A worker secures a beam on the future site of the Aviary’s FliteZone Theater.
By September, visitors to Pittsburgh’s “hidden gem” will be able to share space with the birds in more ways than one.
The National Aviary kicked off the last stage of its $18.5 million expansion and renovation project Wednesday morning with a signing and raising of the final steel beam.
“We are thrilled to be in the home stretch of this project,” said aviary board chairman Mike Flinn, who noted it was almost a year to the day after the opening of the popular Penguin Point exhibit. “What has been called Pittsburgh’s hidden gem will be front and center locally … and nationally.”
Aviary employees greeted visitors with birds as they entered and had smiles on their faces as the beam was placed. They’ll have a major role in the upcoming exhibits including the Helen M. Schmidt FliteZone Theater and open-air rooftop Sky Deck.
The former is the nation’s only indoor educational theater built to incorporate free-flight bird demonstrations and will include macaws, vultures, eagles, parrots, black kites andother birds. The latter, on the theater’s roof, will allow visitors to observe birds of prey flying at up to 60 mph at eye-level.
Erin Estell, assistant director of animal programs and manager of the FliteZone Theater, said this is the part she’s very excited about.
When Estell was 12 years old, she went to what is now the Toronto Zoo where an eagle flew just over her head. She went back home to Ohio and started volunteering with animals, which lead to her present 8-year-career at the Aviary.
Estell noted the new Arch Street entrance, another aspect of the expansion, will allow easier access for school groups — the new lobby will even connect to a new classroom — and visitors who may just want to patronize the new café, which will feature indoor and outdoor seating.
“I really think the whole experience is going to provide a more welcoming, hospitable atmosphere,” she said. “But [it’s also about] getting people to get close to nature, which is the whole point of being here.”
The new entrance will feature a pair of wings on either side as part of a metal screen that will be illuminated when the sun goes down.
Paul Rosenblatt, founding principal of SPRINGBOARD Design, who worked on the project almost from the beginning, said it’s fitting that the wings will welcome the visitors because the expansion is about both birds and people.
“When people visit the building we want them to interact with the birds in new ways and think about the birds and conservation,” he said, adding that the goal of the expansion is a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Silver certification.
Director of Animal Programs Steve Sarro agreed the expansion is about highlighting the birds for entertainment and also instruction.
“People like to see them, and while they’re there, the birds are flying around them and they’re learning about birds,” he said. “We’re not only providing an experience for visitors they’ll like but getting some conservation messages out there.”