The Igloo: A Retrospective on Pittsburgh’s Civic Arena

Lemieux overcame incredible odds to dominate the 1992-'93 season. (Tony McCune/Wikimedia)
The story of Mario Lemieux’s unimpeachable history as an elite hockey player is principally set at the Civic Arena. (Tony McCune/Wikimedia)

In Pittsburgh, at 66 Mario Lemieux Place, nestled in behind the city’s iconic skyline, sits a parking lot. To many youngsters, only just now coming up with the city and its history, it will always have simply been a parking lot, one that primarily serves patrons of Consol Energy Center, the home of the Pittsburgh Penguins. But to legions of Pittsburghers, that location will always be the home of the Civic Arena, aka Mellon Arena, aka The Igloo, aka The House That Lemieux Built.

While the arena was originally built as the new home for the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera (CLO), it became a staple of the city and, with league expansion in 1967, the National Hockey League. With a seating capacity of 12,508 at the time, the arena just met the requirements for a NHL expansion team. Due to its stainless steel dome, which resembled an igloo, that team was named the Penguins.

From Oct. 11, 1967, when the team lost 2-1 to the Montreal Canadiens, until May 12, 2010, when the Canadiens again defeated the Penguins in a 5-2 playoff loss, the Civic Arena served as a monument to the perseverance of the team and the town. It became a shrine to the hockey faithful. For 42 and a half years (or 15,544 days, if one were to count exactly), the arena was an iconic component to the Steel City.

But when the Penguins officially moved across the street on Oct. 7, 2010, to their flashy, sleek, modern digs at the Consol Energy Center, a slow and painful process began to ultimately dismantle the building that seemed like home to so many people. And so now, more than three years removed from the arena’s complete demolition, remembering the history of l’igloo, as the French-Canadian Lemieux likely called it upon his arrival to the city, seems as important as ever.

Conception, Construction and Opening

Before it manifested itself in physical form, the Civic Arena originated as the brainchild of Edgar J. Kaufmann. The man made his fortune as the owner of a chain of department stores was the president of the CLO and, in 1948, began a campaign to find his opera company a new home.

The Steel City from 30,000 feet. The Civic Arena is visible on the right side of the image. (Rob Reiring/Wikimedia)
The Steel City from 30,000 feet. The Civic Arena is visible on the right side of the image. (Rob Reiring/Wikimedia)

Kaufmann knew a thing or two about the power of architecture, as he had commissioned both “Fallingwater,” designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1935, and “Kaufmann Desert House,” designed by Richard Neutra in 1946. He also had enlisted architect Benno Janssen to design his home, La Tourelle, in Pittsburgh’s Fox Chapel suburb, as well as one of his stores in the city.

So after finally receiving the support of Pittsburgh mayor David L. Lawrence in 1953, Kaufmann began developing a plan to build an arena that would support his theater company, as well as serve as a landmark for two of his favorite passions: architecture and arts patronage of all varieties. So with a combination of public and private money, including $1.5 million (equivalent to more than $11 million in 2015) from Kaufmann, the $22 million project (nearly $175 million in 2015) got underway.

But controversy came about quickly. Using the power of eminent domain, the city displaced 8,000 residents and 400 businesses from the lower Hill District to make space for the arena. This area, once declared the “crossroads of the world” by Harlem Renaissance poet Claude McKay, saw rapid decay as a result of this action. Middle-class families of all races and ethnicities fled the area for East Liberty or Homewood, plunging the Hill District into a decay from which it has still not wholly recovered.

Despite the forced exodus and a steel strike in 1959, the project pressed onward. Using nearly 3,000 tons of Pittsburgh-produced stainless steel, the Civic Arena truly was an innovate creation for its time. Its roof, which was supported by a 260-foot-long cantilevered arm (a feature that allowed for the interior to be free of supports, allowing for clear sight lines for spectators), was divided into eight sections across its 415 foot diameter. Six of these stainless steel segments could slide underneath two mounted pieces in just two-and-a-half minutes. This was the world’s first indoor stadium to feature a retractable roof. It was first used in the midst of a performance in 1962, several months after its 1961 opening, by Carol Burnett, who shouted, “Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to present…the sky!”

The Civic Arena visible from Pittsburgh's Mt. Washington in 1963, just two years after its completion. (Roger Wollstadt/Wikimedia)
The Civic Arena visible from Pittsburgh’s Mt. Washington in 1963, just two years after its completion. (Roger Wollstadt/Wikimedia)

The method for closing the roof, a remarkably intricate dance of 42 trucks mounted to 78 wheels that pushed the six free leaves of the roof into position, was hugely innovative for the time. While modern structures with retractable coverings have significantly less taxing or expensive methods for opening or closing their roofs, this design by local Pittsburgh firm Heyl & Patterson was hugely influential.

The stadium’s capacity was initially just shy of 11,000, but additions to the arena, including upper bowl seating, pushed the capacity as high as 17,537 in the mid-1990s. It also originally featured an electromechanical Nissen scoreboard, though that was eventually replaced twice, in 1986 and 1994.

Upon its opening, the Civic Arena was heralded as one of the country’s premier venues, a designation which would continue for many years to come. In 1976, Billboard named it the ninth best arena in the US. But while the CLO and concerts were great fun at the arena, its size, location and quality simply begged for a major sports team to call it home.

