Denny Square
(formerly Snyder Square/Pittsburgh Fairgrounds)

Denny Square - 2020
Denny Park, along Liberty Avenue in the Strip District, across from the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, shown here in 2019.

There are many places located around Pittsburgh that may seem rather plain and nondescript in their present-day appearance, but they hold a much more prominent place in the history of the city, one that is not cast on a historical society marker or talked about any longer in history meetings.

One such place is Denny Park, or Denny Square, located in the Strip District between 29th and 30th Streets, bordering Liberty Avenue and Spring Way. Don't let the tiny, unremarkable parklet fool you. It has a 180-year history full of drama and intrigue.




The Pittsburgh Fairgrounds

In 1836 the city of Pittsburgh drew up a plan for the eastern reaches of the city, along the Allegheny River and the Strip District. Harmar Denny, son of Pittsburgh first mayor, Ebenezer Denny, acquired a sizeable amount of property in that area and in neighboring Lawrenceville.

Beginning in 1843, Denny allowed the city to establish it's first fairgrounds on a portion of his land located at Penn Avenue and 29th Street, near the city border. A horse racing track was established and the fairgrounds became home to the Pennsylvania State Fair, the Allegheny County Fairs and other livestock/agricultural exhibitions.

The fairgrounds were also a preferred spot for America's newest emerging sport, one that had caught on quite well here in Pittsburgh. The game was baseball, and the nearby Ninth Ward team used the grounds as their home field. The last big event at the Pittsburgh Fairgounds was the 1860 Allegheny County Fair.

The Civil War Years

The Civil War years brought change. The fairgrounds were commandeered by the U.S. Army Quartermasters Department. At first the land was used as a recruit depot called Camp Wilkins, which was later moved to Oakmont and renamed Camp Hulton.

Once the recruits had gone, stables and sheds were erected around the infield for army horses and feed storage. Government horse sales were also conducted here, with the buyer able to run the horses around the fairgrounds track before making the purchase, like a quick test drive.

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1854 map showing the fairgrounds area in the Strip District beginning at 29th Street (Clymer Street).

After the war the fairgrounds were dismantled and the land integrated into the existing street pattern. Liberty Avenue, which ran east and west from the fairgrounds entrances, was now joined in the middle, as well as the cross streets. A lot plan was laid out for development.

Snyder Square

The one acre of land between 29th and 30th Streets along Liberty Avenue, extending to Spring Way, was fenced in by the Denny family and left vacant. For the first couple years there was an attempt to establish an outdoor ice skating rink in the winter months called Central Park. Two exceptionally warm winters put an end to that recreation initiative.

In 1874, the Central Park area was officially donated to the city of Pittsburgh, as part of the will of Mrs. Elizabeth Denny, widow of Harmar Denny, for the specific purpose of establishing a public park to be called "Snyder's Square." The deal also included reimbursement to the Denny estate for improvements made and taxes paid during the years their land was in use by the city.

Refusal To Act

As the years past, nothing was done with the property. It remained vacant and undeveloped, gradually turning into an area for the city water and sewer bureaus for storing pipes and other heavy items. The idea of a park seemed to be abandoned with the city erecting repair shop buildings on the far corners of the property and some stables in the center. The city's refusal to act soon became a sore spot with the Denny heirs.

Under pressure from the Denny family, City Council twice allocated money for the establishment of a park but never followed through. In 1902 the Denny's took the city to court to recover the land and establish the park so desired in Elizabeth's will.

The court battle dragged on for over ten years, with a final verdict being delivered by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. In the end the Denny family did not get possession of the land back, but they did force the city to act on the establishment of a park, as ordered by the court.

"This Is To Be A Park"

On June 14, 1914, the Pittsburgh Daily Post announced that City Council had directed the Public Works Department to vacate the grounds and establish the court ordered park.

"It's settled that this is to be a park," DPW Director Robert Swan said, "and we'll quit using it for storage as soon as another place can be found."

Director Swan promised to make an effort to find a suitable location for the relocation of the repair shops, storage area and stables. A breathing space in the midst of the industrial jungle was great news for the residents of a district which was the most congested in the city.

Snyder Square - 1914
Pittsburgh Daily Post notice published on June 14, 1914 on the city's plans for Snyder Square.

The stables were removed and a small area cleared next to the water meter repair shop. In this vacant spot a small parklet was established. A playground set was erected and Snyder's Park became a reality, although not quite the large open public park agreed upon.

The Endless Wait

This rather miniscule effort by the city resulted in a small square surrounded by stacks of iron pipes and dirty repair shops. In the meantime the search for a place to relocate the repair shops and other equipment went on, and on, without a resolution. The endless wait went on for over forty years!

The repair shops were finally torn down in 1958. The city was aware of their obligation to expand the park but instead drew up plans for the construction of a Traffic Planning building. The design called for moving the small parklet to nearby West Penn Park.

The city actually notified the Denny heirs of their intentions. The family signed off on the plan, but it fell through when a more suitable location was found. The recently cleared space became part of the city auto pound and the small "Snyder Square" parklet remained, now surrounded by impounded vehicles.

Fulfillment Of A Pledge

It was not until July 1968 that a Lawrenceville Economic Action Group (LEAD) and the citizen's advocacy group New Look convinced the city to vacate the land and turn it over to the groups for development into the long-desired attractive urban parklet. The city was in the process of relocating the auto pound so the timing of the request was perfect.

The New Look group worked on expanding the existing "tot lot" and finally fulfilling the 100-year old pledge made to the family of Mrs. Elizabeth Denny. The small park was enlarged to encompass half of the land between 29th and 30th Street.

The remainder of the property is a parking lot that is shared with the Pittsburgh Ballet Theater. The long-awaited open public square now contains a triple playground slide, a basketball hoop, several benches, with plenty of well-maintained open grass and a few nice shade trees.

We're not sure if it is exactly what Mrs. Elizabeth Denny had in mind, but it works. In a twist of irony the park is no longer called "Snyder Square" but shares the name of the family that fought so hard for a small oasis in the middle of urban sprawl. It's called "Denny Square."

Historical Landmark Designation

And we now know the story behind the small parklet known as Denny Square. It is the last vestige of the once proud Pittsburgh Fairgrounds and a lasting reminder of one of Pittsburgh's pioneering families.

Should Denny Square have a historical landmark society marker denoting the location of Pittsburgh's first fairgrounds?

Location of old Pittsburgh Fairgrounds.

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