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Kennywood: Keeping 19th Century Charm in a 21st Century Park

By Kevin Burrows, LSMP Regional Editor

Lost Kennywood, an expansion that opened in 1995, hearkens back to the Luna Parks from the turn of the century and like the rest of the property is lined with sycamores, London Planes, and other Pennsylvania hardwoods. In 2006, Landscape Superintendent Bill Henninger and his team recieved a National Arbor Day Award for dedication to tree care.

Kennywood Park, located outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, can trace its origin back to the Kenny family, who owned a grove of trees overlooking the Monongahela River in the late 19th century. The area became a popular picnicking destination among mill workers trying to get some fresh air on the weekends, and eventually a trolley line was added.

The park was officially founded in 1898, and run by the Andrew Mellon owned Monongahela Street Railway Company until1902. In attempt to get out of the amusement park business, the railway company subleased Kennywood for a few years before finally selling it in1906 to A.S. McSwigan and Frederick W. Henninger.

A century later, the park is still owned and operated by the same two families. Throughout the years, it has added new technology to keep up with the Disneys and Six Flags of the world, while keeping its simple and iconic charm.

With over a million annual visitors, it is known today not only for its many roller coasters, "Potato Patch" french fries, and family friendly atmosphere, but also its Art Deco architecture and pristine, colorful landscaping.

Located near the entrance of a miniature train ride that dates back to World War II, the famous Kennywood floral clock is made up of a field of Hardy Ageratum (Blue-violet), and Sweet Alyssum, (clusters of white flowers that must be trimmed back daily), bordered by Red Begonias. All three flowers are planted in the spring and bloom continuously in the summer months. They can thrive in sunlight as well as shade, and are trimmed by hand throughout the week to remove any dead heads and weeds.

The Superintendent

Executive Vice President and Landscape Superintendent Bill Henninger is charged with maintaining the park's impressive grounds. The grandson of original owner Frederick W. Henninger, he has been working at Kennywood since 1968 and is beginning his 39th season this spring.

In addition, Henninger is president of the Kennywood Refreshment Company, which runs the park's food services. Splitting his time between the two positions, he spends countless hours inside the gates.

"I get to the park at 9 a.m. every day and meet with the gardeners," said Henninger. "I plan 24 hours in advance of the crew and give them direction for the day ahead."

While he does not get to spend as much time as he would like on the landscaping, he takes a few hours every day to walk the grounds and make sure everything is maintained. Once he has done his daily maintenance checks, his responsibilities with food services take up the rest of his workday, which often keep him at the park until one in the morning.

Henninger's award winning landscaping crew consists of three seasonal gardeners who work from April to Labor Day for the park's main season, and into mid-October for its Halloween "Phantom Fright Nights." "We have been very lucky to have the same great group of landscapers for many years now," said Henninger. In addition, the park employs a grounds crew in the winter months do prep work for ride construction and land development.

Marking the site where in 1755 George Washington and his troops camped during the French and Indian War, this statue is surrounded by daylilies, plumed celosia, melapodium, and blue salvia. Selected by the landscaping staff because the require very little maintenance, these flowers are given about an inch of water per week, and spent blossoms are removed by hand to promote new flower growth. Behind the statue London Planes line the walkways, their hearty nature allowing them to withstand the harsh Pittsburgh winters.

Softening Up The Hardscapes

At least half of the park's 40 acres are devoted to buildings, asphalt, lakes, tunnels, rides, and man-made hardscapes. While these features take up much of the property, the space left for landscaping is fully utilized with immaculately trimmed sycamore trees, brightly colored flowerbeds and perfectly edged lawns. "Every year it seems like it shrinks," said Henninger referring to the wide variety of natural features he uses to add color and soften up buildings and ride areas.

Kennywood does not have a budget for landscaping. "We do whatever it takes to make the place look good," said Henninger. "We don't stick to hard budget numbers." The crew mainly works with old-fashioned hand tools along with a few Toro and John Deere mowers, trimmers, and hedgers, "but nothing elaborate like a golf course," said Henninger. All maintenance on equipment is done in house.