The NHL in the ‘Burgh

Hockey had already proven to be a popular and profitable draw in Pittsburgh by the time the NHL was considered the city for expansion. The Pittsburgh Hornets had been playing in the American Hockey League since 1936 and had been a staple of the Civic Arena since its opening in 1961. For those with the Hornets, the appeal to the big league seemed obvious.

“It was beautiful,” former Hornets winger Gene Urbiaco told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review in 2010. “I can remember because the roof was round and white and pristine. It was like playing in a cloud. Imagine, it’s almost like you’re playing in the Vatican. It was very unique.”

A view of the Civic Arena's 260-foot cantilevered arm that supported the dome. (Christopher Lancaster/Wikimedia)
A view of the Civic Arena’s 260-foot cantilevered arm that supported the dome. (Christopher Lancaster/Wikimedia)

With the draw of adding hockey to a town already in love with the sport that also had one of the world’s premier venues, the NHL selected Pittsburgh as one of six cities for its 1967 expansion. Jack McGregor, a Pennsylvania State Senator, led the effort to bring a team to the city and became the founder of the Pittsburgh Penguins. The franchise held a contest to name the team, with the “Penguins” moniker being selected due to the arena’s own nickname, “the Igloo.” The logo of the Penguin was also placed in front of a triangle to symbolize the city’s “Golden Triangle.”

The initial years of Penguins hockey in the Civic Arena were trying. Limited by the rules that kept expansion teams from drafting existing talent away from the Original Six teams, Pittsburgh struggled for several seasons before finally drawing playoff berths in 1970 and 1972. These marked the first of the team’s playoff berths, which would come intermittently throughout numerous disappointing stretches.

It would not be until 1984, when the team drafted the highly touted Mario Lemieux with the first overall selection, that the franchise’s prospects truly looked up. The team struggled for several more years, before they broke through into the playoffs in 1989. Two years later, the Penguins finally captured the first of their-eventual three Stanley Cup championships.

However, while the Penguins did capture the Cup in 1991, 1992 and 2009, they never were able to hoist the trophy on the ice of the Civic Arena. The only team that had the opportunity to do that was the Detroit Red Wings in 2008.

Notable Non-Hockey Events

From the outset, the Civic Arena was the scene for a number of notable events. The very first rock concert held within its door was on May 11, 1962. Emceed by Pittsburgh’s very own “daddio of the radio,” Porky Chedwick, the show featured Jackie Wilson and The Drifters. Only a few years later, on Sept. 14, 1964, the Beatles played their only Pittsburgh show at the Civic Arena. It was a sellout.

66 Mario Lemieux Place at sunset. (Trevin Shirey/Wikimedia)
66 Mario Lemieux Place at sunset. (Trevin Shirey/Wikimedia)

More legendary musicians would soon come to perform at the Civic Arena, all at various stages of their careers. The Doors played there on May 2, 1970, and eventually released a recording of the performance, which is widely regarded as the band’s best live recording. Neil Peart made his debut with Rush at the Civic Arena on the first concert of their first US tour on Aug. 14, 1974, when they opened for Manfred Mann. Elvis Presley also played his final New Year’s Eve show there on Dec. 31, 1976.

The arena was also the site of national news when a riot broke out following a 1989 concert by the Grateful Dead. More than 500 individuals were arrested and the Pittsburgh police were scrutinized across the country for questionable uses of force.

Aside from music, the building also served as a major character in several motion pictures, including 1979’s The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh and 1995’s Sudden Death, which also starred members of the Penguins as action star Jean-Claude Van Damme scrambles to save the Vice President of the United States during Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final.

More than a few basketball events were held at the Igloo during its lifespan as well. First and second round games of the 1997 and 2002 NCAA Men’s Basketball tournament were played there, as well as dozens of NBA preseason games from the 1960s until 2009. The arena also served as a satellite venue for the Philadelphia 76ers between 1964 and 1973. Among the 14 regular season NBA games played there was one in which Wilt Chamberlain set the all-time record for consecutive field goals and single game field goal percentage. Both records still stand. The arena was also home to the Pittsburgh Pipers and the Pittsburgh Condors, both members of the then-struggling and soon-to-disband American Basketball Association.

The final event at the Civic Arena came on June 26, 2010, when James Taylor and Carole King made Pittsburgh a stop on their Troubadour Reunion Tour.

Remembering the Igloo

Penguins players, past and present, gathered at Mellon Arena for the building's final regular season game. (Michael Miller/Wikimedia)
Penguins players, past and present, gathered at Mellon Arena for the building’s final regular season game. (Michael Miller/Wikimedia)

It has been more than three years since this fabled, illustrious arena left the temporal plane and has faded into mere memories for Pittsburghers and hockey fans everywhere. But even though the Civic Arena is no longer standing, all of its glories will never be forgotten.

The stirring sensation of approaching its fabled gates. The legions of faithful fans who crowded outside the building to watch their team on a giant screen duke it out in the playoffs. The return of Mario Lemieux in 2000. The breathtaking goals of a then-appropriately nicknamed Sid The Kid.

The Igloo was more than just a stadium. It was more than just the architectural feat that Edgar J. Kaufmann hoped to fund. It was a bastion of happiness and excitement for tens of thousands of people for more than 40 years. It was an integral part of so many people’s lives and its memory will never fade to black.