Built in 1952, a grassroots community-wide effort 25 years ago helped earn the Aviary it’s “National” designation
By: Nick Eustis
Without a doubt, Pittsburgh has changed dramatically over the last few decades. Parts of the city now considered up-and-coming sat in different, drearier states just a generation ago, even one of Pittsburgh’s oldest parks.
Originally founded in 1867, today Allegheny Commons is popular for its outdoor green spaces and child-friendly cultural institutions like the Children’s Museum. This is a far cry from the late 1980s and early 1990s, which saw the region as a subject of great residential concern.
A 1988 article in The Northside Chronicle by Tami Lacousiere, called the surrounding Federal St. and North Ave. corridor “blighted and crime-ridden.” Another article from the Northside Chronicle in 1991 stated that, without intervention, all trees in Allegheny Commons “could be dead within the next five [years].” Dirt lots in the park became popular spots for garbage dumping.
It was against this bleak backdrop that one of the city’s greatest attractions would fight just to keep its doors open.
Once known as the Pittsburgh Aviary, The National Aviary is the only indoor independent nonprofit aviary in the United States. And is the only such conservatory to have honorary “national” status. This year marks 25 years since this designation was signed by then-President Bill Clinton in 1993.
But this “national” status is not merely symbolic. That single word is a large piece of the story of an aviary that almost did not make it this far. And in some regards, with the success of the aviary came the revitalization of Allegheny Commons.
The Pittsburgh Aviary-Conservatory opened to the public on August 10, 1952. The Aviary was built by the City of Pittsburgh and sits on the site of a botanical conservatory created by Henry Phipps. That building had laid in ruins after being damaged by a natural gas explosion in 1927. According to Trisha O’Neill, the Aviary’s director of education, the city had several options for what could replace the ruined conservatory, including an aquarium.
“They went through a process of elimination and decided they were going to build a conservatory-aviary,” O’Neill said. “It goes with the history of the site and [does] something new.”
The first director of the Aviary was Roland Hawkins, an ornithologist with mold-breaking ideas on animal exhibitions.“[Hawkins] loved the fact that people could walk through the Aviary with no barriers or screens,” O’Neill said. “He felt like there was a deeper connection that could happen there.”
Hawkins also oversaw the Aviary’s first major expansion in 1969: the addition of the glass-enclosed wetland exhibit, the largest such enclosure at the time. This expansion would become home to guest favorites like flamingos, spoonbills, and pelicans. “This room was larger than the rest of the original aviary,” said O’Neill.
The Aviary continued to operate smoothly through the 1970s before Hawkins’ retirement. According to regional proceedings from the Association of American Zoological Parks and Aquariums (AAZPA), in 1981, Lindsay Clack was hired as an aviculturist for the Aviary, albeit without the director title, Clark would become a leading figure in the Aviary’s leadership after Hawkins departure. It would be under his tenure that the Pittsburgh Aviary would gain a reputation for its breeding program.
“Lindsay was a brilliant bird breeder. He bred rare birds like nobody else did,” said Frank Moone, former fundraising director for the Aviary.
Despite these successes, the Aviary came under financial stress. 1991 would present the Aviary with its greatest challenge to date, one that threatened its very existence.The early 1990s brought hard financial times to Pittsburgh, and a diminished tax base meant that the city, under the direction of Mayor Sophie Masloff, had to reduce spending.
“[The city] had operated the Aviary as an asset for a long, long time, and as they were trying to make hard decisions, the Aviary came up for discussion,” said O’Neill. Ultimately, the Aviary was given mere months to find a new source of funding, or close permanently.
Many Northside residents were outraged at the impending closure of the Aviary. One of the few family-friendly cultural institutions in the Northside would be lost. Allegheny Commons, already in a decline at the time, would have the added challenge of a vacant building. In addition, businesses in the area would potentially suffer from a loss of traffic brought by Aviary visitors.