"The landscaping is a vital component in the Kennywood experience," said Henninger. "It is very important to give the property that special feeling because people come here for the rides and the food, but they remember the flowers and trees when they go home."

Noah's Ark, seen under the hanging flower basket of a refreshment stand, is one of the park's most recognizable landmarks. Built in 1936, it was renovated in 1969 and meticulously rebuilt 1996. At its base, trailing lobelia and vining geraniums are planted every spring and are relatively easy to maintain because they can go without water for days and thrive in sunlight. They are trimmed with hand tools weekly by Kennywood's three seasonal gardeners.


Due to their sheer volume, an outside company is contracted to plant the tens of thousands of annuals that line the park's beautiful walkways and plazas.

Basic varieties of begonias, marigolds, scarlet sage, dusty miller, blue salvia, periwinkle, and petunias, to name a few, can be found throughout the park.

"We try to plant flowers that need as little care as possible," said Henninger.

To give Kennywood a unique appeal in sometimes-gloomy Western Pennsylvania the landscaping team implores a "big profusion of color" by planting tropical flowers every spring. "We have them brought up from the south and plant in early to mid May," said Henninger. "I try to delay planting as long as possible though, because the weather is so unpredictable at that time of year. We pray for no frost."

They use a basic fertilizer component mixture similar to Miracle Grow, like a 3-3-3 or 10-10-10, only sparingly, because they found extra feeding made plant material grow too large and out of proportion. "We just stick to basic watering and let mother nature take course," said Henninger.

A timed irrigation system on the park's large high profile flowerbeds activates at 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. each day. "It makes an ideal watering system because water is going into the soil, not misting into the air and wasted," said Henninger.

This windmill was built around 1920 and sat on an island in the middle of the lagoon at the center of the park. It was moved to its current location in 1952 and is a popular photo spot for tourists. The flowerbed below it is made up of a combination of new guinea impatiens, crotons, hybiscus and common lilac. Some of the ten-of-thousands of flowers imported from the south and planted every May; these brightly colored perennials are covered at night to protect against spring frost. During the summer months, a timed irrigation system performs watering twice a day, while the park's three groundskeepers carry out daily maintenance using hand trimmers.


Kennywood is lined with American sycamores and London Planes as well as a number of Pennsylvania hardwoods such as oak and maple. The sycamore is Henninger's favorite though, with most being planted over a century ago.

"They are great because they will adapt to any difficult situation," said Henninger. "It is a good tough tree that provides a lot of shade, and it's idiot-proof. Often times the sycamores are asphalted right up the trunks and are still able to survive." Since they need very little upkeep and feeding other than some pruning, the parks overall tree care is kept to a minimum.

The redesigned entrance to Kennywood, completed in 2005, greets visitors with a number of flowers and shrubs including black eye suzans, Andora juniper, old gold juniper and eastern redbud. Shown here before maturity, these plants will grow to a height of over 30 inches before being trimmed by hand by the gardening team to allow for new flower growth. Upon entering the gates, visitors walk down a tree-lined ramp and through a tunnel that takes them under Kennywood Boulevard and into the park.


Keeping areas filled with green grass and flowers can be difficult when trying to stay competitive with other parks. "We don't want to lose the appeal that Kennywood has had for over 100 years," said Henninger. "It's very tempting to reduce areas of green land for a revenue-producing product like a ride. I sometimes feel like I have to hold management at bay, but we have a good balance. They understand the balance between good aesthetics and adding attractions to the park."

Henninger still has a tough time when rides are added that cut into his landscaping. "It always kills me, because I hate to have to remove trees, especially when they are a hundred years old. But sometimes you have to when adding attractions. We plant for the future and try to make sure we still have trees in another hundred years."

When speaking to Henninger, it is obvious he has a great love for the park his family has owned since 1906. "Kennywood is an institution. Kennywood is timeless. When you walk in the gates, it's unlike any park in America. The appeal hearkens back to the old days, but has a wonderful blend of the old and the new. The overall Kennywood entertainment experience is better than it has ever been, and it looks better than it ever has. It gets better every year."


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November 19, 2019, 11:01 pm PDT

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