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As stadium falls, architect's spirit remains lofty

Sunday, February 11, 2001

By Lori Shontz, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

Still a lofty spirit

Dahlen Ritchey, 91, who designed Three Rivers Stadium, at his drafting table (Robin Rombach, Post-Gazette)

As Three Rivers Stadium goes down, the sentimental value of Dahlen Ritchey's souvenir baseball goes up.

Ritchey, 91, is the architect who designed the stadium. His Bradford Woods home, another of his many building designs over a long career, has plenty of more spectacular features than the baseball that sits encased in plastic on a tiny wooden stand.

Floor-to-ceiling windows that make you feel as if there's no barrier between the living room and the wooded backyard. Bright, woven rugs on smooth floors. Sketches of Europe's great cities -- when Ritchey traveled, he didn't take snapshots -- lining the solid walls.

But the ball is prized because it was the first one hit over the fence in Three Rivers Stadium. No, not by Tony Perez. Not by Willie Stargell.

Call it architect's privilege. On a Sunday morning in April 1970, three months before Perez or Stargell stepped into the batter's box, Ritchey and a few co-workers stopped by Three Rivers with a baseball bat and a few balls. Ritchey took a few swings, then launched a ball over the fence.

With as straight a face as possible, he said, "Everybody wants to know where I hit it from. I won't even tell Bea."

That made Beatrice, Ritchey's wife of 25 years, laugh. "When he proposed, I asked him, 'Are you going to tell me where you hit the ball from?' He said no."

Such stories have been a comfort for Ritchey the past few weeks. It isn't easy for an architect to watch the destruction of a building he devoted years of his life to creating.

Just ask Lou Astorino, who was an intern for Deeter Ritchey Sipple in the days the firm worked on the Three Rivers project and who was stationed in the stands -- typical intern duty -- to catch Ritchey's home run. Astorino's firm, LDA-L.D. Astorino Cos., is involved with the construction of PNC Park.

 
 
The Big Bang

Implosion article and guide


Best public places to view

Mount Washington, Point State Park and Station Square west parking lot.

No parking on Grandview Avenue on Mount Washington. - Point State Park won't open until 6 a.m. No all-night camping in the park.

"Blast Zone" of about 800 feet will be cleared around Three Rivers Stadium.

Ridge Avenue, Federal Street will remain open for moving traffic only.

Countdown

7:50 a.m., a 10-minute warning siren will be sounded.

7:58 a.m., the blasting machine will be connected to the detonation wire and a two-minute warning will sound.

7:59:50 a.m., a 10-second countdown will begin.

8 a.m., Three Rivers Stadium, which opened on July 16, 1970, will come tumbling down.

Some roads, bridges near stadium will close at 7:45 a.m., 15 minutes before the implosion, including ramps from the Fort Pitt Bridge leading over Point State Park to Fort Duquesne Bridge, Fort Duquesne Bridge ramps leading to Reedsdale Street, and Route 64 leading to Fort Duquesne Bridge.

   
 

"Buildings are not infallible," he said. "But certainly in the United States, we tend to look at a structure's life as a little more limited than they do in Europe. It's not unusual, but it feels a little unusual to have a building eliminated."

Even so, Ritchey and his wife planned to watch the implosion on television; slowed by Parkinson's disease, Ritchey rarely gets into town anymore. He did not expect to dwell on what the disappearance of Three Rivers means to his legacy.

"I think about the opportunities I've had," Ritchey said. "So many people I've gotten to know."

If he hadn't built Three Rivers Stadium, Ritchey -- who was so upset at the Yankees' 12-0 win over the Pirates in Game 6 of the 1960 World Series that he gave away his Game 7 tickets and therefore missed Bill Mazeroski's home run -- would never have gotten the chance to travel with the Pirates, checking out the opponents' stadiums. Or hang out afterward with such people as Bob Prince.

"He knew everybody," Ritchey remembered. "He was a joy to be with. I think he drank whiskey or gin or something."

Because the stadium needed to accommodate football as well as baseball, Ritchey got to broaden his circle of friends. "I hadn't met Mr. Rooney," he said, "until one day I called him up and said, 'These guys are making this a baseball field.' And that's how I got to know Mr. Rooney and Dan."

Ritchey, whom Astorino calls "Pittsburgh's greatest architect," grew up on Parkview Avenue in Oakland, where several of the Pirates lived. Ritchey played ball with the sons of Hall of Famers Rabbit Maranville and Max Carey, whose wife hung a white towel out the window to signal to her son it was time to come home.

