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Oakland

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The Oakland plateau consists of several hundred acres at a much higher elevation than the Golden Triangle and three miles east of it. Crowded now by the buildings of the University of Pittsburgh and its medical center, the plateau, part of a tract of several thousand acres that once stretched from Lawrenceville to Squirrel Hill, lay virtually fallow until 1890. The land belonged to a single absentee owner, London-based heiress Mary Schenley, who had inherited it from her two Revolutionary-era grandfathers, James O'Hara and George Croghan. Schenley's land was topographically erratic, with a steep hill to the north and two gullies—the St. Pierre Ravine and Junction Hollow—cutting it from the south. In 1890, Schenley gave about four hundred of her acres for the making of Schenley Park, but Andrew Carnegie siphoned off the best twenty acres for the new library that he proposed to build between the two gullies.

No other part of Pittsburgh needed such dramatic changes to its natural topography before it could be settled. Between 1897 and 1915, the city artificially banked up the picturesque Flagstaff Hill in Schenley Park, bridged Junction Hollow once to carry an elegant drive into the park and then bridged it a second time to carry Forbes Avenue from the expanded Carnegie Institute to another of Carnegie's major benefactions, the Carnegie Technical Schools, now Carnegie Mellon University ( AL43). (When Schenley died in 1903, Carnegie was expediently named an executor to her estate.) The city obligingly filled in the St. Pierre Ravine to render Schenley Plaza a proper entrance to Carnegie's library ( AL41); it also rerouted Bellefield Avenue to funnel visitors to Carnegie Museum's new main entrance.

If Carnegie provided the money, then local land speculator, realtor, and developer Franklin Felix Nicola (1860–1938) provided the inspired vision for Oakland (the name derives from the estate of glassmaker William Eichbaum, German for oak tree). Nicola, who also owned a lumber company, dreamed of building a fine residential area adjacent to a civic center. He either lured institutions to build in Oakland—the University of Pittsburgh being his biggest catch—or he invented them. The result, in an inspired partnership with Paris-trained designer Henry Hornbostel, was block after block of one of the more harmonious City Beautiful environments in the nation.

The interiors of Oakland's grand institutional buildings provide special delights as well. Not to be missed are Phipps Conservatory ( AL42); the Carnegie Library and museums ( AL41); the University of Pittsburgh's Cathedral of Learning ( AL38), Heinz Chapel ( AL39), and the Frick Fine Arts Building ( AL40); the Carnegie Mellon Research Institute ( AL37) and College of Fine Arts ( AL43); two excellent churches and a synagogue ( AL36and see AL34and AL118); and the flamboyant Soldiers' and Sailors' Memorial Hall ( AL33). The statuary, landscaping, and visual linkage among Oakland's monuments are of the same high quality as the interiors.

Aerial view of Oakland, c. 1980. Since this photograph was taken, the Cathedral of Learning ( AL38; center) has been cleaned and the adjacent parking lot transformed into Schenley Plaza, a five-acre park modeled after Bryant Park in New York City, with a carousel, lawn, and food kiosks.

There is, inevitably, a downside to all this magnificence. Decades before Carnegie fixed his eyes on Schenley's land, Oakland had provided thousands of modest homes for the ironworkers in the nearby Eliza Furnaces of Jones and Laughlin. The grand institutions and the modest residential neighborhoods have historically clashed in many a pitched battle, with the common citizen almost always on the losing side. The worst of the excesses came with the University of Pittsburgh's medical center, which by any measure is now overcrowded and overbuilt. There has been some recent improvement in Oakland's livability. Schenley Plaza redeemed itself by converting a mammoth parking lot into a lovely greensward, and bit by bit some hospitals are leaving Oakland: Children's has relocated to Lawrenceville and other research centers have moved to Shadyside and Bloomfield. “People's Oakland” (as one advocacy group calls itself) is finally asserting itself.

Writing Credits

Author: 
Lu Donnelly et al.

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