Plaza dedicated to memory of late civic leader remains an attractive neighborhood gateway

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When the Local published an article about several pocket parks located on the east side of lower Chestnut Hill recently, Chestnut Hill resident Joe Pizzano felt slighted.  He had been helping to keep alive the Susan Ann Detscher Pizzano Fountain Plaza for almost two decades and wanted residents to be aware of its importance.

The Fountain Plaza was a project of his late wife, Susan Pizzano, who died from breast cancer in 2011.   Formerly known as the Top of the Hill Fountain Plaza, it was rededicated in her honor in 2012. It sits between the Chestnut Hill Branch of the Free Library, the Top of the Hill Shopping Plaza, and the turn-around for SEPTA buses.  This location makes it a perfect spot for relaxing with a book, chatting with a friend or simply passing time while waiting for a bus or a train.

Susan Pizzano was the Vice President of the Chestnut Hill Community Association’s Social Division when she noticed that the public space was being neglected.

In the 1970s, when the plaza was first renovated, money was put in the Chestnut Hill Community Fund for continuous maintenance. However, by the time Pizzano was looking into the issue, no money appeared to be available from the fund to maintain the space.

She persuaded Ed Driscoll, CEO of the L.F. Driscoll Construction Company, which owned the property, to donate it the Friends of the Fountain Plaza, a new 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization whose sole purpose is to maintain the space.

Under her leadership, the group raised approximately $100,000 to renovate the plaza.  They organized a competition for the design of the fountain, won by the Wayne firm of Johnathan Alderson Landscape Architects. Alderson’s division of the plaza’s lower and upper terraces was especially admired by the architects who judged the competition.  Paving stones with the names of dozens of patrons she had recruited line the fountain, which is constructed of Wissahickon schist.

Pizzano’s fundraising and friend-raising skills were renown in Chestnut Hill. Among the most popular of her projects, she organized several community dinners featuring cook-offs with local chefs. These included “Meat Loaf Mania I and II (1999 and 2001),  “Chili Challenge” (1999), and “Pie Passion,” (2001), each raising funds for local charities such as the Chestnut Hill Senior Services Center and Teenagers Inc.

The resulting cookbooks highlight not just the winning recipes, but also the winning cooks. They are little gems of local history, and Pizzano’s academic training is evident throughout the text. (Susan Pizzano earned a Ph.D. in Public History at Temple University.) From the introduction to her Chestnut Hill Chili Challenge Cookbook, “The many men who entered the Chili Challenge would be interested to know that the first commercial appearance of chili in the United States was made by the Chili Queens of San Antonio in the 1880s. …All night long they cooked, served, and flirted in the picturesque flare from the hand-hammered tin lanterns, in the savory haze rising from clay vessels on charcoal braziers.’ ”

The cookbooks feature recipes from professional chefs at places such as Solaris Grille, Cresheim Cottage Café, Night Kitchen, and Treetops at the Rittenhouse, as well as local residents who wanted to try their hand.  Judges included Paul Roller, Mayor Ed Rendell, James Bruno and Len Lear, among many others.

In 2000, she revived the Chestnut Hill House Tours, offering “The Houses They Live in Tour” in April and the “Holiday House Tour…by Design” in December. Funds from these tours went specifically towards the Top of the Hill Fountain Plaza.

The Plaza renovation was completed in 2002.

Ron Recko, a retired business owner, serves as Treasurer of the Friends of the Fountain Plaza.  When Susan first asked him to help with the project, he said, “The area was just a big bag of weeds.”  He couldn’t understand how local businesses could let the area become such an eyesore.

Now, he said, “it is a beautiful place for people to sit on a bench or read a book, a spot that was totally neglected until Joe and Susan got involved.” He lived nearby on West Chestnut Hill Avenue since 1969 and was happy to join the Pizzanos’ cause. 

“I’m very proud of it,” Recko stated.

He noted, also, that the Plaza ties in nicely with the Peace Park at the bottom of the Hill to make very attractive entrances to the community. 

Local Arborist Ken LeRoy, a resident of East Mount Airy, also serves on the board of the Friends of the Fountain Plaza.  He visits the park frequently. 

“That’s my main thoroughfare because I go back and forth to the wine store,” he said. “ I go by there several times a week.”

LeRoy appreciates that it is a safe public space for residents and is well maintained.  “Susan really cared about green spaces in and around Chestnut Hill,” he said.

Since his wife’s passing, the maintenance is due largely to the efforts of Joe Pizzano. The cost of maintaining the plaza is approximately $6,000 to $8,000 annually.

Stan Ropski, facility manager for the Driscoll Company, has been maintaining the plantings and the fountain from the beginning, paid for by the Friends group. However, Joe Pizzano himself covers most of the cost of maintenance.

 Pizzano, an ophthalmologist, said that unlike his late wife, “I am not the fundraising type.” 

How will the Plaza fare in the future?  Pizzano says he would like to see the Plaza maintained in perpetuity either through a private endowment or a partnership with another entity.

“I believe the Plaza contributes as a beautiful oasis on the commercial corridor of Chestnut Hill,” said Pizzano. 

Residents and visitors are the beneficiaries of the legacy of an inspired community activist and those who honor her memory with such a distinctive public space.

Those interested in getting involved or donating to the Susan Ann Detscher Pizzano Fountain Plaza, should contact Joseph Pizzano at sadpiz@aol.com

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