearing on November 7.

“These bridges are particularly cool because when they were built, they were meant to be part of the landscape,” Falcone says. “When you look at some of the pictures from when they were constructed, there were no trees, no greenery, and now they’re completely integrated into the landscape.”

Archival photo of the hemispherical arched bridge near Schenley Park Welcome Center.

Made of reinforced concrete with the unique stone façade, the bridges extend over a gulch to connect Lower Panther Hollow Trail. Arched bridges are common, says Falcone, but the porous stone from a northeastern Ohio quarry that covers these makes them unique. Their closest counterparts are two 18th-century bridges — the Point de Milieu made of hewn tufa stone in Fribourg, Switzerland, and the Bowling Green Bridge in North Yorkshire, England.

If city planners and City Council agree to designate the Schenley Park bridges as City Historic Landmarks, they’ll join only three other bridges among Pittsburgh’s 446 spans with that designation.

“Pittsburgh being the ‘City of Bridges,’ we felt that list could definitely be enhanced,” says Falcone. “We started looking at significant bridges that weren’t already landmarked and reaching out to the owners. The tufa bridges are the start of that process. We’re hoping in a year or so to add more to that list.”

(These are not among the four stone bridges in Schenley Park built by the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression; those have “WPA 1939” chiseled in the sides.)

Tufa stone is a mineral deposit formed through natural springs, says Falcone. With lots of holes, nooks and crannies, the stones accumulate soil over the years and attract seeds. “It turns into a giant planter,” he says. Rains melted the mineral deposits to form a shell over the concrete structure, strengthening it.

City Public Works crews in recent years sourced more tufa to replace some of the stone that was missing or damaged by time, Falcone says.

The elliptical arched bridge near Bartlett Shelter in Schenley Park.

Preservation Pittsburgh’s historic nomination notes Burke’s contributions to Pittsburgh. A renowned horticulturalist known for his chrysanthemum shows, Burke became city parks superintendent in 1894, with responsibilities for Schenley Park, Phipps and what was then the Highland Park Zoo. During his tenure, the city acquired new parks and built picnic shelters, tennis courts, roads, trails, walks and walls. Two rooms that Burke designed at Phipps also utilize tufa stone.

“As part of the [nomination] process, we look into not only the structure but the people who are involved to see what kind of contributions they had to the city of Pittsburgh,” Falcone says. “George Burke was significant. A lot of his legacy we still have.”

The group’s research turned up a shocking historical ending, however. On March 25, 1926, Burke, 64, shot himself in the head in his office at Phipps; a colleague found him dead. His only surviving family member was his widow.

Sandra Tolliver

Sandra Tolliver is a freelance writer, editor and public relations professional in Upper St. Clair.