As a teen-ager, Ritchey earned 75 cents a day as a ticket taker at Forbes Field. In the process, he somehow acquired two baseballs. One was signed by all the Pirates, most of the Washington Senators and Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the commissioner of baseball, during the 1925 World Series; the other, by Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. (Neither is displayed in his home; Ritchey gave them to Army buddies.)

An art teacher at Schenley High School suggested that Ritchey give architecture a try, so he entered the five-year program at Carnegie Tech. He graduated in 1932 and spent the next two years at Harvard, earning a master's degree, then won a fellowship that enabled him to spend a year traveling through Europe, checking out its great buildings.

When he returned home, Ritchey began his career designing windows at Kaufmann's, where he met Edgar J. Kaufmann, and eventually became one of the men who made Pittsburgh's Renaissance happen.

Ritchey had a hand in Allegheny Center. He designed Mellon Square Park. And he received high acclaim for the Civic Arena, devising a revolutionary way to fulfill Kaufmann's dream of a building with a roof that opens.

Originally known as the Civic Auditorium and intended to be the home of the Civic Light Opera, the arena has become home of the Penguins and an architectural landmark. The roof has no interior supports; it's held up by a giant cantilever arm that arches 260 feet. It can open or close in 2 1/2 minutes.

"Today, we do stadiums and arenas and it's easy to open them up," Astorino said. "But in the 1950s, that was a very avant-garde idea. It's a wonderful feeling when that roof opens. Your heart just starts beating and pulsating."

Ritchey's work on the Civic Arena got him assigned to design the new stadium, which was supposed to be more than a playground for professional sports teams. The site on the North Shore was a model of urban blight, and government officials wanted the stadium to become the centerpiece of a revitalized North Side.

Even without the urban development pressures, the project was a challenge. First and foremost, Ritchey had to reconcile the differences between baseball and football.

"It was a compromise," he said.

"A baseball field, that's shaped like an apple. A football field, it's a rectangle. In baseball, the best seats are between first base and home, and third base and home. In football, everybody wants the 50-yard line. In baseball, people want to sit right at the grade of the field. In football, you have to be up high so the people in the first row of seats can see over the big guys standing on the sidelines."

Ritchey's first design lived up to expectations.

The stadium was crescent-shaped, and its dominant feature was a wide-open center field that provided a view of the Golden Triangle. "The idea came from Forbes Field," Ritchey said. "You could sit in the stands and see Flagstaff Hill and Schenley Park. It was very nice. So the idea was to open it up and see the city."

Also noteworthy was a pedestrian walkway around the outside of the second level. Several thousand of the 54,000 seats were movable, enabling the stadium to convert from baseball to football. The end zones were positioned on the first and third base sides instead of home plate and the outfield.

Newspaper articles in the early 1960s reported that, when built, the stadium would be "one of the most beautiful in the nation."

"We wouldn't be building two new stadiums today if we'd built that one," Astorino said. "It was absolutely way ahead of its time. ... Dahl was a visionary, an absolute visionary."

The original design, however, was modified because it was thought the cutting-edge structure for the stadium's roof would cost too much. But not even the less complicated second design could survive the bid process. City and county officials expected the new stadium to cost $21 million, and the lowest bid came in $12 million higher. The outcry forced Ritchey and his fellow architects to redesign the stadium again, eliminating the features that made it unique.

"I couldn't figure out what happened to the estimate," Ritchey said. "Then I found out that, with the tight schedule, the contractors hadn't put in for 40 hours a week but 60 hours, which made the difference."

Other cities built multipurpose stadiums similar to Three Rivers around the same time --Busch Stadium in St. Louis, Riverfront Stadium (now Cinergy Field) in Cincinnati and Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia.

"You get a certain satisfaction out of creating," Ritchey said. "But I know every time I've done a job, afterward, I would have done it a little different."

Ritchey knows many people have criticized Three Rivers Stadium. One afternoon many years ago, he was a guest on a WTAE talk show and someone called in to complain, at length, that the stadium was "awful." The host turned to Ritchey, who responded: "Well, there's no use talking about that anymore."

When the stadium was being designed and built, it was a source of pride for the entire company. Bea, then the firm's treasurer, can't remember a project that energized the staff -- from the partners to the secretaries -- the way Three Rivers Stadium did. So Ritchey has plenty of reasons not to feel sad.

"It's like we were saying the other morning," Bea said. "You can tear down the structure, but you can never tear down how you feel about the memories. That's what Dahl has, and they'll never be taken away."



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