Postcard of Falconer's Victorian style lily pond

William Falconer and the Landscaping of Schenley Park

By Barry Hannegan

One century ago a brilliant gardener from Scotland began to transform Pittsburgh's new urban park into a horticultural showcase.

In 1896 Pittsburgh very nearly lost its greatest opportunity for learning what ornamental horticulture could be when practiced at the level of an art. In an interview given in New York to a newspaper reporter from Pittsburgh's The Leader (February 6, 1896), William Falconer said that he had withdrawn his application for the post of superintendent of Schenley Park. It was his impression that the appointment would be a political one and that as he had "no friend at court," he could hardly hope that he might be selected solely for his ability.

As it turned out, Falconer was appointed through the efforts of Edward Bigelow, the controversial director of the Department of Public Works, who insisted that Falconer would come to Pittsburgh in spite of the pettifogging obstructions of Bigelow's political opponents. The appointment was, in fact, made on the basis of Falconer's exceptional ability, already known to Bigelow, and by July 12, the Pittsburgh Post reported that the new superintendent of Schenley Park was aggressively looking for a site for a vast new nursery that was the prerequisite for the tremendous campaign of planting needed in the still new and still barren park.

The vision and energy that Edward Bigelow brought to his creation of the Pittsburgh public park system were evident in his selection of William Falconer as the man to turn Schenley Park into a demonstration of the finest horticultural planting to be found anywhere in the country. How Falconer first came to Bigelow's attention is unknown; Bigelow prided himself on his knowledge of plants and landscape design, and Falconer's name could have reached him from any one of a number of sources. It is tempting to think they might have met at "Dosiris," the estate of Charles A. Dana at Glen Cove, Long Island, where Falconer had been head gardener since 1883. Dana, publisher of the New York Sun, had shown a strong interest in horticulture, not least by asking his lifelong friend Frederick Law Olmsted to develop the estate's grounds in 1876. "Dosiris" rapidly evolved into an ambitious botanical garden, nationally known and characterized by a grand-niece of Dana's as "famous in the world of horticulture and rare trees."

Falconer came to those responsibilities with splendid professional credentials. Born in Scotland in 1850, he enrolled at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in 1871, and shortly after completing his training, Falconer immigrated to America in 1874. At Kew, he would have learned garden making, as it were, from the ground up. Kew gardeners are still famous the world over for their ability to grow plants under any geographic constraints. The program Falconer took, although incorporating the most advanced horticultural knowledge, was eminently practical, while the methods of instruction appear to have been based on those of traditional apprenticeship.

The reasons for his coming to the United States are not known, but a partially informed guess can be made, starting with the place and character of his first employment in this country. This was with Frederick Lothrop Ames, whose estate at North Easton, Massachusetts, was a recognized showplace in the Boston area. Ames was involved with the affairs of both Harvard University and the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, and as a supporter of Harvard's new Arnold Arboretum would have known the Arboretum's founder, Charles Sprague Sargent. Sargent was a typical late Victorian prodigy- tireless, infinitely knowledgeable, and devoted to his cause-and was surely the grandest and most influential figure in American horticulture. It was not surprising that he counted among his friends Sir Joseph Hooker, director of the gardens at Kew. Here, then, is the likely link between the young Scot in London and the grading of Boston's North Shore. If, indeed, Falconer came to America through the attention and interest of Sargent, he arrived with a brevet of the greatest distinction and promise.

A rather brief tenure at Ames' estate was followed by a trip to Texas, an event that would have consequences later in Falconer's Pittsburgh years. He returned to Massachusetts and joined the staff at Harvard's Botanic Garden in Cambridge. Falconer is always referred to as having been superintendent there, but an inquiry to Harvard's archives has not revealed his name among the salaried employees. However, those records are not necessarily complete, and since both the newspaper articles at the time of his arrival in Pittsburgh and later information provided by his daughter all credit him with having been superintendent, we have to consider this at least a serious possibility.

Sargent had been superintendent of the Botanic Garden until 1879, when he relinquished that post to give all his attention to the formation of Arnold Arboretum, which eventually replaced the Botanic Garden as the center of Harvard's horticultural world. Perhaps it was then that Falconer took over the responsibility of running the garden. An association at any level with the Boston-Cambridge horticultural scene would have been a heady education; in addition to the great botanical legacy of Asa Gray at Harvard and Sargent's multifarious activities, there would also have been the excitement of the initial phases of Olmsted's designs for the Boston park system and of his additional work as landscape architect for the Arnold Arboretum. It is not unreasonable to suppose that Falconer knew Olmsted, and it may not be entirely implausible to suspect that it was Olmsted who had a hand in Falconer's assuming the management of the estate he had created for Charles Dana.

