Schenley Farms is designated as a city, state, and national historic district and is widely recognized as a significant living museum of early 20th century architecture and planning.

This grand stately neighborhood started off humbly as 170 acres of hilly cow pasture.  The land was part of a tract first sold by William Penn in 1791 which later was owned by General James O’Hara, an industrialist and Revolutionary War hero who purchased the ‘Farms’ in 1802 for $2000.  The land stayed in the O’Hara family until the 1905 death of his granddaughter Mary Croghan Schenley. The trustees of her estate, including Andrew Carnegie, sold the property which still bears her name for $2.5 million to the real estate developer Franklin F. Nicola.

FF Nicola was a dreamer and a visionary, with this motto hung in his office:” Air castles aren’t substantial dwellings but they are very good working drawings”.  He was a major force in Pittsburgh participation of the “City Beautiful Movement”, a reform philosophy of North American architecture and urban planning that flourished in the 1890s and early 1900s.  The focus was adding beautification and monumental grandeur to cities, as a way of promoting civic virtue and improved quality of life. Nicola left his imprint on many of the splendid civic buildings of Oakland.   A planned adjacent lovely compatible residential portion was integral to his concept of a “model city”. This is the foundation of the Schenley Farms neighborhood. Nicola dreamed and promoted a planned utopian residential section.    His business, the Schenley Farms Company , boldly set out to create a model suburban upper middle class home development near the civic and cultural institutions of Oakland.

As a foundation, Nicola invested $1.5 million in infrastructure, including underground gas and electric lines, wide sidewalks, ornamental street lights, lovely landscaping and a design for tree shade featuring London Plane trees.  He built the massive retaining wall along Parkman Avenue. Construction of homes began in 1906. There were 124 houses in the original ‘tea kettle’ shaped property, with the lower aspect bordered by Bigelow and Parkman, and the upper aspect including the south border of Center Avenue and the uphill ledge of homes along Schenley Farms Terrace.   Nicola gathered many of the city’s most renown architects who were encouraged to contribute to the wide variety of historical styles. For $20-30,000, homeowners got hardwood floors, finished basements, 13 inch thick foundations, brass pipes, hot water radiators recessed beneath windows, integral ducts for vacuum cleaning, stained glass and elegant woodwork.

Through the years, there have been some challenges, especially related to the desire for land expansion from the nearby educational and medical institutions of Oakland.   Some elegant houses were destroyed, especially along Bigelow in the 1960’s. Fortunately most of the residences were treasured and diligently cared for by dedicated homeowners.  By the 1970’s there was a wave of renewed focus on historic preservation locally and nationally. In 1982, the Schenley Farms neighborhood was designated as a Pittsburgh Historic District.   In 1983, the Schenley Farms neighborhood was registered with the National Register as an Historic District.

Plaques erected at the neighborhood borders state succinctly state the current status:    Schenley Farms Historic District is “a museum of early twentieth century domestic architecture”


The Schenley Farms Civic Association is a volunteer organization, almost 100 years old, which supports the concept of this neighborhood as an ideal place for families to live and a living museum of significant architectural designs.

Most Schenley Farms Homes were built between 1906 and 1918.  The developer, Schenley Farms Company, had fulfilled all contracts regarding the care of trees, sidewalks, vacant properties and general maintenance.

On July 29, 1920 residents of Schenley Farms met to consider the renewal of the building restrictions and the needs for communal upkeep.  Documents state they discussed creation of a permanent organization for the purpose of “the promotion of all matters pertaining to the general welfare and interest of the Farms”.

On December 13, 1920, the Constitution and By-Laws of the Schenley Farms Civic Association were adopted.  The expressed purpose was two-fold:

  • The extension of restrictions on the use of the lands in the Schenley Farms district as established by the Schenley Farms Company
  • Care and maintenance of the district “in such a manner as to insure its continuance as a high class residence district”.

The SFCA continues as one of the oldest neighborhood organizations in Pittsburgh, approaching its 100 year.  Nine neighbors serve on the board for three year terms, volunteering their time to continue the tradition of enhancing and preserving the neighborhood.  

