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Thursday, February 02, 2012

Saying goodbye to a Pittsburgh icon.



The Civic Arena in Pittsburgh opened for business the same year I was born. My contemporary, it was a wonder of technology, a marvel of architecture, and an iconic midcentury monument. Atomic Age style at its best.


When the Civic Arena was built, it was controversial. The Hill District in Pittsburgh was a vibrant community, the only neighborhood directly linked to Downtown Pittsburgh. The Arena cut off that connection, a neat excision of one of Pittsburgh’s largest African American populations. I was too young to be aware of the impact of this excision. Already suffering the long term effects of Pittsburgh’s slowing economy, the Hill neighborhood suffered a great deal, both monetarily and emotionally. 1500 families and 400 businesses were dislocated. It never really recovered. One need only see the early 50s photos by Teenie Harris and compare them with the Hill in the 70s, 80s, and today. Not all attributable to the Arena, of course, but it had a huge negative impact. And the conflict is not over-Hill residents are being largely ignored in the redevelopment talks.



But still. What a building it is.



Designed by the architectural firm of Mitchell and Ritchey, the design was overseen by modernist architect William H Sippel, who died in 2007, living long enough to plead for the preservation of the building. The shape alone was breathtaking. Enormous yet graceful, the concept of the moveable cantilevered dome was inspired by Dahlen Ritchey’s (Of Mitchell and Richey) visits to Fallingwater during construction. Edgar Kaufmann, the owner of Fallingwater, had Ritchey come out and check up on Frank Lloyd Wright’s design, as he had concerns about the design. Edgar Kaufmann went on to donate the money to build the arena, originally for Pittsburgh’s Civil Light Opera.



It wasn’t a great venue for acoustic music. The cavernous dome ate up sound. It turned out to be great for amplified concerts, though, as well as large sporting events, political rallies, Hollywood films, and religious revivals.




There are tons of lists of events, but I want to talk about some of the ones that I went to. My first rock concert, Grand Funk Railroad in 1974. The Ice Capades, more than once. The circus. The Pittsburgh Folk Festival, with endless ethnic variety of food, display, and performance. Parliament Funkadelic with Sly Stone, Stevie Wonder with opening act Bob Marley and the Wailers in 1979, Marley’s final tour. Pittsburgh Penguins games, mostly in the bad years. The filming of The Fish Who Saved Pittsburgh, where we had to move from one side of the arena to the other for crowd scenes because there weren’t enough people there. So many good memories. The sight of the arena glinting in the evening sun, or a sunrise seen from the Hill behind the arena, goosebumps come up just thinking about it. And behind it, all the way to the top of the Hill, all the way to Oakland, decline. Sadness, grief, a weary desolation I was too young, too white, too privileged to really understand.




The Civic Arena stopped meeting the needs of the Penguins, the primary occupant, in the mid-2000’s. The die was cast and it was only a matter of time. There’s been some debate the last few years, a few determined allies wanting to preserve this historic example of modernist architecture, all for naught. Too big a space to stay vacant, too much to maintain to keep as is. It had seen better days, the amazing roof last opened in 1993, a lack of maintenance on the mechanism and the age and expense of keeping it running was too much.




So we say goodbye. The building is stubborn. The demolition teams are having some pretty serious difficulties. Like me, it was made to last. I will miss it, and it will always be part of what made me who I am, but it will be interesting to see what Pittsburgh does with those 94 acres at the edge of downtown. I can only hope they use it to heal.


(This video contains dated information but some great images. The sense of hope kind of makes me sad.)



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