Before coming to Pittsburgh Falconer had established himself as an active writer and publisher of horticultural materials. From the time he completed his training at Kew and during the interval before his departure for America, he was a member of the editorial staff of the London Gardener. In the United States his first important writing appears to have been a series of articles in Garden and Forest, beginning in the periodical's initial year of 1888. This highly influential journal, embracing a broad range of subjects and concerns, was the creation of Charles Sprague Sargent; Falconer's appearance in its pages is one more telling indication of his standing among the leaders of his profession. Then, while associated with Dana, he contributed articles on gardening to the New York Sun, and in 1892, Falconer began his own magazine, Gardening, which he edited until he left for Pittsburgh, although the title continued until 1925. There were also, at one time or another, articles in such journals as the fashionable Country Life in America, and a monograph on mushroom culture. His writing is uniformly clear and informed; a good example is an article in Country Life for April 1903 on hardy flower borders which could be read today with profit.

Although Falconer's direction of Schenley Park lasted only seven years, his accomplishment was very important for Pittsburgh. He also had the responsibility for several of the small parks in the city's growing system, the one on Herron Hill in particular, and for the new Phipps Conservatory in Schenley Park. During this period the supervision of horticulture for the entire park system was divided with other managers-such as the one for Highland Park, and Falconer spent most of his time on Schenley Park and Phipps Conservatory. His accomplishments in planting the park were astounding and were a remarkable testimonial of his abilities.

He left his city position in 1903 for the post of superintendent of Allegheny Cemetery, which he occupied until his death in 1928. Reading between the lines of newspaper accounts for the entire period of his involvement in city affairs, one can hazard a guess that it was Falconer's disgust with the continual political nature of parks administration that led him to prefer a more tranquil responsibility within a stable private corporation. His job change occurred during a moment of upheaval in Pittsburgh politics. A new administration was coming in, and Edward Bigelow was returning to his old office of director of public works, after a three-year absence. Bigelow's real estate dealings in assembling tracts of private property, especially in Highland Park, for public park use, had earned him many critics and lost him political favor. The re-appointed Bigelow publicly announced his determination to retain Falconer's services, and offered him the newly created post of director of parks, tout court, with an increase in salary to $4,000 a year, making this one of the highest paid posts in the entire civic bureaucracy. These enticements must have been prompted by Falconer's already having made known some dissatisfaction with the nature of his position.

The board of Allegheny Cemetery matched the proposed new salary, and Falconer decided on becoming a cemetery director, moving soon from the fairly restricted space of No. 57 South Oakland Square to the spacious charm of the old Schoenberger mansion on the cemetery's grounds.

Allegheny Cemetery had been established in 1844, ranking among the earliest large burial grounds designed in the rural style just coming into fashion. Born of a need to find an alternative to the crowded unhealthfulness of older city cemeteries, and formed by the romantic perception of the evocative powers of natural scenery, the rural cemetery provided a carefully designed pastoral setting for the burial of the dead and the passive recreations of the living. As was the case with all these pioneer cemeteries, Allegheny Cemetery by 1900 had lost its original openness and simplicity under a Victorian jumble of iron fences, stone parapets, mounded graves, extraneous monuments, ornamental curbing, and an astonishing assortment of specimen plants. A reformer dedicated to the new principles of the lawn cemetery, Falconer rapidly swept away the most disturbing concentrations of this clutter, creating in its place a landscape of quiet, orderly dignity. However, his improvements went well beyond the aesthetic ones most readily appreciated; his annual reports to the board are filled with references to extensive grading (even in the old, established sections of the cemetery), new drainage systems and a host of technical and practical innovations. The exact impact of Falconer's work is difficult to assess in the absence of any extensive photographic record of the cemetery in the earlier condition, but it is safe to say that the cemetery as we know it is essentially his doing. His achievements there earned him the repeated and sustained recognition of the Association of American Cemetery Superintendents, whose members, naturally enough, have viewed Falconer's work at Allegheny Cemetery as the crowning accomplishment of his career.

However, for most Pittsburghers, it is Falconer's complex and far-reaching work as superintendent of Schenley Park that most merits our recognition and gratitude. In those seven years of intense creativity, he introduced to Pittsburgh the most advanced, most modern standards of botany, horticulture and landscape architecture. On his arrival, he would have found most of the rough grading already completed, especially in the areas nearest Bellefield and Phipps Conservatory. Major roadways were also established, but it is clear from Falconer's subsequent annual reports that in 1896 there was a vast labor of earthmoving still ahead while the effective definition of the park's traffic circulation system was somewhere in the future. Bigelow's expertise as an engineer had assured the park a basically sound plan and development, but a significant portion of Falconer's time was given to improving land contours, installation of drainage systems, roads, bridges, retaining walls and the like, and to repairing the consequences of landslides. It might be well to remember that very little of the park as we now know it is truly natural; the ground itself and what grew from it were the result of innumerable design decisions.

