Thursday, March 6, 2008

The Dome

Genesis at the Civic Arena from Wiki Commons
(photgraph by Andrew Bossi)

In 1944, Edgar Kaufmann of department store fame and city councilman Abe Wolk decided that what the city really needed was an all purpose venue for the performing arts - one with a sliding roof. Four years later in 1948, Kaufmann and the city each pledged $500,000 to design one, and the game was afoot.

In February 1950, Kaufmann unveiled plans for a 10,500-seat venue drawn by architects Jim Mitchell and Dahlen Ritchey. The design included two sliding motorized sections for the roof, attached to a cantilevered arm.

Kaufmann's intention was to build an amphitheater for the Civic Light Opera so it could put on shows under the stars (or under a roof in case it rained) at what's now Point State Park.

At the same time, Mayor David Lawrence was working feverishly on Pittsburgh's Renaissance I. He wanted to build a multipurpose arena as part of the urban redevelopment of the Lower Hill District, and persuaded Kaufmann to cast his lot with him. Up went an arena, down went the Hill.

In the name of progress, the Lower Hill was bulldozed into oblivion. The Feds OK'ed the redevelopment and picked up most of the $22 million tab for the new arena. About 1,600 families and generations of small businesses were displaced from the Lower Hill during the project. Of the 90+ acres cleared, the arena sat on 20 and a few more were gobbled up by roads.

The remaining land was slated for housing and commercial development, but the only housing that popped up was the Washington Plaza Apartments. Crawford Square, a mixed-income housing development, followed 30 years later.

Parking lots dominate much of the rest of the site. As Joni Mitchell said: "They paved paradise and put up a parking lot With a pink hotel, a boutique, and a swinging hot spot..."

It may not have been exactly paradise, but the Hill has yet to recover as a community from the devastation of the Civic Arena project. Urban renewal had turned out to be nothing more than urban removal for the locals. But open it did. The Mellon Arena hosted its first show, the Ice Capades, on September 19th, 1961.

Kaufmann's dream fizzled along the way, too. Remember how the Arena seating would rise up and open into a stage? Well, that was the highlight of the CLO's career there. The roof couldn't be opened if there was a 60 percent chance of rain or if the wind was above 7 mph. The acoustics were horrible, and the stage rigging was next to impossible to hang properly. The CLO left the building in 1968.

So the shiny new dome earned its' keep by hosting circuses, wrasslin' matches, ice shows, and any kind of gathering that needed a lot of orange chairs and a stage. And it became home to a zillion Pittsburgh sports teams.

The Pens, the Hornets, Pipers, Wrens, X-Plosion, Triangles, Spirits, Maulers, college sports, high school championships - it if required a ref, the Arena had a floor for it.

And if the CLO was a bit chary of the Arena's less than perfect sound quality, the world of pop and rock music took to the Igloo like flies to...well, they liked the old place. It took on a second career as a rowdy music hall. The first rock show was a Porky Chedwick bash held in May of 1962, starring Jackie Wilson, The Drifters, The Coasters, The Castelles, Jerry Butler, The Flamingos, The Angels, The Blue Belles, and The Skyliners.

Elvis Presley did two concerts there in 1973 & 1976, which means, as Mike Lange likes to say, "Elvis has left the building" twice in reality. The Beatles had a raucous screechfest there in 1964, only the third rock 'n' roll concert to be held in the Dome. Garth Brooks sold out six consecutive shows in 1997.

And who can forget the Grateful Dead's riot act of April 3, 1989? A bunch of tickletless hippies tried to break through the glass doors of the Civic Arena to crash the show. Their bad. They were met by a posse of City cops.

Pittsburgh's finest had a field day thumping Deadheads and officer George Trotsky became a viral legend for his beatdown of a luckless (and cuffed) love child.

Other performers who had a modestly more refined following that played the house were Phil Collins and Genesis, Alice Cooper, Bon Jovi, the Doors (Rhino just released a CD of that 1970 show), Julio Iglesias, Billy Joel, Elton John, Led Zeppelin (3 times), Jimmy Buffet, Motley Crue, Ozzy Osbourne and Black Sabbath, Pearl Jam, Porky Chedwick shows, the Rolling Stones, Frank Sinatra, Simon and Garfunkel, Bruce Springsteen, U2, and countless other acts from the famous to the floozies.

The largest attendance ever at the arena wasn't for a rock show. It was 18,150 for a WWF wrestling gig in 1999. Go figure. But the next highest headcount was for a 1995 Robert Plant/Jimmy Page concert that brought 17,764 fans spinning through the turnstiles. With that kind of following, is it any wonder that WDVE still plays "Stairway to Heaven" a half dozen times a day?

In December of 1999, the Pittsburgh Penguins took the cash and renamed the Civic Arena the Mellon Arena. Whether you call it the Mellon Arena, the Civic Arena, the Dome, or the Igloo, it's been the home of the top acts to hit the 'Burgh over the past half century.

But that's history; Consol Energy Center, just across the street, is Pittsburgh's new arena. The final concert at Mellon Arena was held Saturday, June 26th, 2010, featuring Carole King and James Taylor. A fine act, but kinda quiet. We think we'd prefer that the old girl's last stand was a little rowdier.

The Mellon Arena name expired on August 1st, 2010. The empty building is once again officially the Civic Arena. At least the Grand Dame is being allowed to exit stage left with the same name she entered the City with.

How she'll exit is still up to debate. A small and vocal group of preservationists are trying to save at least the skeleton of the Igloo; the Penguins want to blow it up and put up a parking lot...ooops, sorry, they want to develop the property. It's an ongoing argument; a judge will decide the Dome's fate sooner or later. But if the Syria Mosque is any example...

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