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The Point: Primeval Planting for Point Park


From Carnegie Magazine, April 1953, by Margaret M. Winters.
Looking at the Point today it is startling to realize that in 1806 it inspired one man--a jurist--to write, "There is not a more delightful spot under heaven to spend any of the summer months than at this place." Indeed Judge Hugh Henry Brackenridge went even further and stated that on this same land, in our lifetime entirely occupied by the products of industry and commerce, "the finest gardens in the known world may be formed." Thus, once again it is brought home to us that in the Point, Pittsburgh has a heritage unique naturally as well as politically, and until recently neglected.

Point Park was conceived and developed as a memorial to that heritage. It includes the area from Barbeau Street down to the fork of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers. Of the thirty-six acres comprising the Park, eighteen acres will lie west of the proposed bridges and highway interchanges. The general recommendations of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, which was charged by the Commonwealth's department of forests and waters, Samuel S. Lewis, secretary, with the responsibility of procuring preliminary plans, included the advice "that all Park development west of the highway interchange be restricted to conditions and events relating to the natural, military, and social history prior to the year 1800 A. D." Since then this policy has been extended to include the entire thirty-six acres.

But what is the botanical history of the Point? The only trees existing in the area are the ginkgos near the Block House, planted by the Daughters of the American Revolution as memorials to certain of the early settlers; and the plane trees at the tip of the Point, planted by the Woman's Club of Pittsburgh as memorials to various outstanding citizens. All have been put there within the last fifty years--in the whole region there is not a single tree to which we can point and say, "This was here at the time of our Revolution." The first endeavors of the early settlers were to clear off farmsites and destroy cover in which Indians might hide. They succeeded too well from the historian's point of view. Floods conspired to help them.

Pittsburgh is fortunate in having at Carnegie Museum a man who has devoted many years to the study of our ecology and is an authority on the plant geography of western Pennsylvania, past as well as present--director emeritus O. E. Jennings. In consultation with him, plants were selected for the Park that would not only be suitable from a practical point of view but would also be correct historically.

There are a few records of the planting that existed at the Point in the early colonial period. George Washington writes in his journal that in 1753 there was "a considerable bottom of flat well-timbered land all around it." A few years later he mentions riding about forty-three miles down the river to the Point, passing "a great deal of exceedingly fine land, chiefly white oak." The Point was considered to be such a choice, fertile piece of ground that, before the Revolution, the Penns planned to retain it in one of their Manors. Craig's History of Pittsburgh mentions a survey made for them in 1769 which noted "Spanish oak," "sugar-trees," "white oak," white walnut," "hickory," and "red oak" growing in the are at that time. Colonel Henry Bouquet, too, as Rose Demorest tells us, remarked: "The beauty of this place is beyond description. The land is so rich, pasture so abundant, everything should thrive."

There were extensive vegetable gardens attached to Fort Pitt to supply the garrison through the winter. Known as "The King's Gardens" they were located just east of Barbeau Street, west of Stanwix Street and north of Liberty Avenue, occupying about four of our city blocks and enclosed by pickets. The list of standing artificers at the Fort included a gardener with two assistants. The fields around the Fort yielded corn, hay, spelts, rye, and oats. Beyond was an orchard of apple and pear trees, on the plantation of one of the Fort's commanding officers.

The new planting, however, will be restricted in general to material that might have been there when George Washington first saw the Point in 1753, no attempt being made to restore the man-made gardens that lay east of Barbeau Street. In the area east of the highway bridge some exotic plants will be used to provide a transition between the planting in the rest of the Triangle and the Park.

The diagrammatic plan shows the scheme. [Not shown.] The Block House will remain just where it is now. Walks will lead from the City streets under the highway bridge to the various points of interest in the Park. Two of the bastions of Fort Pitt will be reproduced.

East of the Highway Bridge.
Starting at Barbeau Street east of the highway bridge there will be a rather formal planting that will tie in with the type of development in the rest of the downtown area--Mellon Square, Gateway Center, and similar spots. The east edge of the Park will be marked by a row of sugar maples, under which will be place benches facing into the park. Sitting there, the observer will look across a low hedge to an expanse of open lawn dotted with a few of the elms and beech which once made up the forest. Through the opening under the bridge he will see the Park beyond. From certain spots on Liberty Avenue there will be a long vista through the Park to the fountain and Ohio river.

Entrance walks leading to the Museum and the rest of the Park are outlined by hedges of American hornbeam, about ten feet high, edged with myrtle and backed up with American beech trees.

The rather thick plantations north and south of the lawn will give a parklike character to the areas adjacent to the city streets, serving also to screen the hustle and bustle of traffic from the park. These plantations are to be made up of the following varieties:

Large trees: American Elm, Sweetgum, Shagbark Hickory, Honeylocust, Cucumber tree;
Small trees: Dogwood, Hawthorn;
Shrubs: Elderberry, Laurel, Viburnum, Benzoin.
Planting islands between highway lanes will be filled with Hall's Japanese Honeysuckle.

Here, too, in this area east of the highway bridge, the memorial gingkos and plane trees, moved from their present locations at the Block House and the tip of the Point, will be given places of importance in keeping with their significance. New locations for these memorial trees will be chosen in consultation with the Fort Pitt Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution and other authorities.

West of the Highway Bridge.
West of the highway bridge, the park will be an open lawn surrounded by heavy planting through which paved walks lead to the bastions and to points overlooking the pool at the tip of the Point and to the pool plaza. From this plaza the river promenades will parallel the Allegheny and Monongahela, where strollers can watch marine activities. Mooring rings will be provided for large and small craft. Between the promenades at the low level and the upper lawn area will be a steep bank paved with stone to resist erosion. In all directions there will be views of the rivers seen through the trees. Only in the spots that are shaded on the diagram [not shown] will there be shrubs or low-branched trees to cut off the view.

All planting in this western part of the Park will resemble the primeval forest as closely as it is possible to reproduce it in the midst of the city. Trees and shrubs chosen for this section include:

Large trees: American Elm, Pin Oak, Red Oak, Scarlet Oak, White Oak, Shingle Oak, Sugar Maple, Red Maple, Blackgum, Tulip tree, Beech;
Small trees: Hawthorn, Dogwood;
Shrubs: Laurel, Elderberry, Viburnum, Benzoin.

To reproduce the natural woodland floor of the primeval forest, certain areas will be of a special woods soil. These areas will be raised about one foot above the lawn, held in place by large stones laid as a ledge in a naturalistic manner and planted with low-growing native plants under the trees. In addition to the rock ledge, a post and rail barrier about eighteen inches high will protect the area from stragglers. For the cover, only shade-tolerant plants which make their growth before the trees leaf out will be used, such as:

Patridgeberry, Wintergreen, Lycopodium, Spring beauty, Wild Phlox, Bloodroot, Wild Ginger, Indian Turnip, Sweet Cicely, Black Snakeroot, Wild Grape, Bittersweet.

Springing from tree pockets in the paved bank above the riverside promenade will be a few willows and American hornbeam.

A Living Reminder.
So it is hoped that within a few years it will be possible once again to see the rivers and surrounding hills through vistas similar to those seen by the first white man at the Point, a living reminder of our heritage from those stirring and momentous days. And perhaps a twentieth-century Judge Brackenridge will again repeat his words, "Here we have town and country together. How pleasant it walk out upon these grounds, the smooth green surface of the earth and the woodland shade softening the late fervid beams of the sun."


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