“There was a campaign that was started [to save the Aviary] by some of the volunteers that had been at the Aviary … they were upset that this was happening,” said Mark Masterson, one of the founding members of Save the Aviary, Inc. “There were a lot of community members and neighborhood organizations on the Northside that were ticked off that this was happening.”
So Masterson and a like-minded group of concerned citizens formed Save the Aviary, Inc., a grassroots coalition – comprised of a number of former aviary staff – determined to keep the Aviary open. Save the Aviary Inc., would go on to purchase the aviary from the City of Pittsburgh under a long-term, 99-year lease for $1 annually.
Save the Aviary Inc., faced a number of challenges keeping the Aviary open. The area surrounding the destination was suffering from lack of upkeep. Financial resources were extremely limited, and it was difficult to pay key staff with specialized training. And time to find a new funding source was just as limited, with no clear path to achieve it.
“It was really through people who loved the Aviary who said, ‘We do not want this asset to close,’”
— Trisha O’Neill
With the help of Pittsburgh Zoo director Barbara Baker, Save the Aviary Inc., would find a new executive director, Barbara’s husband, Dayton Baker (Baker succeeded Clark in terms of leadership, however, Clark never officially held the title of executive director). It was also through Barbara Baker that Frank Moone would also become involved. After applying to work in fundraising for the Pittsburgh Zoo, Barbara Baker would pass his information on to her husband Dayton, who offered him who offered him a marketing and development a job with the Aviary. The pair would be instrumental in the aviary’s evolution and resurgence.
“I didn’t have a lot of experience fundraising then, and he didn’t have a lot of money, so we were a perfect match,” Moone said on behalf of his work partnership with Dayton Baker.
After failing to get funding from nonprofit organizations in the city, it was Moone who came up with the idea to have the Pittsburgh Aviary declared the National Aviary.
“It came to me to contact my friend who worked for [then-Congressman] Bill Coyne and ask, ‘What about a National Aviary,’” Moone said. “My thinking was if we can get some kind of national designation, it is going to be a lot harder for the foundations to turn us down.”
With the help of Congressman Bill Coyne and after months of negotiation, a bill finally reached the desk of President Bill Clinton on November 8, 1993, awarding the Pittsburgh Aviary honorary “National” status. This declaration gave the Aviary the credibility it needed to receive funding from local nonprofits, which kept the Aviary afloat.
This was not enough to fund all of the Aviary’s operations, however. The creation of the 1996 Regional Asset District (RAD) was necessary to provide the Aviary with a permanent, stable source of funding.
“The civic community came together and passed a one percent local option sales tax at the county level. Half of that went to fund the Allegheny Regional Asset District, which in turn was used to fund … special facilities, regional parks, regional libraries,” said Jim Turner, the chief administrative officer for the city at the time.
With a national accreditation and the RAD in place, Save the Aviary, Inc. had fulfilled its namesake. But it was the tireless work of volunteers that truly made the difference, many of them Northside residents who saw how valuable the Aviary was to the community.
“From my perspective, that is how it survived: because of the talented, incredibly hard-working people who said they would do everything in their power to keep it open. People who sacrificed to make it happen,” said Dayton Baker.
Since this transition from public to private nonprofit, the National Aviary is doing better than ever. With over $7 million in support and over 100 contributing donors and foundations (per the aviary’s 2017 annual report), the National Aviary has become less dependent on the RAD over time, allowing for innovations like the $17.5 million Helen M. Schmidt FliteZone Theater expansion. The theater hosts shows and informative demonstrations about behaviors and adaptations of various bird species. In July, a $1.2 million renovation of the Aviary’s Tropical Rainforest Habitat will be completed.
Despite the changes over the years, the National Aviary has remained firm in its mission since the days of Roland Hawkins: to inspire connection with nature through a love of birds. It is through this connection, according to Trisha O’Neill, that inspires the Aviary’s drive to conserve nature, the same drive that inspired the community to rally and save the Aviary.
“It was really through people who loved the Aviary who said, ‘We do not want this asset to close,’” said O’Neill. “It’s really a story of grassroots efforts … and rallying around something they really care about and helping to prompt change.”