The speed with which Falconer pushed the park is indicated by the letting of contracts in the first, partial year of his administration for both the bridge over Junction Hollow (Schenley Bridge)and the now-buried stone bridge (Bellefield Bridge) over the now-filled St. Pierre Hollow. Falconer thus completed the grand approaches to Carnegie Library and Institute and the present entrance to the new park. In 1896 a disastrous fire destroyed the new, lavish Casino for ice skating (at the site of the present Frick Fine Arts Building), but the large Casino wassoon forgotten as the park entrance took on a monumental dignity with its new arched bridges.

Falconer's early search for a site for a new and much larger park nursery was a sure indication of his greatest interest. By the end of 1896, the nursery held 73,771 trees and shrubs and 34,530 perennials; some 20,000 perennials had already been planted in the ravines. Holes, usually measuring two feet deep and six feet in diameter, had been prepared for the planting of 3,000 trees in the spring. The nursery supplied plants for all of the city's parks, and 1897 saw planting in Schenley Park in full swing.

A lily pond (now the site of the George Westinghouse Memorial) had been created in 1896 and was heavily planted, while just above it a large loop garden of flowering shrubs and perennials was installed. In 1897 the lily pond was described as a gorgeous water garden full of white, pink and yellow waterlilies, and the area must have displayed the luxuriant floral effects typical of Victorian horticultural design. Nearby, there was a rhododendron garden with some hundreds of varieties all underplanted with a range of lilies that kept the area in flower from May until frost.

Great numbers of native flowers were put in while along the margins of such areas, 10,000 foxgloves were planted to mingle with the other wildflowers. Trees went into the park seemingly without number; pin oaks, plane trees, Norway and silver maples, fast-growing catalpas, buckeyes and American elms were planted by the row and the grove, in holes often eight feet wide and three feet deep, carved out of the heavy red clay and shale that underlies the park. In 1902, some 70,000 locust trees were planted on the bare slopes of Junction Hollow. And so it went on, year after year, lists of plants and quantities of plants cited with perceptible relish in Superintendent Falconer's reports. Even in 1906, Falconer's successor, George Burke, planted the Gingko trees along Schenley Drive.

From time to time, one hears the comment that Schenley Park was intended to serve as a botanical garden; there is little current evidence for this belief. Nor is there any very definite statement of such an intention in any of Falconer's reports or, for that matter, in newspaper accounts, as plentiful as they seem to have been, of the park's early years. However, Falconer did seem to allude to such a goal now and then, as, for example, when in 1898 he reported the planting of pines, spruces, firs and cedars, which he feared might do badly in our smoky air. However, these were planted because "they must be represented in the park." A more explicit statement appears in his obituary notice in volume 9 of Trillia, where we read " is interesting to note that, so far as the landscaping uses of the plants would permit, he laid out the plantings of trees and shrubs in Schenley Park according to the Kew system, which was the sequence of plant families to be found in the sixth edition (1890) of Gray's Manual of Botany." That edition of Gray's Manual explained how the botany of Northeastern North America could be displayed in perennial beds that taught the formal relationships of plants, based on families. Thus gardeners could plant beds that displayed botanical types and that featured sequences of popular plants such as roses, lilies, orchids or grasses.

Trillia was the journal of the Botanical Society of Western Pennsylvania, an eminently serious and professional organization of which Falconer had been several times president, and it seems safe to accept its account of his program for the planting of Schenley Park as having been based on first-hand knowledge of his intentions. That same obituary continued, "Falconer's successors have made further plantings without regard to botanical relationships so that it is now difficult to follow the original sequence."

Falconer's botanical and horticultural passion apparently formed the basis of an immediate and productive friendship with Henry Phipps, donor of both Allegheny's and Pittsburgh's public conservatories. Phipps' esteem and support can be read in his sending Falconer to Florida and the Bahamas in 1898 and to Jamaica the following year to collect plants and to observe how they grew so that the appearance of nature could be duplicated in the Schenley Park conservatory. Falconer again at the same behest traveled in 1902 to the southwest and Mexico to collect cacti. These had already come to be an important part of the conservatory's holding, with some specimens spending the summers banked around the Neptune fountain at the front of the entrance. For the new material brought back by Falconer, Phipps built an addition, the room that still houses the cacti collection. The room was opened in the fall of 1902 with the plants arranged naturalistically but also grouped according to their places of origin. The annual tallies of the growth of the plant collection make clear that both men exploited their various contacts to ensure an impressive flow of new materials into the conservatory.

