The conception of the Mellon Arena began on February 4, 1949, when Edgar J. Kaufmann, owner of Kaufmann’s Department Store and supporter of the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera (CLO), approached then Pittsburgh Mayor David L. Lawrence regarding the possibility of the construction of a permanent home for the burgeoning CLO. The CLO—founded in 1946—had, until this point, been an organization presenting laudable musical performances to its Pittsburgh audience in an open-air setting. The University of Pittsburgh’s Pitt Stadium served as the primary performance venue. Kaufmann, who had very clearly established himself in Pittsburgh high society as a patron of architecture and as one who was concerned with civic improvement, had been conferring with Frank Lloyd Wright for several years regarding civic improvements; however, the Wright schemes would appear to have been all but abandoned with the CLO proposition. Kaufmann wished to provide Pittsburgh theater-goers with a new performance venue that would allow the continuation of the CLO’s tradition of open-air performances while possessing a retractable roof that would permit a performance to continue even in the event of inclement weather. Upon the acceptance of the proposal by Pittsburgh City Council, Kaufmann pledged $500,000.00 of his own money toward the endeavor if funds from the city coffers could be found to match his donation. Mayor Lawrence embraced the Kaufmann proposal as a potentially integral project in the Pittsburgh Renaissance—an enormous effort in the 1940s, 50s, 60s, and early 70s to reduce pollution, clear slums, and provide Pittsburgh with the necessary accoutrements of a modern twentieth century city. With Lawrence supporting the Kaufmann proposal, the Pittsburgh City Council emphatically accepted the endeavor of building a new civic auditorium by a vote of 8 to 1.
As early as July 18, 1949, a site for the proposed arena had been chosen and architects Mitchell & Ritchey of Pittsburgh had been awarded the opportunity to design an appropriate structure to house the CLO. The Mitchell & Ritchey firm would later design many of Pittsburgh’s most pronounced and infamous urban renewal projects. The proposed site for the new arena was chosen in the upper-middle class neighborhood of Highland Park at the terminus of Negley Avenue. Although vacant land was available in this area, the city, under Pennsylvania Public Law 991, would be able to exercise its newly authorized powers of eminent domain to secure additional land for parking and auxiliary facilities. The residents of Highland Park strongly disapproved of the site selection for the new arena, citing a severe lack of public transportation to the site and inadequate infrastructure for a major public facility in a primarily residential neighborhood. In an attempt to halt the proceedings, Robert B. King—whose estate would be claimed by the project—stepped before the City Council and offered his estate for use as parkland upon the event of his death should the arena decision be reversed. King was also an influential resource for the Highland Park group as he was the uncle of Richard King Mellon, a major player in Pittsburgh redevelopment projects and heir to the Mellon Financial Corporation; one of the city’s most powerful institutions. Influence aside, the City Council voted to move forward with the project. Shortly thereafter, Mayor Lawrence, rescinding an earlier decision, suggested that a new site for the arena be found.
Amidst the tumult over site proposals, on February 6, 1950, James A. Mitchell of Mitchell & Ritchey submitted a patent for a “Flexible Roof Furling System for Amphitheater or the Like”. It was this patented design, accepted by the United States Trademark and Patent Office on October 26, 1954, that would be the nascent design from which the Mellon Arena would eventually be refined. The patent demonstrates a large arena with no internal supports over which a cantilever arm would project from one side. From this cantilever arm a retractable, flexible cover would be draped over the arena. The patent cites that the materials from which the roof could potentially be made range from canvas or nylon to rayon or fiber glass cloth although he recommends that fibrous materials be coated in vinyl resins or neoprene. The patent clarifies that the roof is to be attached to an upper and lower annular track constructed of trolley track. The roofing material, mounted on trolley wheels, would then be able to effortlessly glide into any desired position. Mitchell also provides for a rain cap atop the cantilevered mast to function as flashing.
