The Annual International Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectural Design Excellence
Berkeley Prize 2024

[ID:1561] History of an igloo; the story behind Pittsburgh's Mellon Arena

United States

For thousands of years architecture has been an artistic media for reflecting the society and culture of the place in which it is built. With an increase in globalization and the rapid exchange of ideas and styles, a building that is completely of its context is becoming rarer every year. While this exchange of ideas can be considered a positive influence on the world, the constant desire for new buildings becomes a detriment to saving the old. The destruction of historic buildings to make way for the new is becoming a rhythm that neglects the option of preserving our cultural and social past through the built environment. Without saving some buildings, especially unique structures of cultural and architectural merit, we deny future generations the benefit of learning from the past. The Mellon Arena of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania is a building worth preserving due to its cultural and social impacts on the city and its residents and its architectural integrity and ingenuity.

At the time of its dedication on September 17, 1961 the Mellon Arena was the largest dome in the world and the world’s first non-internally supported roof that could be opened and closed at will. It was cheered as a “momentous triumph of progressive technology”. The building’s most recognized feature – the domed roof – is comprised of eight stainless steel leaves soaring 136 feet high and spanning 415 feet in diameter. Six of these leaves are movable and, when activated, can open in approximately two and a half minutes. The opening of the roof is a performance within itself as the first two leaves divide the roof in half and move apart from each other until they connect with their partnered second panel. Together the two sets of paired panels will move in unison to the third panels. Finally all three will move stacked on top of each other to their resting place beneath the fourth, stationary panels leaving a dramatic view of Downtown Pittsburgh where the roof had once been. The roof is supported from above with a large steel arm that poetically cantilevers and curves along the roof’s profile until it sturdily meets the ground. Because the roof is externally supported, it allows for fewer obstructed views for the audience inside. Concrete girders surround the base and provide structure for the ring on which over 3,000 feet of track guide the steel leaves as they open and close. The combination of steel and concrete materials reflects a tradition of Pittsburgh building strategies and speaks to Pittsburgh’s well-known economic history of steel manufacturing.

Affectionately called “The Igloo” by many Pittsburgh natives for its domed roof and cool steel and concrete tones, this building was originally known as the Civic Auditorium. As the name suggests, it was originally intended as the new home for the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera company after many of their outdoor shows had been rained out. The flexibility of the roof allowed for the option of having shows partially outside, or completely inside when inclement weather was expected. During the Igloo’s lifetime it has become a cultural center in Pittsburgh, not only for the opera but for many performances and events. Over it’s nearly fifty year history it has hosted concerts featuring Frank Sinatra, the Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Grateful Dead and Eric Clapton, boxing matches involving Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Robinson, Sonny Liston and Floyd Patterson, soccer matches, basketball games, Billie Jean King and the World Team Tennis, the 1983 World Figure Skating Championships and, of course, numerous National Hockey League hockey games and Stanley Cup finals. Currently known as the Mellon Arena, the building is home to the well-loved Pittsburgh Penguin hockey team. Many Pittsburghers have had unforgettable memories underneath the dome that graces the city skyline. For its unique shape and cultural importance, the Mellon Arena is an easily recognized Pittsburgh landmark and icon which is etched in the memories of the many people who have visited it. The original building was constructed to seat 12,000, but capacity was eventually increased to almost 17,000 to allow more seats for the Penguins games. Since 1992 over 10 million people have enjoyed hockey games alone underneath the dome. While the Mellon Arena is currently the smallest franchise hockey arena, with its circular shape and amazing roof, it is arguable the most unique architecturally.

However, not all of the memories of the Mellon Arena are positive. In many American cities unsightly slum neighborhoods became targeted for redevelopment projects, oftentimes without thought given to where the dislocated people would go. These redevelopment projects were rarely coupled with government funded housing projects which would have given the displaced residents a place to live once their homes were reclaimed. With automobiles gaining in popularity and the creation of suburban sprawl, cities needed to adjust to accommodate the new traffic patterns as well as try to maintain life in the city by enticing populations with cultural outlets and entertainment. Pittsburgh was no exception. The Civic Auditorium was the first and only building completed in an urban redevelopment plan known as the Pittsburgh Acropolis that called for the demolition of many buildings in the Lower Hill District of Pittsburgh. Considered a highly respectable middle and upper middle class neighborhood in the late nineteenth century, the Lower Hill District slowly became populated with a large number of lower income working class, predominantly African American residents. After World War II, the Lower Hill District was considered the urban slum of Pittsburgh with many buildings that were close to disrepair and density reaching a peak. For the redevelopment project over 100 acres consisting of 1,300 structures including homes and about 400 businesses in the Lower Hill District were demolished to make way for the construction of the Civic Auditorium. Over 8,000 people were displaced to make way for the revitalization project in the Lower Hill District.

While considered a slum by some, the Lower Hill District was an important place in the African American community of Pittsburgh. Comparable to what Harlem is to New York City, the Hill District featured jazz music, clubs and speakeasies. For example, acclaimed playwright August Wilson spent most of his childhood growing up within eyesight of where the Civic Auditorium was constructed and some of the settings of his plays were in the neighborhood of his youth with the characters based upon people in his community. Unfortunately, most of Pittsburgh’s African American hotspots in the Lower Hill District were destroyed and the inhabitants were forced to find a new place to call home. This little-known history behind the creation of the Arena is still a looming scar scratched in the building’s foundations. While the social history that surrounds the formation of the Civic Auditorium is less than positive, a city must embrace its past mistakes and allow future generations to learn from them instead of merely covering up faults with destructive means.