Falconer's descriptions of the constant improvements to the interior arrangements of the conservatory and to the design and contents of the fall and Easter flower shows read rather like a menu from a fine restaurant of the time-abundance, variety and quality seem to have formed the guiding principles. The fall show quickly came to use 10,000 potted chrysanthemums propagated on the site, and the norm was 300 varieties, arranged by color and tint and in banks and waves, backed and punctuated with exotic tropical plants. The spring shows were equally sumptuous. We read of a room filled with orchids or with roses and arbors of golden genista or of another of the rooms planted as an old-fashioned garden. The seasonal shows were only important moments in a constant change of displays; every month quantities of new flowering specialties were introduced throughout the conservatory. Sometimes, special exhibits were added. In the summer of 1898, this was a display of bonsai, probably the first such in Pittsburgh and the ancestor of today's great collection.

And while Falconer and his staff were orchestrating all this shifting splendor, he refined and augmented the conservatory's operations as if it were his only responsibility. The Phipps Hall of Botany is the testimony to the active educational program he instituted. His sense of mission in the context surely lies behind his successful efforts to amass a truly great collection of economic plants. These were initially installed in the three rear rooms of the conservatory, an addition completed in 1896, and Falconer took care to note that the manner of laying out the interior (all one vast space at that time) was to be entirely in the natural style, following the example of the palm house. Lectures, demonstrations and school field trips quickly became a recognized part of the conservatory's activities, and by 1899, a teacher of biology at the Fifth Avenue High School could write that the conservatory and its public programs had become "simply indispensable." In 1902 Phipps Hall of Botany was visited by some 700 high school students every week.

If this were not enough, Falconer also made innovations in the interior arrangement of the rooms which have given the conservatory its character down to the present. The unique collection of large exotic plants that came here from the Columbian Exposition of 1893 were initially displayed in the Palm Room and the Fern Room in large planters. In the Palm Room, these may have had an irregular, serpentine outline from the outset, but the tufa retaining walls were a slightly later improvement. In 1897, Falconer was already using this picturesque stone to enhance the naturalistic appearance of portions of the interiors, and it is a reasonable surmise that he introduced it in the Palm Room almost immediately on his arrival. He did take unequivocal credit for rearranging the Fern Room in 1898, using tufa again and serpentine paths, to create a setting for the Australian tree ferns that would "represent a piece of wild woodland in their native country." There is also some evidence that the arrangement of the adjacent room, best known for its figure-eight path and tunnel and bridge, also dates from about this time.

The other work that Falconer did in Pittsburgh gardens has largely disappeared. He was credited with the design of many great estates in the area, but no documentary evidence of any such activity has come to light. His transformation of Allegheny Cemetery can now be understood only in a generic way. If anything remains of the plants he strewed so liberally throughout Schenley Park, it would be a miracle, and even the most drastically graded and altered terrain will, after a century, look exactly like its natural prototype. The plants (perhaps upward of a million) that graced the conservatory under his administration are not even a memory. The very standards that he brought here have shriveled under the onslaught of a different society and a redirected economy. If you want to sense the meaning of this great figure in our history, go to Phipps Conservatory and sit in one of the side paths of the Palm Room or, better, in the Fern Room. There the legacy of William Falconer is still clear and bright and, for its very rarity, all the more precious.

Barry Hannegan is an art historian currently working with the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation, and is the consulting director of the "Survey of Historic Designed Landscapes in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County."


The sources for Falconer's life and work are far from ample. Volunteer Hazel Johnson in the Anthropology Department of Carnegie Museum of Natural History has assembled for Carnegie Magazine the best collection of periodical clippings about Falconer's life and work.

For biographical information, the best notices are a profile that appeared in The Pittsburg Bulletin of May 23, 1896, and two obituaries in Trillia, vol. 9, 1925-1930, pp. 94-95; and in The Florists Exchange and Horticultural Trade World, May 12, 1928, p. 135. The information in this last was supplied by Falconer's daughter, Mrs. Frank Kirkpatrick. The list of Falconer's known writings is almost surely incomplete and would require a good deal of searching to round it out; little of his personality shows through in these sources but his thoroughgoing professionalism certainly does. A useful appreciation of his work at Allegheny Cemetery appears in The Pioneers of Cemetery Administration in America by Ernest Stevens Leland and Donald W. Smith and privately printed in 1941. Falconer's annual reports to the Cemetery Board are interesting and occasionally reveal something of his philosophy about the use of plants as design elements. His annual reports in the Schenley Park years, submitted to the director of public works, should be required reading for every Pittsburgher, the mayor and parks director above all. To my knowledge, no complete set of these is available at any one place in the city.