Historic Fountain Rebuilt On The North Side

May 3, 2019

As part of a plan to make over Allegheny Commons Park, the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy wanted to rebuild a long-demolished landmark fountain.

One problem was that the historic Northeast Fountain was something of a mystery. Its existence was well-documented: It was first built about 150 years ago, in 1868. That's right around the time what was then Allegheny City turned a former commonly held pastureland into a city park called Allegheny Commons.

But not only didn’t the Conservancy know exactly when the fountain was demolished – sometime after World War II, a likely victim of “urban renewal” — it was hard to even tell exactly what it looked like. Existing photographs were “blurry,” says Susan Rademacher, the Conservancy’s parks curator, obscuring details.

That changed, she says, with the discovery of a more sharply focused Library of Congress photo. The image permitted the project’s architects, Pashek + MTR, to create a near-likeness of the Victorian-era fountain, says Rademacher.

The rebuilt Northeast Fountain, a $2.5 million project, opened this week, with a ribbon-cutting Thursday.

While the new fountain is just the latest step in the master plan for Allegheny Commons, it’s a big one. The Conservancy says the park is the city's oldest. The fountain sits at the corner of Cedar Street, right across West North Avenue from Allegheny General Hospital; it also abuts two business districts (on East Ohio and Federal streets) and counts among its neighbors schools; churches; seasonal attractions like a farmers market and city pool; and cultural amenities like Alphabet City and the National Aviary.

“It’s a lovely 100-percent corner where everything happens,” says Rademacher. “And that’s a great place to make a statement about the value of a park to a community.”

The fountain rebuild was led by the Conservancy in partnership with the City of Pittsburgh, the Allegheny Commons Initiative, and the Northside Leadership Conference.

Like the original fountain, the new Northeast Fountain has a 50-foot basin, and a central urn as the focal point for multiple jets of water. There are important differences: As an energy-saving move, the central plume shoots 10 feet in the air, in contrast to the reported 70-foot height attained by the original, says Rademacher. Rather than the original’s marble, the building material is cast stone (i.e., concrete masonry). And in another nod to conservation, the city water that feeds the fountain will be recirculated, rather than simply running into the sewer, as water from all fountains did in the old days, she says.

The new fountain has benches on three sides. The Conservancy also added a garden of perennial flowers and 14 trees, including red maple and American elm.

Rademacher says the fountain project grew out of 2002’s master plan for Allegheny Commons Park, created by the Allegheny Commons Initiative, a nonprofit advocacy group. The first step was to renovate the “promenade” that runs along Cedar Avenue, says Rademacher. Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy became a formal partner in recent years.

Rademacher characterized the fountain’s completion as the kickoff of the next phase of realizing the master plan, which is to renovate the walkways, lighting, seating, plantings and street crossings in the park along West North Avenue.

While the fountain is owned by the city, the Conservancy shares upkeep duties. The fountain’s $2.5 million price tag includes what Rademacher calls “a permanent maintenance” endowment – crucial for what’s essentially a machine that requires daily inspections, filter-cleaning, and seasonal activation and deactivation.

Rademacher acknowledged that some observers might question the wisdom of recreating an amenity like the fountain. She notes that fountains have quantifiable benefits – cooling their immediate area, dampening the noises of the city – but said intangibles are important too.

“Fountains are a critical symbol of joy and aspiration for a community,” says Rademacher. “They connect people to water in a really visceral way.”

Moreover, she adds, “This is the most happening part of Allegheny Commons. … And I think it’s really important in a place that’s that busy that there be something that’s really beautiful and timeless that really gives all the functional uses of the Commons, a focal point that people can really be proud of and excited by.”