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Arena's famous dome fell flat for the theater

It was an engineering marvel but a performer's nightmare

Monday, May 13, 2002

By Patricia Lowry, Post-Gazette Architecture Critic

On the evening of July 4, 1962, Carol Burnett stood on the stage of Pittsburgh's new Civic Auditorium, wearing just a skimpy chorus girl costume and her trademark toothy smile.

In a file photo, an inspector gets on the arena's stainless steel roof to look at the dome's radial closures. (Post-Gazette)

As the leaves of the giant silver dome peeled back for the first time in front of a Civic Light Opera audience, Burnett announced, "Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to present . . . THE SKY."

The sky, its crescent moon and the illuminated Koppers and Gulf towers obliged, and the audience responded with enthusiastic applause.

But soon the wind was rumbling into the microphones, and Burnett was calling to the wings for a coat.

"How long does it take to close this thing?" she wondered.

And that, in an opening-night nutshell, proved to be one of the big dome's biggest problems: The retractable roof that made it great theater also made it a lousy place for theater.

Although it never lived up to its advance billing, the stainless steel Civic Arena in the early 1960s not only was the brightest bauble in Pittsburgh's Renaissance but also its boldest engineering feat.

The world's largest dome and its largest retractable dome, it made news around the world and became a symbol of the city's rebirth.

Last week, the city's two preservation groups -- Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation and Preservation Pittsburgh -- nominated the arena as a city historic structure, a designation that would require approval of the Historic Review Commission for demolition or exterior changes. \

 
 
Historic designations

With several institutions conferring landmark status on buildings and each providing a different level of protection, what each means can get confusing. Here's a brief guide to historic designations in Pittsburgh.

Buildings listed as city historic landmarks or buildings within city historic districts carry the highest level of protection. Pittsburgh's Historic Review Commission must review applications for demolition, and owners must get approval from the commission to make exterior changes.

National Historic Landmarks are buildings, sites, districts, structures and objects that have been determined by the U.S. secretary of the interior to be nationally significant in American history and culture. Properties listed on the National Register of Historic Places are primarily of state and local significance.

Both listings trigger a federal review process if federal funds are to be used in a way that would affect the property, such as construction of a new highway through a historic district. If a federal activity will adversely affect a landmark, federal agencies can take steps to preserve it, but they cannot protect a building from demolition or exterior changes. Also, owners can apply for federal tax credits to help finance restoration projects.

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation plaques are honorary; they carry no legal protection and are designed to raise public awareness of historic structures.

-- Patricia Lowry

   
 

Pittsburgh's preservation ordinance doesn't require that a building be historic if it is architecturally significant.

And while the arena may be a relatively young building -- it turned 40 last year -- it has a long history, one in which the early hope of uniting sports and light opera under a single dramatic, daring roof proved to be an impossible dream.

From the beginning, the auditorium's operators knew they couldn't open the roof when it rained, but they soon learned they also couldn't open it when breezes blew more than 7 mph. And it wasn't just Pittsburgh's frequent wet and windy weather that made the dome an inhospitable place for the CLO and other performing arts groups.

The place was bedeviled by bad acoustics, blown-over scenery, a lack of intimacy, the inability to hang lighting, sets and amplifiers in an open interior, and a backstage overcrowded with mechanical equipment that resulted in noisy set changes. And because of the need to keep the interior air conditioned, opening the dome proved to be more costly than anyone predicted.

It wasn't exactly what Abe Wolk had in mind.

A theater lover, Wolk was "the man who talked Civic Light Opera into existence," Mary Brignano wrote in her 1996 book on the history of the CLO.

Born in the Lower Hill, Wolk was the son of a Lithuanian immigrant peddler who sold his wares walking between Pittsburgh and Ligonier. After graduating from the University of Pittsburgh's law school, Abe Wolk ran for City Council in 1937 on a platform of smoke control and summer light opera.

After he was elected, he launched an attack on the city's choking smoke -- and arranged for Gilbert and Sullivan operettas on Flagstaff Hill in Schenley Park.

City Council adopted anti-smoke legislation in 1941, and when World War II was over, Wolk persuaded his friend, department store owner and civic leader Edgar Kaufmann, to underwrite a $50,000 season of operettas, to be held at Pitt Stadium. Pittsburgh's Civic Light Opera was born in December 1945, and the following year launched its first season with Victor Herbert's "Naughty Marietta."

Around the same time, the city was discussing ways to honor those who had served in the war. Wolk proposed a memorial amphitheater, the largest open-air theater in the world.

"What will you do if it rains?" a reporter asked.

"I had to think fast," Wolk told The Pittsburgh Press in 1961. "I just put my arms over my head, moved around a little, and said that we are going to have a movable roof.

"Of course, I wasn't thinking of a movable steel roof atop a $22 million auditorium in the middle of the Lower Hill. I was hoping for something -- anything over the audience, say in Schenley Park."

