In the News

Paul Riis Legacy Preservation Volunteers make progress in South Park

April 3, 2018

An energetic group of volunteers has helped to unearth a treasured portion of original South Park history and is eagerly searching for information from folks who may have enjoyed going there in the past.

The Vale of Cashmere was one of the stone structures designed by Paul Riis, the original architect hired when Allegheny County established South and North Parks in 1927. At its heyday, the Vale had three distinctive shallow ponds where visitors could splash, picnic and relax. They are located in a valley between East Park Drive and Hundred Acres Drive. There is not yet an established trail to the Vale, but it is easily accessed from gravel parking spots on East Park Drive.

Anne Oyler of South Park first learned about this hidden gem during one of her frequent walks in the park. Longtime South Park residents told her about the Vale but when she and her friend, Lynn Rethi of Finleyville, searched for it, they were unable to find it in the height of summer because it was hidden under years of overgrowth. They went back in the winter and were finally able to see the imprint of the stone walls that circled the original shallow pools. They were enchanted!

Riis envisioned South and North Parks in the Prairie School style of architecture popularized in the Midwest in the early 1900s. It was a design philosophy that created structures to appear as if they organically rose from the ground – as if they were always meant to be there – and was more horizontally oriented than vertically. To create that effect at the Vale, Riis designed stacked stone walls to appear as if they were embedded in the land. He designed stone channels that directed the natural stream to flow into three stone pools. The stone used to build these walled structures was quarried in South Park. 

Other Riis structures are perhaps more recognizable to South Park patrons – The Cascades at the Stone Manse and the Corrigan Drive Swimming Pool. The Paul Riis Legacy Preservation Volunteers group are actively working to raise the visibility of the Vale of Cashmere and make it as identifiable as the other structures. In addition to Anne and David Oyler and Lynn Rethi, the volunteers are Peg Bittner, Mary Jane Layman, Bernadette Fincke, Jason Fincke, Ed Eichenlaub, Shawn Champlin, Marc Bowman and Chellie Romano.

Very little of the original stone work was visible to Oyler and Rethi when they first discovered the site. After years of neglect, dirt and silt had filled the pools. With the assistance and instruction of Senior Ranger Max Bader of the South Region and Lead Supervisory Park Ranger Braden Meiter, the volunteers used hand tools provided by the Rangers to carefully reveal the hidden structures after being trained in the proper technique for safety and site preservation purposes. The volunteers uncovered one pool over the course of several expeditions last summer and are heading back on Saturday, April 14, from 9 to noon to work at the site. They are actively recruiting others to join them in this excavation work.

“You don’t have to be strong! There’s no heavy labor involved. We’re just trimming things, using lopping shears and hand tools. We’ll take all ages! Bring the kids,” Oyler said. Registration is required for all volunteers. Contact them at http://www.paulriis.org/VolunteerForCleanups.html.

 Bader said he instructed the group not to dig out the contents of the pools, because displacing the dirt to another site would disrupt established vegetation. “We’re concentrating on clearing the vegetation from around the pools, removing the soil that is on top of the existing stone structure and uncovering the stone,” he said. Other organizations, such as scout troops, are also welcome to participate in this project and Bader will help with the volunteer application process. He can be contacted at: max.bader@alleghenycounty.us.

In the meantime, Oyler’s curiosity was piqued about Riis and she started investigating his background and other projects he designed for Allegheny County Parks. As an information technology specialist, she had the know-how to create an informative website to follow their progress, http://www.paulriis.org/.

The Vale was once an open, sunny place for visitors to experience the pools and creek. The creek fed downstream into Catfish Run and was part of the Peters Creek Watershed. There are no current plans to restore it to its original state but the accomplishments of this dedicated band of volunteers makes a trip to the Vale well worth it.

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