By 1952, the city was still without an appropriate site for the proposed arena. A second site had been chosen in one of the city’s largest parks: Schenley Park. Whereas the city owned the land and would not need to resort to the hotly contested tool of eminent domain, the erection of such a facility as a public auditorium purportedly violated the terms of agreement upon which Mary E. Croghan Schenley had donated the parkland in 1889. Almost concurrently with the rejection of the second proposed arena site, the Federal Housing and Home Finance Agency allocated $5,000,000.00 toward the clearance and renewal of the Lower Hill District. The Hill District had been a neighborhood adjacent to Pittsburgh’s Downtown that civic leaders had for many years deemed a substandard, dilapidated slum despite the existence of a prolific and vibrant African American community. An additional $100,000,000.00 was secured through private investors for the redevelopment of the Lower Hill District and a plan for up-scale housing, the Crosstown Boulevard, and a parking lot for 2000 cars was proposed. Consideration for an arena space was later added to the proposal and it was upon this site that the Mellon Arena was constructed.
Having secured a site for the proposed arena, Mayor Lawrence approached Edgar Kaufmann in February 1953 regarding the project and secured an additional $500,000.00 of funding to further develop the scheme of a retractable roof. It would appear to have been around this time that Mitchell & Ritchey began to consider a retractable steel dome in opposition to the earlier scheme of a fabric roof. A master plan for the Lower Hill development area was also conceived of by Mitchell & Ritchey although the arena would be the extent to which any of their plans would be realized. The conceptual dome structure would owe much to the earlier fabric roof model; however, the new concept replaced the fabric with 8 steel-ribbed, stainless steel plated leaves. Supported at the crown of the dome by an exterior cantilevered steel frame and at the base by a concrete ring girder measuring 4’-6” in thickness and 16’-20’ in width, the leaves—two fixed and dix movable—were placed on an annular track that enabled the arena to be transformed into an outdoor space in approximately 2.5 minutes. The dome, upon completion, was to be 415’ wide at the base and 109’ in height. As concerned the interior of the space, a major alteration in seating configuration was made from an auditorium style setting to that of an arena style setting. Rather than setting the primary focal point of the space as the stage, a main floor surrounded by bowl configuration seating allowed the space to be programmed for a multi-use function rather than for the exclusive purpose of the CLO. A stage for CLO performances was placed below the bowl seating at the southwestern perimeter of the main floor and was exposed through the use of two hydraulic jacks. When raised, the hydraulic jacks and elevated seating effectively created a proscenium arch which defined the stage and from which draperies and scrims could be hung. The projected cost of the arena was set at $20,000,000.00.
September 1955 marked the approval by the City Council of an overall plan for the Lower Hill development. With high-rise residences designed by I.M. Pei (1964), Mitchell & Ritchey’s civic auditorium (1961), a new hall for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra by Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill (unrealized), and a motor hotel by William Lescaze & Associates (1966), the plan for the Lower Hill was far more than a mere slum clearance project; it had become a plan for Pittsburgh’s new center of civic activity. Beginning in November 1956, the first properties of the Lower Hill District were purchased through the city’s exercise of eminent domain and the process of demolishing the densely built 95 acres began. In the process of clearing the land for the new civic center, 1,551 families or approximately 8,000 of the city’s most under-privileged residents were forced to relocate.
The foundations and ring girder for the Mellon Arena were nearly complete by May 1959 with the steel framing for the movable leaves being erected later that year. By July 13, 1960, the dome of the structure was nearly half complete. Nearly one year later on September 19, 1961, the Mellon Arena, known at that time as the Civic Arena, opened to the public for its first event at a final cost of $22,000,000.00.
The Mellon Arena is sited on elevated, sloping terrain overlooking Pittsburgh’s Central Business District. Although circular in plan and possessing several points of ingress and egress, the primary entrance to the building faces onto a landscaped approach from Washington Place. Whereas the arena was meant to be part of an overall civic development, the building was one of the very few projects of that plan to be realized and is sited amidst a vast surface parking lot.