In December 1948, Kaufmann and Wolk announced that in 1950, the CLO would perform in a new amphitheater with a "removable" roof. A few months later, Kaufmann and the city each pledged $500,000, and the search for a site began.

The Allegheny Conference and the Pittsburgh Regional Planning Association zeroed in on part of the Robert King estate on the edge of Highland Park. King and his neighbors, however, squelched that idea.

In February 1950, Kaufmann showed City Council a model of the proposed "umbrella amphitheater" designed by architects James A. Mitchell and Dahlen K. Ritchey. Mitchell invented a motorized, retractable roof of fabric-coated plastic -- two bat-like wings attached at the top to a cantilevered, steel arm and to the round base below. The design won an award in Progressive Architecture magazine.

Kaufmann pledged another $500,000, and the Planning Commission came up with another site -- Schenley Park, near Schenley Oval. Kaufmann and Mayor David L. Lawrence, however, thought it should go in the soon-to-be-built Point State Park.

But in 1951, the Urban Redevelopment Authority's plan to demolish the dilapidated Lower Hill gave birth to another idea: Build an all-purpose, year-round facility for the CLO that also would be used by the Pittsburgh Hornets hockey team, the Ice Capades, basketball and circuses, and for public meetings and conventions.

But after the arena opened and problems surfaced, it quickly became clear that sports and theater were an incompatible couple. When the divorce finally came in 1969, the CLO moved on to Heinz Hall, and sports got the house.

It was a breakup few would have predicted at the arena's dedication on Sept. 17, 1961. Wolk's idea of building the world's largest amphitheater had metamorphosed.

"THE WORLD'S BIGGEST DOME," blared a 1961 headline in Fortune magazine, "AND IT MOVES."

"It was widely published, both before and after it was built, in architecture and engineering journals in the United States and abroad," said Martin Aurand, architecture librarian at Carnegie Mellon University.

He has an inch-thick file of upbeat press coverage, with stories lauding its design, engineering, materials and even its parts -- like the bank of seats that tilted back to convert to a stage.

The marvel was not only that such a large dome had no interior supports, thanks to its cantilevered steel arm, but that its eight leaves -- six of them movable -- could nest inside one another at the touch of a button in 2 1/2 minutes.

Mitchell and Ritchey worked with the same engineering firm they collaborated with on the bat-dome: bridge designers Ammann and Whitney of New York. But yesterday's mechanical marvel is today's inconvenience, and since 1995, a larger scoreboard has prevented the dome from opening fully.

At 415 feet in diameter, the Civic Arena bested Brunelleschi's 130-foot-diameter dome at the Florence Cathedral by 285 feet. But it's pretty much an apples-and-oranges, brick-and-steel, Renaissance-and-modern technologies comparison. And in 1965, the "world's biggest dome" crown would go to Houston's Astrodome at 710 feet in diameter, the first of many big-league superdomes.

But to this day, Mellon Arena, as it's now known, is still the world's largest -- and likely only -- retractable dome of its kind.

Its status as an architectural and engineering landmark could make the arena eligible for designation as a city historic structure. Under Pittsburgh's historic preservation ordinance, a building must meet only one of the 10 criteria for designation.

Criterion No. 3 is "exemplification of an architectural type, style or design distinguished by innovation, rarity, uniqueness or overall quality of design, detail, materials or craftsmanship."

The arena also might qualify for historic status under two other criteria -- No. 7: "Its association with important cultural or social aspects or events in the history of the City of Pittsburgh, the state of Pennsylvania, the Mid-Atlantic region or the United States;" and No. 10: "Its unique location and distinctive physical appearance or presence representing an established and familiar visual feature of a neighborhood, community or the City of Pittsburgh."

The arena was to be the centerpiece of an arts-driven five-year plan for the Lower Hill, where a symphony and opera house, civic playhouse and six, middle-income apartment houses also were to be built. But the Hill's residents had had enough demolition, and the plan's financiers didn't want to build a cultural center next to what they perceived to be a slum. The city backed off.

At the time, even the city's most ardent preservationist, James D. Van Trump, embraced the URA's plans, calling the Lower Hill "a crumbling slum." But eventually, even some of the movers and shakers of Renaissance I acknowledged that more than buildings was lost when the Lower Hill fell.

To some, the arena remains a powerful reminder of the demolition and diaspora of the predominantly African-American neighborhood.

In the late 1950s, when critics questioned the added expense (about $2.5 million) of a retractable dome, Kaufmann persevered: "We should be very reluctant to surrender the idea of a movable roof ... . It will be heralded the length and breadth of the world." The auditorium, he said, "will stand as a symbol of an era here."

And so it has, if not entirely in the way Kaufmann envisioned.

"The great steel dome has a meaning that goes beyond Pittsburgh," Fortune wrote. "If one of the drabbest and dirtiest cities has been able to remake itself in shining pride, any city in the [United States] should be able to follow its example."

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