In 1908, Henry Clay Frick searched for a present for his daughter Helen, as it would be her debut party. The 16 year old asked for an area where the children of Pittsburgh could play outdoors.
For that reason, Frick left Pittsburgh 151 acres of untouched farms and woodland in his will. He also left $2 million in a trust fund to be used for upkeep of the land. The area became known as Frick Park—and the original 151 acres is still undeveloped.
Since opening in 1927, the park has gained land and encompasses about 600 additional acres.
The park is used by all ages, but some organizations, like Frick Environmental Center and Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, are working to get children more involved with the park—and, consequently, honoring Helen’s original request which was made more than 100 years ago.
Susan Rademacher, parks curator at the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, said getting kids interested in parks is essential not only for a child’s development, but also to keep the parks healthy for future generations.
“Parks have cognitive, social and emotional benefits in human development,” Rademacher said. “And when children become adults, hopefully they are more aware of parks and are stewards in one way or another.”
If not, parks could suffer the same fate they experienced during the 1970s into the '80s. During this time, park use was at an all-time low and local governments began spending money elsewhere. Few community organizations existed to conserve parks and they started to deteriorate.
“We kind of forgot that we had living landscapes out there,” she said.
In the '90s, private citizens began going to local governments with an idea—to start conservancies to take care of the parks. The Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy began in 1996, founded by a group of citizens concerned with the declining conditions of Schenley Park.
Since then, the conservancy has raised almost $50 million toward improvements and also has expanded to include 12 parks, including the four regional hotspots: Schenley, Frick, Highland and Riverview.
And the conservancy is not alone.
The Frick Environmental Center works to influence children by providing them with hands-on education inside the park. They work with the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy on some programs and also run their own after school and summer camp programs. Right now, the center is focused mainly on educating children from preschool through fourth grade, although camps and volunteer opportunities exist for teenagers and adults.
One program, Habitat Explorers, is run by the Environmental Center and the Conservancy to work with local elementary schools and bring children into Frick Park six times for a hands-on, learning experience. The children explore different ecosystems at the park during each of the seasons.
In the fall, children explored how meadows are a community for plants, animals and insects. Their assignment was to make balls of mud packed with seeds and throw it at targets to help spread seeds throughout the meadow. This was an assignment not often used in classrooms.
Patty Himes, an employee at the center since 2000, said teachers use what they learned in the park and integrate it into their lessons.
"The teachers in the program are committed and active,” Himes said. “It’s nice to see how dedicated they are to the students.”
But environmental education did not always take a hands-on approach. When Phil Costanzo began working at the center in 1969, he said most of the programming involved nature walks and outreaches to different schools, instead of schools coming to the park. Over the past few years, the Environmental Center employees have worked to get kids interacting with the park to inspire appreciation for it.
“Rather than just passing on information, it is creating an experience,” said Lydia Konecky, who started working at the center in 1989.
Environmental programming has lived at Frick Park almost since it opened. The original Frick Environmental Center was built in the '40s, but a fire destroyed it in the '60s. A second building opened in 1979 and another fire ruined it in 2002. But the programming remained.
Now, the center operates out of two small, stone gatehouses on Beechwood Boulevard, with some extra space in a nearby trailer. Although the center’s employees have been working with little indoor space for the past nine years, Konecky said it threw both the employees and the students and volunteers outside to work more directly with nature.
Plans are in the works for a new building, said Maijke Hecht, the director of education at the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy. This year will be spent designing the building, but there is no set timeline for construction.
Hecht has only been at the conservancy for 18 months, and so has her position. She said a new center will help her expand educational programming in the future.
“Over the past year, we have been filling holes in programs and expanding the programs,” she said. “We are hoping to inspire a long-term passion and love for these natural spaces.”
And although Helen Frick originally wanted an open area where kids could come to play, Frick Park turned into a place for both, education and fun.
Bill Bodin, director of the Frick Art and Historical Center, said out of the entire Frick family, Helen was “truly a Pittsburgher.” Most of the places named in honor of Frick —the Frick Fine Arts building at the University of Pittsburgh, the historical center at their preserved family home, Clayton and Frick Park—were made possible because of Helen, said Bodin.
“And Frick Park is serving the reason Helen wanted to begin with” he said, “to benefit the children in Pittsburgh.”