The SFCA by-laws state the fundamental purposes:

  1. To preserve the single-family residential character of the neighborhood
  2. To promote safety and security in the neighborhood
  3. To preserve the historic character of the neighborhood
  4. To provide for the general welfare of the neighborhood


The neighborhood of Schenley Farms is designated as an Historic District, in the city and on the national registry.    The major effect for homeowners is twofold: (1) Any work that is done on the outside of the house that can be seen from the street is expected to be appropriate to the historical nature of the house, (2)  No alteration can be made to the exterior which is publically visible without review and approval of the Historic Review Commission (HRC) of the City of Pittsburgh.

Important resource:

HRC staff:   412 255 – 2243

HRC meets monthly, on first Wednesday of month.

There are many wonderful benefits to owning a home in an historic district.  First and primarily is the opportunity to preserve for future generations residential living designs which are historically significant and vital to the cultural identity of the city itself.   In addition, the designation also adds protection for a home investment. Properties in an historic neighborhood cannot be torn down easily, so that neighborhood integrity is preserved. Owners can be assured that other buildings in the area will be maintained in accordance with high standards.

Important summarizing points are:

  • HRC review applies to exterior appearance of home only;  Does not apply for home interior changes.
  • HRC review is for those exterior views readily seen in public right-of-way areas.    If changes are not very visible to the public, staff from HRC can help ascertain if a HRC review is needed.
  • It is understood that older homes need updating and modernizing;   however high priority is placed on preservation of the original and historical details and appearances. There is a mechanism to request alterations in special cases which create a hardship as defined by the ordinance (form available online).
  • If alterations are started without approval, work can be stopped by city officials.   There are potential fines for non-compliance.

Useful info:

  • Forms are available on the website for “Application for Exterior Work”.   These are to be submitted at least two weeks before a meeting. There is a fee.   Usually homeowner or contractor will prepare a presentation and appear in person at the HRC meeting.
  • For help, questions about whether a HRC review is needed, or support of filing an application, please call office number above.   They can be extremely helpful.
  • SFCA volunteer board members review proposed HRC applications once posted on the HRC agenda schedule.   Often the neighborhood association is asked for an opinion by the HRC. IT is never desired that SFCA board members oppose an application at the hearing.   If the proposed home changes are not clearly in compliance with the spirit of the city ordinance, it may be useful for the homeowner to ask for a SFCA pre-review and/or for help and suggestions.     This can be started with an email to

More Details of Logistics :

Note:   This information is general in nature and not intended to be a substitute for legal advice.  Consultation with an attorney familiar with land use and historic designation law may be useful.

Details for the City of Pittsburgh ordinance which authorizes the Historic Review Commission, can be found in the Code of Ordinances for the City of Pittsburgh at Chapter 1101: “Historic Structures Districts and Districts.”   This section sets out all the logistics for nominating a structure or area as ‘historic’, and the requirements which follow this designation.

According to the ordinance controlling historic designation, once a property is designated as Historic, no alteration can be made to the exterior, visible to the street, without review and approval of the Historic Review Commission.

No Exterior Alterations as defined in § 1101.02(e) or change of location of an Historic Object, shall be undertaken upon a Historic Structure or upon a structure located within a Historic District or upon a Historic Site or upon a Historic Object without the review of the Historic Review Commission or the authorized approval of certain routine kinds of exterior work specified by the Commission without the formal review and approval of the Commission itself, and issuance of a Certificate of Appropriateness.

Where there has been a historic designation, approval for alterations may be granted if the inability to do so would be a hardship as defined by the ordinance.

Any applicant denied a Certificate of Appropriateness by the Commission may within thirty (30) days make application for a Certificate of Economic Hardship on a form prepared by the Commission and submitted to the Commission.

A historic designation under Pittsburgh’s Ordinance does not control interior changes so that no review or approval is needed. Similarly, historic designation under Federal law does not cover interior changes to residential property.   Other zoning laws and building code requirements may apply.
Schenley Farms Historic District has the following zoning designation R 1 D – VL:   detached residential, single family, very low density.