The entirety of the structure consists of a large stainless steel dome covering an arena space that is circular in plan. Supported by a steel structure cantilevering over the dome from the northeast and seated upon a concrete ring girder, the dome measures 415’ at its widest point and 109’ at its tallest. The dome—originally being retractable—is of a steel rib construction and is clad in INCO Nickel Co. stainless steel. The dome is divided into 8 distinct leaves, 6 of which are equipped with wheels and are set upon an annular track. The leaves, which fold back upon themselves, originally allowed the dome to retract in 2.5 minutes for open air performances or close in the event of inclement weather. The dome weighs approximately 300 tons. The concrete ring girder, upon which the leaves rest, measures 4’-6” in thickness and 16’-20’ in width.
The interior of the arena is arranged in a 3 tiered bowl seating configuration splayed around the main event floor. A concourse rings the exterior of the arena and alleviates ambiguity in accessing the seating bowl by providing patrons with a continuous loop by which to circumnavigate the arena.
Technically, the Mellon Arena is composed of building materials considered ordinary for its day. Steel, stainless steel, and reinforced concrete could hardly have been considered innovative in the late 1950s and early 1960s, but it was the way by which Mitchell & Ritchey combined those ordinary materials to create the Mellon Arena’s megalithic domed structure that marks technical innovation of paramount importance. At the time of its completion, the Mellon Arena carried the title of largest retractable dome ever executed and still stands as the country’s sole example of a free-standing retractable dome. The way by which the dome opens—by folding back upon itself—has influenced other retractable dome arenas, but few attempts have been made to replicate the structure exactly. Whereas more recent incarnations of the retractable dome employ the dome as a roof structure, the Mellon Arena is unique in the fact that its dome essentially is the building.
In order to understand the widespread social implications that the Mellon Arena had upon the City of Pittsburgh, one must first necessarily understand the two elements for which the city is best known: pollution and topography. The environmental stewardship displayed by Pittsburgh during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is generally understood to have been heinous, but it was during the 1940s—the time at which the concept for the Mellon Arena was developed—that the leadership of the city found it necessary to begin the long overdue process of updating infrastructure, cleaning the air, and clearing blight. The excessive byproducts of industry had left Pittsburgh a city cloaked in darkness; street lamps burned 24 hours per day. Pittsburgh had been known as one of the very few twentieth century cities where the risk of cholera epidemics were real and respiratory diseases topped the list of health complaints. City leaders found it imperative to make drastic environmental changes if the city were to remain economically viable.
The Mellon Arena was Pittsburgh’s second attempt of many at urban renewal. After the much lauded Gateway Center Project, which had redeveloped various underutilized and defunct rail yards and warehouse properties at the confluence of the Ohio into a gleaming tower-in-the-park scheme, Mayor David L. Lawrence adopted the stainless steel and open green space concept for the development of a Pittsburgh for the future. Lawrence asserted that, “The city welcomes tomorrow, because yesterday was hard and unlovely. Pittsburgh likes buildings that glisten with stainless steel and aluminum, and it has little time for the niceties of architectural criticism when it compares what it gained with what it lost. The town has no worship of landmarks. Instead, it takes its pleasure in the swing of the headache ball and the crash of falling brick,”(Lorant, 373). However, in clearing the densely urban 95 acres necessary for the construction of the Mellon Arena, civic leaders would face the very real problem of evicting people from their homes. In the case of the Gateway Center Project, the majority of the land reclaimed had been abandoned industrial space; the Lower Hill District was an active residential community.
