Given special access by the Sports and Exhibition Authority, David Aschkenas took thousands of photos of the Civic Arena’s demolition. Then he and Abby Mendelson put some of the photos — and fans’ reminiscences—in a book. Here’s a peek inside “Arena: Remembering the Igloo.”
It was designed to be democratic, no special sections, no luxury boxes. Blue bloods to blue collars, everybody sat in the same orange seats when the structure first opened. An architectural marvel, home-designed and home-built, Pittsburgh-born, Pittsburgh-bred, for a half-century it drew thousands upon thousands of people.
Pittsburghers of all breeds and backgrounds, colors and classes, flocked to it. It was the Civic Arena, and it was a true people’s palace. Brought to life in showers of welders’ sparks, the Civic Arena capped Renaissance Pittsburgh, standing in shining, silver-domed glory.
The first shovel of dirt was turned on April 25, 1958. At the time, its modernist title was the Public Auditorium. But when highway planners discovered that the name did not fit easily on road signs, it was quickly shortened to the Civic Arena.
From the start, it was more than a concert hall, more than hockey’s replacement for Oakland’s aged Duquesne Gardens. The Civic Arena was nothing less than a one-of-a-kind, with its shining retractable roof proudly opening onto a clear and re-cast Pittsburgh skyline. That dome was indeed its crowning glory. Sliced into eight sections, the roof could be opened in a breathtaking two minutes.
People used the Civic Arena for virtually everything — for concerts and graduations, for sports and exhibitions. Frank Sinatra and folk festivals, high-rollin’ rock acts and high-school hoops. Sesame Street Live and Sunday ice skates. But after 50 years, it wasn’t enough. With increasing demands by promoters for better facilities, the Civic Arena could no longer compete for the biggest shows.
Even the fabled Arena dome was no longer operative. All the new cables needed for major events had made roof-openings impractical. When the new Jumbotron was hung from the roof in 1995, the dome was closed for good. As the 21st century progressed, all the Arena’s myriad successes, its hundreds of sell-out events, were fading into the past. Demolition took six months, Sept. 26, 2011, to March 31, 2012.
After 50 years, and some 7,000 events, the Civic Arena’s time had come and gone. Here is a sampling of arena memories:
“This auditorium will stand as a symbol of an era.”
— Mayor David L. Lawrence, Civic Arena ground-breaking, April 25, 1958
“Over the years, the arena hosted many talented people who often had unusual requests. An unforgettable one was Frank Sinatra’s: he needed a china cup to drink his tea. There was the annual visit by the Ringling Bros. circus, always a logistical nightmare. And some highly anxious moments when the entire arena staff waited at Gate 5 for a mop-headed singing group called the Beatles. And who could forget a visit from Elvis? My 1980 move from the arena staff to the Penguins provided two golden memories: back-to-back Stanley Cup championships!”
— Elaine Heufelder, former Auditorium Authority and Penguins staffer
“It was 1962, and it was a special birthday. We got into our 1956 Pontiac Star Chief, with all the chrome, and drove from Stanton Heights to this shiny building that looked like a spaceship. Inside we went. Then we really went inside, underneath the seats, going into the Pittsburgh Rens locker room. Then I was being introduced to all these men in sleeveless shirts. ‘This is Connie Hawkins,’ my dad said. ‘You know who Connie Hawkins is, don’t you?’ I did. And I do — the greatest basketball player in Pittsburgh history. And I’ll never forget my 11th birthday.”
— Kenny Steinberg, attorney, Squirrel Hill
“On June 26, 1966, some Pitt buddies and I attended a Rolling Stones concert. We had second-row seats on the left side, about 30 yards from the stage. A high school boy in front of us announced that he and his friends were going to rush the stage as soon as ‘Heart of Stone’ began. He asked if we were with them. Although we had no intention of leaving our seats, we responded affirmatively and enthusiastically. As soon as Mick Jagger crooned, ‘There’ve been so many …’ the boys vaulted the railing. The security guards swarmed, seemingly catching each rusher in midair. They never got close to the stage. The following Saturday, I was enjoying a Pirates game at Forbes Field. During the seventh-inning stretch, I saw some young men sprinting across the outfield. Police apprehended them near the batting cage. Yep — same guys.”
— R. Douglas Jones, attorney, West Friendship, Md.
“Clapton was god. The arena was gently rockin’. The retractable roof was still working. It was a beautiful summer night, sweet smells filled the air. You could actually see some stars through the open roof. I think he was playing ‘Layla’ when we all started to feel the tingle of drizzle. But the crowd burst into wild applause when the band broke into ‘Let It Rain.’ The roof started its slow slide to close, but no one cared if it was open or not.”
— Tim Frank, creative director, Brookline
“Like most graduate students, I would do anything for money. In 1971, I drove a cab. One night, I had a fare that I had to drop off at Washington Plaza. It was a soft summer night, and they had the dome open. The lights from the arena spread into the sky like beacons, giving the surrounding area a soft glow. From out of the arena came great music — the voice of Ella Fitzgerald. I rested on the front panel of my Checker, listening, taking it in. Then the radio broke the moment. ‘All cabs Downtown. There are airports waiting.’ ”
— Bob Bell, educator, Charleston, S.C.
“It was March 19, 2006. My husband’s Canadian family was visiting from Toronto. They are wild hockey fans, and the Pens were playing the Maple Leafs. With seven minutes to go in the second period, and the game tied 0-0, the arena went dark. A backup generator lit things faintly. Everyone started chanting, ‘New arena, new arena.’ The lights went dark a second time. Finally, in the third period, Penguin defenseman Rob Scuderi tripped Maple Leaf Chad Kilger on a breakaway. Kilger was awarded a penalty shot and scored. The game ended 1-0. It was our Toronto family’s first and only Pens game in Pittsburgh. They’re still rubbing it in.”
— Sharon Perelman, attorney, Mt. Lebanon
“On July 26, 1974, my wife, Debby, and I saw James Taylor, his third arena show. No band, just an acoustic guitar. It was a summer night, and suddenly they opened the roof. He was stunned. He looked up, saw the stars, and said, ‘They’ve never done this for me before. This is amazing.’ He was speechless for a minute, then played for more than two hours. It was a concert that I will never forget. So I was glad that, 36 years later ... he got the honor of closing a great hall with so many memories.”
— Barry Faigen, accountant, Squirrel Hill
“Arena: Remembering the Igloo” may be purchased at civicarenabook.com.
Highland Park photographer David Aschkenas (firstname.lastname@example.org ) is a National Endowment for the Arts and Polaroid Corp. grant recipient whose work has appeared in more than 25 shows over the past 30 years in the United States and Europe. From Jan. 17 to March 2, his Civic Arena photos will be shown in Pittsburgh Cultural Trust’s 707 Penn Gallery, Downtown. Squirrel Hill author Abby Mendelson (email@example.com) has written the novels “Paradise Boys,” “Scotch and Oranges” and “The Oakland Quartet,” and his nonfiction works include “Pittsburgh Steelers Official History” and “Pittsburgh Prays: Thirty-Six Houses of Worship.” The arena book was designed by Stanton Heights resident Ken Lawton (firstname.lastname@example.org).