PITTSBURGH, Pa. — Plans for a giant 100-foot geyser at the apex of a new Point Park were first unveiled and given preliminary approval on April 16, 1951. The fountain was expected to pose sizable engineering challenges and would take over two decades to come to fruition.
The new park was part of an ambitious plan first launched on May 18, 1950, when crowds and dignitaries first gathered to begin what would become known as the “Renaissance of Pittsburgh.” Demolition of about 59 acres in the point district was ceremonially started by slamming a wrecking ball into a small house.
The plan was to revitalize the entire point, which was crammed with dilapidated warehouses and railroad facilities, into a 36-acre park that would preserve the remnants of the city’s military importance and serve as a landmark surrounded by gleaming new towers.
Pittsburgh’s point has been of great regional importance since it was first surveyed by George Washington. Though the early military fortifications were all but gone by the turn of the 19th century (except for the Fort Pitt Blockhouse which still stands in the park as Pittsburgh’s oldest building), the point remained a vital district as the city grew.
Home to businesses, churches and residential streets until it was devastated by the Great Fire of 1845, the point’s reconstruction transformed it into a predominantly commercial and industrial district. By the turn of the 20th century, the point was largely occupied by the rail yards, warehouses and the newly constructed Wabash Pittsburgh Terminal with its massive complex reaching all the way to the Wabash Bridge.
The industrialization of the point didn’t sit comfortably with many Pittsburghers and talks about reclaiming it for a park, or at least attempting to improve and beautify it, gained momentum in the early 1910s. Despite several proposals, the effort stalled until October 1940, when Mayor Cornelius Scully announced plans to reclaim the area as a state park, following the recommendations of Robert Moses. Moses, who had transformed New York City, was hired by Pittsburgh to develop a long-term plan for reshaping the city and its road network.
The park’s three key planners, landscape architect Ralph E. Griswold, architect Charles Morse Stotz and bridge and highway engineer George S. Richardson, were all from the Pittsburgh area and already had national reputations when they started the project.
While many of the proposed designs for a park at the point had worked with the existing bridges, Frank Lloyd Wright was the first to suggest installing a fountain at the point itself and pushing the highway interchange back closer to the city. While his fantastical plans for the imposing Point Park Civic Center were not popular nor fiscally realistic, the ideas of a fountain and relocating the bridges deeper into the triangle were embraced.
Furthering the dramatic vista, the designers envisioned a broad lawn lined with trees to pull visitors’ eyes to the towering fountain at the point and the rivers beyond. The only structure to remain would be the Fort Pitt Blockhouse, with the outlines of both Fort Pitt and Fort Duquesne commemorated in new bastions (flattened on the city side in a later park renovation) and outlines on the large lawns.
Both of the bridges that connected at the point itself were scheduled for removal to make way for the fountain. The Manchester Bridge and Point Bridge were dismantled in 1970, after their replacements, the Fort Pitt and Fort Duquesne Bridges were completed.
The key to relocating the highways and ramps to flow with the Fort Duquesne and Fort Pitt Bridges, without creating an excessive or gloomy barrier in the middle of the park, was the 182-foot long and low arc of the Portal Bridge. Underneath the bridge, a reflecting pool shines below another gracefully sloped pedestrian bridge nested perpendicularly to the highway above. The design was a collaboration between Richardson and architect Gordon Bunshaft, the well-known modernist referred by H.J. Heinz II.
Crowds gathered at the point on August 30, 1974, for the official grand opening of Point State Park. Culminating the ceremonies and speeches was the turning on of the fountain’s three pumps, sending 6,000 gallons of water a minute 150-feet up into the sunny sky.
The fountain’s water is supplied by the famous “fourth river” that runs underneath the Golden Triangle. The Wisconsin Glacial Flow is located about 55 feet underground, and at the time of its completion, the fountain was the tallest in the United States.
The park was an immediate success with the public, and a year later the 36-acre park was designated as a National Historic Landmark.
The fountain at the head of the three rivers and the Golden Triangle became a beacon for further downtown redevelopment. Renaissance I soon rolled into Renaissance II, and the park took its place as the center of Pittsburgh’s great civic celebrations.
The fountain, which had been turned off in April 2009, received new pumps and controls along with a new “disappearing edge” and dynamic LED lighting around the reflecting pool below it. When the fountain was turned back on in 2013, the column of water was more easily able to sustain its original height of 150 feet.
The riverfront promenades, woodland areas and lawns were all reconstructed to better accommodate crowded festivals and events, restroom facilities for the public were refurbished and the Café at the Point opened.