Why you should care
Because effecting positive change is harder than it looks.
The traffic was backed up for miles and spotlights scanned the sky, signaling that something big was going down. Blades were sharpened, costumes and makeup were on, but this wasn’t a typical Ice Capades performance — it was a city-wide celebration of the Pittsburgh Civic Arena’s grand opening on Sept. 17, 1961.
The arena wasn’t just a technological marvel — it featured the largest retractable dome in the world — it was altogether unique. “At the time, there was nothing like it,” says Pittsburgh architect Robert Pfaffman, referring to the culmination of a cooperative effort by some of the city’s richest and most powerful men. Their goal? To remake a grimy, polluted industrial town into a shimmering city looking optimistically toward the future. Most of the changes took place on Mayor David Lawrence’s watch; the city leader had introduced a plan he called “the Pittsburgh Renaissance.” In 1958, at the arena’s groundbreaking, he announced that the auditorium would “stand as a symbol of an era.” By the time the arena opened, Lawrence was governor of Pennsylvania, and was on hand to cut the ceremonial ribbon.
The arena’s opening marked the return of hockey to Pittsburgh.
When World War II ended, Pittsburgh was an industrial powerhouse, but one that couldn’t shake the reputation it had acquired in the days after the Civil War as “Hell with the lid off.” Its mills, factories and coal-heated homes belched enough smoke that streetlights had to be turned on during the day. The National Municipal Review called Pittsburgh “the dirtiest pile of slag in the United States.” Many of the companies based in Pittsburgh — only two U.S. cities had more corporate headquarters than the home of the Steelers — were at least considering relocating to somewhere with a better quality of life.
This was a daunting problem for Lawrence, who had been elected mayor in 1945, but he wouldn’t have to go it alone. Richard King Mellon, scion of the city’s wealthiest family, was similarly concerned about the viability of the region. As a result, he formed the Allegheny Conference with other business leaders. Mellon and Lawrence had long known of each other, but the two didn’t meet until 1946. After that, they worked together in pursuit of some shared goals — the first being a park at the tip of the Golden Triangle.
The park drew many ideas, including a grandiose plan from Frank Lloyd Wright, who was familiar with the Pittsburgh area through Edgar Kaufmann, Pittsburgh’s merchant prince and owner of the biggest downtown department store. Kaufmann, a student of architecture, commissioned Wright to design his office at the store and, after that, a weekend home that remains one of Wright’s most famous creations: Fallingwater. Wright’s plan for the Point was rejected, but his idea for an amphitheater took hold. Kaufmann loved watching the Civic Light Opera, but its performances at Pitt Stadium were subject to the vagaries of the weather. He wanted a facility that could be outdoors or indoors, and donated $1 million to make it happen.
The Point was rejected as a location, as was Highland Park, an upper-class white neighborhood that was poised to fight the project. Finally, Kaufmann and Lawrence joined forces and targeted the Hill District, a neighborhood adjacent to downtown. Once regarded as the Harlem of Pittsburgh, the predominantly African-American neighborhood had become run-down. In the name of urban renewal, 8,000 residents and 400 businesses were displaced for the project, and the arena was built, showcasing the local industry and innovation (the leaves of the retractable dome were built from locally produced steel).
But on the night it opened, the Pittsburgh Press told of Cordelia Suran, who “wondered if the applause carried down to the ice, it seemed so muted in the vast auditorium” — an ominous sign of things to come.
The arena’s opening marked the return of hockey to Pittsburgh. The American Hockey League franchise, the Hornets, suspended operations after 1956, when its home, Duquesne Gardens, a decrepit old trolley barn, was torn down. The Civic Arena proved a popular venue for Ice Capades, hockey and other events, but its days were limited as an opera venue. The acoustics proved so problematic — when the dome was open, the microphones picked up the wind — that Leonard Bernstein, after a 1963 performance, complained and vowed never to return. “The music is wasted. This is my first and last concert here,” he said. By then, a dome was no longer a novelty, and Houston was working on the “Eighth Wonder of the World” — the Astrodome.
After just three years, the Civic Light Opera abandoned the site. The neighborhood around the arena never recovered either. Only one of six planned high-rise apartment buildings designed by I.M. Pei was built, and for the rest of its existence, the arena was ringed by empty lots. “To a lot of people, the Civic Arena became the reason the Hill revitalization failed,” Pfaffman says. “It’s not that simple, though. The construction of the arena didn’t damage the Hill. It was the demolition before it and the lack of investment afterward.”
In 1967, Pittsburgh was awarded an expansion NHL team. The Penguins called the Civic Arena — nicknamed “the Igloo” for its shape — home for the next 43 years, winning three Stanley Cup titles. And while it wasn’t an ideal venue for opera, it turned out to be a fabulous place for rock concerts, hosting hundreds of acts before being torn down — by 2012, it was completely gone. Pfaffman spearheaded a preservation effort, but it ultimately failed.
“Urban renewal was a mistake, and we made another mistake tearing it down,” he says.