Obituary: William H. Sippel Jr. / Modernist architect, Civic Arena designer

Sept. 2, 1924 - Feb. 12, 2007

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As a young architect in the late 1950s, William H. Sippel Jr. worked on the design of Pittsburgh's Civic Auditorium, which would soon gain fame as the building with the world's largest retractable dome and as a shining symbol of the city's rebirth.

He lived long enough to advocate the designation of Mellon Arena, as it is known today, as a city historic landmark before the Historic Review Commission in 2002.

"He talked about the history that the arena represents, that it was to be the centerpiece of civic pride and the jewel of the city's rebirth," said his colleague James Kling.

"He acknowledged the lessons we've since learned about the impact of 'urban renewal' upon a community. He said the arena represented a vision of the future then and could be made to represent a vision of the future now by putting it to a higher and better reuse."

The arena ultimately was denied historic status; its future is uncertain.

Mr. Sippel, of McCandless, the sole surviving partner of the Downtown firm Deeter Ritchey Sippel, died Monday of a bone marrow blood disease at Good Samaritan Hospice in Pine. He was 82.

"It's sort of an end of an era," Mr. Kling said.

Mr. Sippel, whose nickname was "Fritz," was the youngest partner in Deeter Ritchey Sippel, the modernist firm that, more than any other, changed the face of Pittsburgh in big, dramatic ways in the mid-20th century.

Mellon Square, the nation's first urban park above a parking garage, was theirs; so was Allegheny Center Mall, which obliterated much of the historic heart of the North Side and replaced it with a fortress-like complex of shops and offices.

The tall, athletic grandson of German immigrants, Mr. Sippel was a Perry High School graduate whose architectural studies at Penn State University were interrupted by service as a pilot in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II.

Back at Penn State, he won a fellowship for a year of graduate studies at Princeton University, and while there, won another fellowship for a year of study at the American Academy in Rome and the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris.

"He had a good sense of proportion," said Mr. Kling, a partner in the successor firm DRS Architects. "I think there are a lot of things you can learn from classical architecture that trail over into contemporary architecture. He was a student of design; he encouraged good design. I think that's the greatest impact that he had on the firm."

By the early 1980s, he was president and director of design at Deeter Ritchey Sippel and a fellow of the American Institute of Architects.

He oversaw numerous civic, educational, medical and office projects, including Mellon Arena, Three Rivers Stadium and Carnegie Mellon University's Wean Hall. He was solely responsible for the designs of Jefferson Hospital and Benedum Hall of Engineering at the University of Pittsburgh.

Mr. Sippel is survived by his wife of 44 years, Joanne, whom he met at West View Park Danceland; daughters Julie Sippel Keyser of Gettysburg and Tina Sippel Walsh of Fairfax, Va.; and a son, Stephen William Sippel of Pittsburgh.

Visitation will be from 2 to 4 and 6 to 9 p.m. tomorrow at Bock Funeral Home, 1500 Mount Royal Blvd., Shaler. A Mass will be celebrated at 10 a.m. Friday at St. Ursula Parish, 3937 Kirk Ave., Hampton. Memorial gifts may be made to Good Samaritan Hospice, 3500 Brooktree Road, Suite 320, Pine 15090.


Patricia Lowry can be reached at plowry@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1590.


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