Written by Christine Madrid French
Last week, I was invited to serve on a panel of experts (hosted by cityLIVE!) to debate the merits of saving, or not saving, a mid-century stadium located at the edge of downtown Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The panel also included an historian, a community activist, and an architect. About 150 citizens ventured out in the rain to participate and discuss the relative significance of historic resources, both extant and already demolished. As preservationists, we are practiced in deliberating between “build new” and “save” arguments, but here the case is far more complicated.
Few dispute the architectural significance of the building, which was determined eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. The 1961 Civic Arena, designed by James Mitchell and Dahlen Ritchey -- and funded in part by Edgar Kaufmann -- was one of the most successfully engineered feats of its time. The stainless steel dome, divided into eight sections, slid open in just three minutes to reveal an open sky above and a stage and seating area below. A cantilevered arm reaching halfway across the span provided the sole support for the retractable roof, once the largest in the world.
What lies beneath the building is at the heart of the matter. The Lower Hill district was once part of a large farm tract owned by the grandson of William Pitt. In the nineteenth century, the area was subdivided and developed to provide housing for European immigrants. By the 1900s, the neighborhood was predominantly African-American, a place that bore life to artists and musicians, including noted playwright August Wilson. Eventually, the buildings began to fall to ruin and were targeted as part of an urban renewal plan to revive downtown. More than 8,000 Pittsburgh residents lost their homes and watched their neighborhood leveled to the ground in the 1950s, a shocking displacement that still resonates in the city today.
Despite best intentions, the comprehensive new blueprint for the Lower Hill -- originally conceived as a mixed use area of high-rise housing and an arts district -- was never completed. The plan derailed early on, leaving the arena and one new I.M. Pei-designed apartment building isolated by a sea of surface parking. Today, the Pittsburgh Penguins (later owners of the arena) maintain development rights on the site and prefer to clear the area for new structures. The community is divided, with a good number calling for a restoration of the original street grid that was displaced by the arena construction (separating other parts of the Hill from downtown), while other Pittsburgh residents support new construction around the arena and a re-use plan for the building.
Ned Kaufman, in his new book “Place, Race, and Story,” asserts that historic preservation is “not fundamentally a technical discipline,” focused solely on material conservation for instance, but is instead “a social practice, part history and part planning.” What I hear from both sides is a need to repair the community. New development cannot bring back the past, or restore what was lost. Indeed, the continuing presence of the arena ensures that the lost Lower Hill neighborhood maintains its importance as a “story site” or a place where we can convey and relate meaningful memories. Removing this building, and therefore the last physical reminder of “what was” and “what could have been,” will undoubtedly produce more loss rather than a recovery. Continuing the cycle of demolition will erase our collective memories at the site. Ultimately, the next generation will have no physical framework to remind them of their ancestor’s efforts either to save or to build new. Yet, we still have larger issues to address along the way, including the repair of emotional injuries suffered by the community more than 50 years ago.
Our collected group onstage, with helpful input and questions from the audience, did not find an immediate resolution that night. We did feel, however, that we engaged in a meaningful conversation, one that we hope to continue as people and preservationists debate the future of this contested site in Pittsburgh.
Christine Madrid French is the director of the Modernism + Recent Past program at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.