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Built 90 Years Ago, South Park’s Forgotten Cascades To Be Restored

Amy Sisk
Thursday marked a groundbreaking ceremony for the restoration of South Park's Cascades, a rocky feature built 90 years ago where locals could cool off in wading pools.

Paulette Buchignani remembers making the trek from Mt. Washington to South Park all the time growing up in the 1950s.

Her dad always took the family to the Cascades, a rocky spot in the middle of the park where water trickled across rocks, forming waterfalls and wading pools.


“It was just beautiful. It was like nowhere else,” she said, standing atop one of the dried up pools. “I couldn’t even believe they didn’t keep it up.”


The site is covered in weeds today, but it’s slated to be restored next year.


“I’m so excited about this,” Buchignani said. “I can’t wait.”

Credit Amy Sisk / WESA
Amid decades of neglect, weeds and dirt have taken over the Cascades at South Park.

The Cascades was the brainchild of Swedish architect Paul Riis. Built in 1927, it was constructed with rocks quarried from South Park.


For decades, it served as a place to cool down on hot summer days until the 1960s or 1970s. The county shut it down because the facility’s unfiltered water didn’t meet health standards, said Andy Baechle, Allegheny County parks director.


The site has sat largely untouched in the years since, though kids still like to explore it and dig in the dirt for worms.


“I came here in day camp in the ’80s, so it was already closed, but I remember specifically playing here,” said Mike Davenport, who handles video production for the Pittsburgh Penguins. “We bring my kids here nowadays to play on the rocks. Pretty much any weekend we’re not doing anything, we’re out here.”


The Pittsburgh Penguins Foundation has partnered with Allegheny County to restore the site. This is the first project of the foundation’s new Operation Restore program.


Davenport put together a video featuring images of the Cascades from its early days, family video from Buchignani and shots of his kids playing here over the years:

Baechle estimates the restoration project will cost $1 million, with funding from the county, state, foundations and other donors.


“We’re going try to restore it to as close as it was originally but bring it today’s standards,” he said, adding that the facelift will include safety upgrades and filtered water.


Thursday marked a groundbreaking ceremony for the project. Baechle said he expects the bulk of the construction to take place next year, and he anticipates work will wrap up by the end of 2019.


Although the site has been neglected for decades, some restoration was underway prior to Thursday.

Credit Amy Sisk / WESA
A tiny stream of water trickles through a pipe at the Cascades. While the pools are still largely full of dirt, there are drains underneath that once directed the flow of water through the South Park facility.

Stephen Luteran, a program coordinator for the Student Conservation Association, began working here a few summers ago with local teens at the request of the park.

“We started clearing off all the rocks,” he said. “We started digging out this original pool because they wanted to see what the bottom was like because it had not been uncovered in years.”


The teens found that the rocks that made up the pool were painted blue, and they discovered drains and a plumbing system that once directed the flow of water.


Luteran said their work has attracted attention from park users who had never noticed the site next to the Oliver Miller Homestead. Even he hadn't heard of it until he started to work on it.


“I’ve been coming to this park since I was a kid and had been to Oliver Miller and had no idea the pools were here,” he said.


Buchignani, who visited the Cascades with her dad in the 1950s, couldn’t find the site Thursday. She stopped to ask a woman walking through the park to point her toward the waterfall.


The woman had no clue what she was talking about, but she told Buchignani that it would be nice if the park did have a waterfall.


“Oh,” Buchignani told the woman, “are you going to be surprised!”