Nestled atop Cresson Mountain is an Italian Renaissance garden created by Charles Wellford Leavitt Jr., a pioneering landscape engineer.        

Nestled atop Cresson Mountain is an Italian Renaissance garden created by Charles Wellford Leavitt Jr., a pioneering landscape engineer.         


With its climbing red and pink roses, Fisher Boy fountain and three reflecting pools edged by yellow Stella d'Oro day lilies, this tiered green space is a giant step back into an astonishing slice of Gilded Age grandeur.         


"It was a special place when I was growing up," said Patrick Bishop, a 1967 graduate of St. Francis University in Loretto who grew up nearby in Gallitzin but now lives outside York.         


"It's the way I remember it. This is a showplace," he said as he walked the grass paths last month with his friend, Valerie Netting of Baltimore.         


That's exactly what steel tycoon Charles M. Schwab wanted when he began building a 44-room French chateau here in 1914. Located 90 miles east of Pittsburgh and perched on a hillside, Immergrun, which means "evergreen" in German, was Schwab's summer estate; his bedroom overlooked this garden and the green valley beyond.         


Schwab, a protege of Andrew Carnegie, was 34 when he became president of U.S. Steel, the first billion-dollar company in the world. Finished in 1919, Immergrun had 18 buildings, including five gatehouses, a Romanesque barn topped by a copper cow weather vane, a six-car garage, six greenhouses and stables.         


Now a residence for Franciscan friars, Schwab's mansion was expanded in 2005 to accommodate the religious order's 40 aging members and is private. So is a Queen Anne-style house Schwab built for his mother in 1898. It was restored in the late 1990s as a home for Franciscan novices. The gatehouses serve as offices, residences for friars and space for visiting guests.         


The garden, built over three plateaus, is public.         


"It's a place for quiet meditation and taking a walk," said the Rev. Richard L. Davis, who, as an 18-year-old postulant, planted water lilies with manure. One of his classmates asked for gloves, but a superior insisted that using their bare hands would make men out of them, the priest recalled.         


Novenas to Our Lady of Fatima are said here at 6:30 p.m. on the 13th of each month from May through October. But, to experience the full brilliance of Leavitt's design, visitors should come on Sundays between noon and 5 p.m. from May through October. That's when a fountain is turned on and water cascades down the steep hillside in a series of nine falls, then trickles into three reflecting pools.         


The formal garden, which is owned and maintained by St. Francis University, features wrought-iron gates, curved stone walls covered in wisteria and grapevines, colonnades, stone benches, and rows of boxwood and arborvitae.         


The trunk of an enormous weeping beech bears the initials of visitors; its massive branches shelter a space so large and quiet that it's practically mystical. Lilies of the valley form a circle below a massive sugar maple. Gazebos stand on either side of the space; beyond one is a rock garden with unusual shade plants.         


"Most people don't even know it's here. It's a hidden gem in the Alleghenies," Davis said, adding that Schwab spent $1 million a year maintaining the gardens.         


"Schwab grew one of every tree that could grow in North America on this property," the priest said.         


To create what some consider one of the finest Italian Renaissance gardens in the country, Leavitt used native sandstone for the walls and planted native trees, especially sugar maple and white pine. Schwab ordered the planting of 5,000 weeping beeches.         


On a morning in late June, Veronica Riner tended the garden by trimming vines and pulling weeds. A college sophomore who is studying psychology in Virginia, she came here often to see the weeping beech with her father, Richard, who oversees maintenance of the estate and works for the university.         


"The tree is still one of my favorite things. I like the rock garden because it's secluded," Veronica Riner said.         


While she worked, Steven Kotecki and his wife, Shannon, who live in Portage, Pa., strolled through the space with their 1-1/2-year-old daughter, Scout. Steven Kotecki loves the stone walls.         


Perched on a wall and writing in a journal was Nichole Williams, who lives in Cresson and teaches philosophy at the Penn State-Altoona campus. As a child, she came here with her grandparents. When her twin daughters, Marissa and Kaelyn, were born with congenital heart defects, she brought them here to calm them; they enjoyed watching the Japanese koi in the reflecting pools. Now, they are 9.         


An alumnus of St. Francis University, Schwab would have loved the school's motto: "Reach higher. Go far." He spent lavishly and gave generously. After he died in 1939, Immergrun lay vacant until 1942. Then, to pay the considerable debts of the Schwab estate, it went up for auction. St. Francis alumni raised $32,500 to buy the house, garden and dairy farm, Davis said.         


Schwab filled this European-style garden with sculpture by Paul Manship, whose statue of Prometheus in Rockefeller Center is a visual landmark for New Yorkers. Gone now are Manship's griffons that guarded the cascading water, a bronze sundial depicting "Hercules Supporting the World," and Henri Crenier's "The Spirit of the Garden" and "La Source." Much of the statuary was sold during the 1942 auction. In their places are religious statues of St. Joseph and St. Theresa of the Little Flower.         


By the late 1970s, the garden was overgrown with weeds and underbrush and the fountains did not work. The beauty that is visible today resulted from the efforts of a modern miracle worker. A Franciscan priest, Ronald J. Bodenschatz, was nearing the age of 60 when he arrived in Loretto and spent years restoring this space; a small gold plaque in a chapel just off the garden honors his memory.                   


Email Marylynne Pitz at mpitz@post-gazette.com. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.