Perhaps most important in understanding the social implications of the Mellon Arena is understanding topography. The city of Pittsburgh cannot be conceived of as a well integrated whole in the terms that one would conceive of the prototypical gridded city. Pittsburgh exists more as a symbiotic assemblage of distinct neighborhoods separated by peaks and valleys, but connected by a sinuous network of common streets. The most seemingly insignificant connections between these distinct neighborhoods are revealed to be major thoroughfares upon closer examination, the loss of which would result in a disruption of mobility by those living in affected areas. This was the issue of the Mellon Arena.
The Hill District is named precisely for the fact that the area that it occupies is among the highest topographical features within the bounds of the city. It is very literally sited on a hill. As a result, there are few primary thoroughfares connecting the Hill District to other city neighborhoods such as Downtown, Uptown, Soho, and Oakland. Prior to 1955, the Hill District, as one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, had been surprisingly well integrated into neighborhoods to the south and east despite the obvious hardships of topography; even a funicular railway connected the Hill District to the Strip District to the north until the early 20th century. The Lower Hill served as the primary connection between Downtown and points east via Wylie and Centre Avenues. In addition to being a major hub in the connectivity of the overall urban scheme, the Hill District was also the city’s largest African American community.
The concept for the Mellon Arena was to provide the city with a new civic center, but the reality of the result—the majority of the civic center concept going unrealized—was the insertion of a void and barrier between Downtown and the Hill District. The Crosstown Boulevard that was part of the plan was intended to relieve traffic stress on the city’s Central Business District. While it did alleviate some traffic issues, the roadway—sunken below grade—effectively created a physical and psychological social barrier. The arena itself, in clearing 95 acres, dislodged 1,551 families which accounted for approximately 8,000 individuals. The city paid fair market value for the land it cleared as was required by Pennsylvania Public Law 991 which outlined the concept of eminent domain. The truth of the matter, however, was that the majority of the residents of the Lower Hill rented their homes, and so, saw little to nothing of the money paid for their residences and businesses. Pittsburgh, although known for urban renewal, had built little by way of public housing at the time of the clearance of the Lower Hill. Although the city made a good-faith effort to place displaced residents in equal or better housing accommodations, the majority moved into other already overcrowded neighborhoods.
In what can be attributed as a result of the Mellon Arena project, the Hill District today is characterized not by vacant lots, but by entirely vacant blocks due to poor connectivity to the surrounding city and a lack of basic commercial services. Near the arena, residential development has begun with the construction of suburban-style townhouses, but the majority of viable historic fabric continues to degrade.
The Mellon Arena is a prime manifestation of the ideas circulating during the 1950s and 1960s regarding urban renewal, blight clearance, and civic regeneration. Although these ideas of an urban conglomerate composed of grand towers-in-the-park and expansive open spaces are generally met with a certain amount of contempt in contemporary society, the Mellon Arena, upon completion, was viewed by civic leaders as a manifestation of a modern 20th century Pittsburgh. In a city that had nearly always been recognized for its environmental follies, the Mellon Arena was far more than an event venue or a social barrier or blight clearance or urban renewal or any of the myriad designations it has been given since its inception. The Mellon Arena can most succinctly be identified as gesture of a civic administration looking to secure economic viability for tomorrow.
At the time of its completion, the Mellon Arena was hailed as an engineering marvel. No freestanding retractable steel dome had ever been attempted in America and the Mellon Arena stands as the only example extant today. Widely published in a number of architectural as well as engineering journals and periodicals, the building received great acclaim for both its design and its versatility of use. The arena sits amidst the works of I.M. Pei and William Lescaze, but still manages to garner the majority of attention despite having been designed by a firm seldom acknowledged outside of the City of Pittsburgh. The arena serves as a model upon which a great number of retractable roof stadia have been modeled; one of the more recent and closely linked examples being the Fukuoka Dome in Fukuoka, Japan.
Although regarded as an engineering masterwork, the Mellon Arena has also been regarded as a paramount faux pas of urban renewal. It is difficult to determine if the civic center plan would have been quite as detrimental to the city had it been completed, but as it stands, nearly fifty years later, the arena remains a great point of contention in the community.
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