Far more people traveled under the Greenfield Bridge before it disappeared Monday than ever traveled over it. That isn’t what was envisioned when it opened 92 years ago.
It was supposed to be part of a landscaped thoroughfare making travel through the city a leisurely experience in the wondrous age of automobiles. Therein is the story of Beechwood Boulevard, the longest convoluted street in a city of many, and a romantic vision that ultimately made Pittsburgh more livable.
If you drive through Squirrel Hill, you may wonder why the boulevard meanders so much without changing names. It is because a century ago, Beechwood went on a growth spree, trying to sidle up to every recently created park it could reach.
Many cities developed similar park-oriented roads at that time. Some called them, get this . . parkways. We’ll get back to that.
An art commission reviewed the design for the Beechwood Boulevard bridge at Greenfield. The commission wanted to ensure it would appeal to what were called Sunday drivers, those out for recreational cruises.
It approved a graceful arching concrete expanse. Drivers would be culturally elevated by beauty, and relieved not to crash into the valley below. That came close to happening.
The wood structure it replaced, sometimes called the Schenley Park Bridge, was falling down, falling down. City Photographer pictures dated 1909 show a major effort underway to jack the bridge up and get its sliding feet firmly replanted on the hillsides.
Photos dated 1921 show a splintered debris field across the valley. A “Closed Bridge Sign” teetering over one edge indicated the span had already been closed when it fell.
Not that it would have hit much. Down below, you would not see cars sitting six abreast and motoring impatience rising with the fumes. There was just unpaved Forward Avenue and Four Mile Run lazily tracing the bottom of the ravine.
The Man Who Made Pittsburgh Livable
The beginnings of modern traffic under the bridge would not be seen until the Penn-Lincoln Parkway tunneled through the obstructive base of Squirrel Hill in 1953.
But, that’s jumping ahead. Let’s jump back. Let’s look at the career of a remarkable city worker who shaped the city more than anyone else. Every Pittsburgher knows his cool name, but not what he did: Bigelow, as in Bigelow Boulevard.
Edward Bigelow was in charge of public works, parks and involved with city planning for more than 30 years.
He not only saw the need for urban parks and landscaped boulevards in a highly industrialized city, the persuasive civil engineer made it happen.
Here is just one example:
One day in 1889, Bigelow, probably lunching at the Duquesne Club downtown, heard a local developer was sending an agent to England to talk heiress Mary Schenley into selling a few hundred acres of what is now Oakland and Squirrel Hill.
He set his napkin down, got up and rushed to an East Liberty attorney. Bigelow put the lawyer on a train to New York with instructions to get on a London-bound steamer and talk to Mary first. He did. By two days. Before the developer’s agent arrived, Mary agreed to give 300 acres to the city to use as a park, with an option to buy another 120. She asked only that the park bear her name and never be sold.
Vanity or Vengeance?
The name requirement sounds like vanity, but Mary may have had something else in mind. She may have been saying, “In your face!” to people long dead.
Schenley was really her husband’s name. She came from a family of O’Haras and Croghans. Mary was 15 and at boarding school in New York when she eloped with her 43-year-old English captain. Her outraged father set off a newspaper-flamed international scandal. He tried cutting her off. However, her mother’s father, a wealthy Pittsburgh frontier businessman and landowner, set her up generously. Grandparents tend to do that.
Paperwork in hand, the city immediately bought the optional 120 acres. Before a decade was out, Bigelow got the city to add another 90 acres to Schenley Park.
He got his rich, retired friends to contribute to the public good, and their shared vision for Schenley Park. Henry Phipps put up the Phipps Conservatory & Botanical Gardens in 1893. Andrew Carnegie built the Carnegie Museum and Music Hall at the park’s main entrance two years later. Forbes Field, home of the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Steelers and the Pitt Panthers, took a seat nearby in 1909.
Under Bigelow’s direction, Pittsburgh opened Highland Park in 1893. That was after buying out
farmers one by one to the tune of more than $900,000. Another of Bigelow’s philanthropic friends, Christopher Lyman Magee, opened his wallet for a zoo there. Five years later, the Pittsburgh Zoo opened its gates. Well, not the ones holding back the animals. The ones letting people in.
Bigelow also set to work creating the boulevards he wanted to connect downtown, Schenley Park and everything scenic in between. That led to Grant Boulevard, Washington Boulevard, Beechwood Boulevard, and the Boulevard of the Allies, which honors our World War I friends — not the ones from World War II. Japan and Italy were on our side in the first world war.
Grant Boulevard was carved into the side of Bedford Hill above the Strip District. It extended Grant Street downtown to Oakland and proved so successful, that the city eagerly continued boulevard building. It remains one of the most traveled streets in the city.
Now, it’s called Bigelow Boulevard. The name changed when Bigelow died. He also got a statue in Schenley Park.
Grant, by the way, was not Ulysses S. Grant, the Civil War general who became president.
He was a Scottish major who led a few hundred men to slaughter at the hands of Indians at Fort Duquesne, and then asked for a promotion. He didn’t get it. The hill where his men died became known as Grant’s Hill. The downtown street, the traditional center of Pittsburgh finance and government, is named after the hill, which is no longer there.
Bigelow steered Beechwood Boulevard toward woods owned by Henry Clay Frick. It neatly snaked along the property line providing a nice way into a park — if one were ever to be established there.
The cantankerous Frick died in 1919 and left 150 acres to the city.
Bigelow died three years before, but it seems very likely the engineer arranged in advance for Frick’s generosity. Frick also threw in $2 million to maintain the acreage and to buy neighboring tracts. Today, the park comprises 644 acres.
You may have noticed Frick Park is very different from the others. Bigelow was all about making parks pretty, improving on Nature.
He wasn’t around to improve Frick’s woods, and a back-to-nature movement was underway. So, those who oversee Frick Park maintain trails (not paths). One will not find statues or fountains there. Bridges are rough-hewn timber instead of graceful stone arches.
It’s there for hiking not Sunday drives.
So, let’s go back to the concrete arches at Greenfield and the traffic that goes under them, or used to until they dropped the bridge onto the Parkway.
The Parkway Comes Without Parks
The Penn-Lincoln Parkway was completed in stages through the 1950s and 1960s.
Where the Greenfield Bridge straddled it, the highway eliminated the portion of Forward Avenue that ran between Squirrel Hill and the J&L plant, home of the Hot Metal Bridge.
The Parkway may well have been intended to be an easy drive. It’s name implies as much.
Wikipedia: A parkway is a broad, landscaped highway thoroughfare. The term is particularly used for a roadway in a park or connecting to a park from which trucks and other heavy vehicles are excluded. Many parkways originally intended for scenic, recreational driving have evolved into major urban and commuter routes.
Yeah. That’s what happened here.
As a vestige of Bigelow’s vision to instill beauty into an industrial cityscape now sits in a landfill, we wait to see what replaces it. The state says it will be a steel arched bridge with railings and lighting reminiscent of the old one.
Let’s hope it’s design is more successful than what replaced a twin of the Greenfield Bridge in 1977.
A concrete bridge that took Murray Avenue over Beechwood Boulevard, near the Squirrel Hill tunnels, also was replaced with a steel structure.
That bridge is quite striking, striking for its resemblance to a giant, turquoise, mid-century modern coffee table.