Translation:  either single family may live in a home, or up to three unrelated adults.

Important resource:

Pgh Zoning Board of Adjustment staff:      412 255 – 2214

Zoning Board meets weekly, usually on Thursday mornings.

In addition to occupancy standards, the zoning code establishes a 30’ minimum setback from the street, maximum height of 40’ and minimum lot size of 8000’ in the neighborhood. Based on those numbers it would be impossible for someone to buy a house and subdivide the lot to create a second home. The zoning ordinances are designed to provide consistency in the neighborhood.

These zoning laws are enforced by the City of Pittsburgh.    It is often up to other homeowners in the neighborhood to be aware if these standards are being violated, as a means of preserving the neighborhood, protecting property values, and insuring neighborhood harmony.   When there are transgressions or doubts, Pgh city officials will be asked to investigate and enforce zoning standards.

Background info:

The City of Pittsburgh Zoning Code, first written in 1958 and updated periodically, regulates land use and activities within the City boundaries.  Through regulation of private land, the code seeks to promote neighborhood revitalization, encourage a mix of uses, and support increased density for transit oriented development.  The City of Pittsburgh Zoning Code is maintained online by and can be found here under Title Nine.

(suggestion:   on the website, look at content information on left side navigation bar until you reach ‘title nine – zoning code”.

There may be rare grandfathered exceptions to the zoning rules, for organizations which predate the laws or where special arrangements have been made with ZBA approval.


Many trees in Schenley Farms do not belong to the homeowner, but rather to the City of Pittsburgh.    This is especially true of trees near the streets. For these trees, permission is needed to remove, alter, trim …   from the Department of Forestry of the City.


Division of Forestry Staff:     412 665 – 3625

To check if a specific tree is owned by the City, try using the internet   (note: in past, great resource at but no longer in use after 2017)

Try using search engine such as google:    Burghs Eye View Trees Or call, Division of Forestry:     412 665 – 3625

Many homeowners in Pittsburgh are surprised that they do not own all (often many) of the trees on their property.  City trees are those owned and maintained by the city of Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh has a major commitment to maintaining and controlling a shade canopy.  This is true for all neighborhoods, but has special relevance in older historic neighborhoods where trees are very large, potentially requiring maintenance, and are very hard to replace.  There is a Department of Forestry which is responsible for this program.

Important rules include:

  • Homeowners do not have the legal right to remove, cut or prune any city tree.
  • It is the homeowner’s responsibility to let the city forestry division know if a tree needs attention (e.g. pruning) or has other issues.    This is done in two ways:
    • by calling 311;   a work order will be generated and a tracking number provided.  
    • or by calling the Division of Forestry Division above.  

It must be recognized that the city forest division has limited resources and typically will respond for emergencies first, and then per waiting list.

  • A homeowner can request to arrange/pay-for a private company to prune a tree, but this requires a permit first.
  • A permit is also needed if a homeowner wishes to plant a large tree near a public street.
  • Trees which are not included in the forestry or burghseye dataset  are not included, and remain the responsibility of the homeowner.


Background Information:

The City of Pittsburgh has a major commitment to maintaining an Urban Forest.  There are enormous environmental benefits, including improving air and water quality and slowing stormwater runoff.  Trees also reduce energy costs and create beauty and pride in each neighborhood. City efforts to protect trees date back to the 1930’s.   

In the early 2000’s, there was growing concern about the quantity and health of trees in America. It was estimated that, in the last fifteen years of the preceding century, naturally forested areas of the country east of the Mississippi River and in the Pacific Northwest had lost 25% of their canopy while impervious surfaces had increased 20%.  