The fate of the Mellon Arena appears predetermined if Pittsburgh decides to follow the examples of previous demolition projects. The late 20th and early 21st century has seen a great transition in the sporting arena fabric across North America. Such model stadiums as the Mapleleaf Gardens in Toronto, the Forum of Montreal, the Boston Garden in Boston and the Memorial Auditorium of Buffalo have all been recently cast aside and demolished without thought of preservation to make way for larger arenas with luxury boxes and more seating capacity. Seeing these new building projects, the Pittsburgh Penguins decided the Mellon Arena was no longer adequate for their needs. To keep up with other teams the Penguins knew they also needed to provide luxury boxes and more seats for their fans. The importance of a new hockey stadium was magnified when there was talk of moving the team to another city. Seeing the opportunity to create greater revenue in ticket sales, plans were set forward to create a new home for the beloved hockey team, and the Igloo was looking at its ultimate demise.

The Mellon Arena has only been known by this name for the last ten years of it’s almost fifty year history. While it has been a part of the Pittsburgh landscape for nearly half a century, the Igloo’s near future remains unknown. As the smallest hockey arena in the Nation Hockey League franchise, a new, larger arena, the Consol Energy Center, has been recently constructed adjacent to the Mellon arena as the new home for the Pittsburgh Penguins and other cultural events. The transition from old to new is scheduled to take place in March 2010. Soon to be abandoned without a tenant, the Igloo awaits its future. Some would like to see it share the same destructive fate as the Three Rivers Stadium, Forbes Field and Pitt Stadium. However, the fact that it is the last older stadium in Pittsburgh only adds to fuel to the argument to preserve it. Surely Pittsburgh cannot abandon all of her sporting history! The Lemieux Group, LP, owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins, the arena’s main tenant, wishes to see the entire building torn down for purely economic reasons. The steel from the roof could be sold for scrap to make up for construction costs of the new arena and the land the Igloo sits on cleared to make way for surface parking and hotels to service the new arena and possibly some retail, residential and office space development. While this option is sadly the most financially prudent strategy, it would mean a devastating loss for Pittsburgh’s architectural history and create an unsightly asphalt jungle from an area of greater worth and opportunity.

There are other options, but all involve different states of demolition. Should the entire structure be saved from the wrecking ball, the vast interior spaces could be divvied up to create a multi-purpose building, thereby at least partially satisfying the Penguins vision of retail and office uses. The current ice skating rink could remain intact as a practice and recreational area for local hockey teams and the city’s figure skaters of all ages and levels. With the removal of the large and heavy scoreboard suspended from the roof’s focal and spinning point, the roof would once again be able to open and close to allow for an indoor/outdoor setting. Some of the seating area surrounding the rink on the ground floor could be readjusted to accommodate both at least one larger restaurant with banquet facilities and a number of smaller cafés and sports bars that would benefit from the crowds attending the hockey games at the new arena across the street. The remaining interior conditioned spaces on the upper levels could be redesigned to house museums dedicated to Pittsburgh’s athletes and sports teams in addition to a separate museum commemorating the history of African American jazz and culture lost after the destruction of the Lower Hill District. These museums would preserve important factors of Pittsburgh’s past. Pittsburghers as a whole are a very supportive sports fan base, and would greatly enjoy an opportunity to exploit and share the city’s athletic triumphs. Providing multiple, diverse activities will draw more people to the Mellon Arena and in doing so the building will continue to be part of Pittsburgh’s social scene.

If not all of the building can be saved, the iconic dome and cantilevered arm, whether in it’s current working state or not, should remain for they are the most prominent and well-known features. Removing the shell of the lower section will open up the ground plate to the larger site allowing for pedestrian walkways through the space rather than needing to circumambulate around it. Releasing the ground of restrictive walls opens up the opportunity for an urban park. The ice skating rink could remain as a public rink but the presence of the skeleton of the Mellon Arena including the concrete girders, circular track, dome and steel arm above would make a dramatic artistic reminder of the whole building that once stood. To the delight of the area’s nature enthusiasts, the rest of the grounds could be transformed to include gardens, water features, pathways, statues and perhaps opportunities to display some of the same sporting and cultural facts mentioned in the previous museum proposal along the surfaces of the concrete girders. There could also be small retail shops and restaurants for public enjoyment and economic prosperity for local merchants. While the current location of the Mellon Arena is slightly divided from the main downtown district by the creation of the thruway, the park could be accessed from downtown residents via a nearby light rail train station and by Hill District occupants alike. The park could be the “Steel City’s” version of New York City’s Central Park and would act as a gift back towards the land that was lost during the demolition of the Lower Hill District and serve as a public space for current residents. In doing so, the Mellon Arena could heal some of the scars of the past and contribute to the social desires of the neighborhood that it originally took from.

The Mellon Arena has served Pittsburgh’s social and cultural communities for nearly fifty years. As perhaps a national treasure, it remains one of the NHL’s last old school arenas. Now at a critical moment in its lifetime it seems that we are once again willing to lose a piece of architecture that has contributed so much to both the nation’s and the city’s history in favor of something new and less-architecturally significant. The arena has already been deemed eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, which could provide some federal funds for preservation but alone may not be enough to save it. Preservation is a means of providing future generations the opportunity to reflect upon the decisions and impacts of the past to make improvements in the future. Buildings that have impacted a population, whether it is a positive or negative affair, can teach and continue to serve with proper preservation. Architecture, when done well, acts as a social catalyst and symbol for the local context. When a building has provided valuable service to its community and is comprised of significant architectural merit, it does not deserve to be cast aside so easily for the newer, shinier model.

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