Many U.S metropolitan areas began to focus on the danger to urban trees, and to undertake documentation of the current status and problems.  Pittsburgh was one of those, and attempted to understand the problem. Experts suggest a city like Pittsburgh with over 900 miles of streets ‘should’ have 60,000 street trees, and ‘could’ have up to 90,000 street trees.  A 2005 a comprehensive survey showed that Pittsburgh had 31,524 street trees as of August of that year. It was recognized that 30% were not optimally healthy, and 10% would need to be removed in the subsequent four years.

Great efforts were begun around 2008, including a TreeVitalize Pittsburgh tree-planting project under the Western Pa Conservancy and guidance from the Pgh Shade Tree Commission.  Multiple efforts are now coordinated and consolidated under the umbrella of the non-profit entity Tree Pittsburgh.   

In 2014, a repeat tree survey showed the following

  • 33,498 street trees with Pgh, an increase of almost 4000 since year 2005.
  • 80% of trees in good condition, an increase of health by 10%
  • Appraised value of Pgh street tree population approximately $ 51 million
  • Benefits:   15 million gallons of stormwater absorbed annually;  Reduced energy cost of approx. $96,500 annually; 4.4 million pounds of carbon stored in local trees;Estimated benefit of $1.51 for each $1.00 spend on forestry practices


Schenley Farms became a permit parking only area in 2013, called FF.    Residents are allowed to purchase permits, registered by license plate, and have a mechanism to purchase a visitor pass for use.   Renewals occur each February. Other visitors are not allowed to park beyond one hour.

An exception to the parking restriction occurs each Friday early afternoon, to accommodate the attendees at services for the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh

Important resource:

Background information:

The cost of the Residential Parking Permit is $20.00 per vehicle per program year and is not pro-rated for mid-year purchases. The cost to purchase an annual Visitor Parking Pass is $1.00 per address and is not pro-rated. There is a $3 processing fee for credit card purchases.

The Pgh Parking Authority does not issue physical permits for RPP permits or visitor passes (i.e.  there is nothing physically on the car).   All permits are tracked by license plate number and enforced largely by license plate recognition technology.  

Prior to 2017, cars approved for parking in a RPP had stickers, and this was useful to neighbors.  However the higher-tech license monitoring system is promoted as an improvement for efficiency and frequency of monitoring, while reducing illegal parking in RPP areas and eliminating  the possibility of counterfeit and fraudulent permits.


Oakland is a fabulous dynamic ethnically-diverse neighborhood, home to “the meds and the eds”, institutions which are at the center of Pittsburgh’s economy, vitality, creativity.   There are numerous landmarks and cultural destinations – Carnegie museums, Carnegie Library, Phipps Botanical Garden, Soldiers and Sailors memorial and museum, University of Pitt’s Cathedral of Learning …  just to name a few. There is a vibrant business district, with unique and varied restaurants, eccletic shopping, and wonderful hotels. And there are numerous thriving varied residential neighborhoods.

Several Oakland organizations of note:

Oakland Planning and Development Corporation (OPDC) – hosts a variety of improvement and planning efforts for businesses and residential neighborhoods

Community of Oakland Residents (COR) – group supported thru OPDC which unites community focused advocates

Oakland Civic Center Historic District (OCCHD) – protects the older beautiful civic buildings and historic University structures;  a protected historical district since 1992.

Oakland Business Improvement District –  group united for effective advocacy of the multiple variously-sized unique businesses


Too many amenities to list but a few of note…

Schenley Farms Garden Club – group of neighbors, organized since the 1950’s, with regular meetings which emphasize landscaping, gardens, sustainability and environmentally preserving actions.     Also serves as a social networking group with interesting gatherings throughout the year. Membership affordable and open to any family living in Schenley Farm neighborhood.

Access to Public Transportation –  multiple buses use the Fifth/Forbes corridors, heading downtown to the west and scattering to outer neighborhoods to the east.   Downtown buses include 61 A, B, C, D and 71 A, B, C, D. There is also easy access to the Airport Flyer bus 28X.

Wonderful places to walk – you’ll never lack for a destination for a good stroll.   The nearby and easily accessed Schenley Park provides year-round beauty and color for nature lovers.   A walk around the Hill District water reservoir is a surprise delight.