Friday, August 31, 2012

Eat your heart out, Ponce de León

Source: Wikipedia Commons

We all know that the Spanish explorer Ponce de León discovered Florida whilst looking for the Fountain of Youth, which Captain Jack Sparrow later came across in the fourth installment of the Pirates of the Caribbean film series. 

Except not really. 

We mere mortals have long been fascinated by tales of miraculous waters that promote longevity. Alexander the Great was said to have been searching (when he wasn't conquering the known world) for a river whose curative waters reversed the damage of aging. In some Islamic traditions the revered character al-Khidr, a contemporary of Moses, is said to have drunk from the waters of life and become immortal. The medieval tales of Prester John, a Christian king of legendary lands either in Asia or Africa (depending on the legend) included a Fountain of Youth. 

Stories about restorative waters peaked in sixteenth century Europe when they became associated with the wonders of the New World. Juan Ponce de León led the first European expedition to Florida in 1513 but his meticulous exploration notes say nothing of a fountain quest. The connection between this Spanish explorer and the Fountain of Youth was established in a 1535 chronicle called Historia General Y Natural de las Indias by Gonzalo Fernandez Oviedo. The chronicle claims that de León was searching for the waters of Bimini to cure his impotence when he accidentally discovered Florida. Yes, impotence. Now we know what Ponce de León was really looking for. There are several Florida tourist attractions purporting to be de León's fountain, but no word as to whether any of them cure impotence. 

Truth is, if de León really was searching for the Fountain of Youth, he needed a better map. Because it's here in Western Pennsylvania.


 And how do I know this is the Fountain of Youth? Because it says so, silly:



I came across our Fountain of Youth a few months ago when I was driving around North Park looking for the old buffalo paddock site. As I drove down Kummer Road I caught a glimpse through the trees of this springhouse built into the hillside, and with screeching brakes stopped to check it out. I've revisited the grotto many times since.  



It's not surprising that the springhouse blends in so seamlessly with its surroundings. The first County Parks Director, Paul B. Riis, was an advocate of naturalistic construction for municipal recreation facilities that would, as described by the Pittsburgh Press,  "...represent natural bodies of water with overhanging cliffs, whatnots and doodads that put in the 'artistic touch.' "  According to the timeline of the Latodami Nature Center in North Park, Pittsburgh's Fountain of Youth was built in 1938 as "....a springhouse designed as a grotto typical in every detail of a Roman cavern."  It was likely built by Works Progress Administration (WPA) laborers, who constructed so many other park buildings, paths, shelters, and landscaping.

Unfortunately the spring waters of our Fountain of Youth didn't flow free and clear for long. In January 1953, the Pittsburgh Press reported that the pump "...recently developed the squeaks and the dry wheeze, and then broke down completely" and gleefully opined that "....old age had set in."  The handle was replaced due to popular demand and the waters were tested: "Chemists said it was cold, pure and clear but couldn't find anything in it to clear up wrinkles or falling hair." 

Alas, a few years later the pump handle was removed entirely. On May 11 1955 the State Health Department declared the spring waters unfit for human consumption due to "coliform organisms."  A Pittsburgh Press article lamented the news for fans of the spring:  "As a matter of fact, over the weekend we have folks coming all the way from Butler to collect supplies and take them home."  Hopefully those Butler folks boiled their water before using it!  

A subsequent article in the Pittsburgh Press from October 1956 confirmed that the Fountain of Youth would remain closed due to impurities in the water supply.   R. Jay Gangwere's 1986 history of North Park in Carnegie Magazine explained that "When the golf course nearby fixed the leaks in its irrigation system, the Fountain of Youth dried up, but the grotto remains."   It would be ironic indeed if repairs to a broken irrigation system were to blame for killing the Fountain of Youth. The water supply in North Park had been problematic from the beginning, delaying construction of the golf course and swimming pool until an artesian well was dug in 1930.  A 1932 article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette noted more water woes:
The quality of water used there [in the golf course area] has been a matter of great concern for some time. Its high basic carbonate and sodium chloride content is of a toxic quality, producing alkalinity on the greens....This problem, the director said, he hoped to solve either by application of harmless chemicals or by connections to another well two miles down the valley from the golf course.
County Park Commissioner Riis even blamed the death of several North Park buffalo on water that they drank from a near-by creek.

While we must assume that the water is still unfit for human consumption fifty years later (because, really, do you want to be the test case?) there remains a running spring on the Fountain of Youth premises to be explored, if you're hardy enough to climb down through the brush and poison ivy.  A worker in the North Park office told me that the concrete around the grotto had been repaired in 2004-05, and a Girl Scout had remounted the medallion in 2009. The Fountain of Youth reportedly also hosts a nearby geocache. 

I'd tell you exactly where to find the North Park Fountain of Youth, but that would defeat the purpose of a quest, wouldn't it? If you do visit, don't forget that the waters aren't purified. Oh, and remember Ponce de León, who allegedly searched for magical waters to reverse his impotence? I don't know if he ever found his Fountain of Youth, but I do know that he had 21 children. 

Be careful what you wish for and don't drink the water.
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Further Reading
Florida's Fabled Fountain of Youth Springs Eternal
Geocaching: North Park Fountain of Youth

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Things that aren't there any more: Lower Hill District and Civic Arena

Any good Pittsburgher knows how to give directions using long-gone buildings and businesses as current landmarks: "You go down to that intersection where Kaufmann's used to be, across from where Border's was, and yinz turn right up past where the old school uniform store was."  If you're from around here you know exactly what's being described and you'll get to where you're going, no problem. This remembrance of things past dominates our everyday lives so much that local filmmaker Rick Sebak produced “Things That Aren’t There Anymore,” a popular cinematic homage to former Pittsburgh attractions that exist only in collective memories.

Pity the poor non-Pittsburgher who has no historical context to follow such directions and who becomes even more lost after receiving our 'help!' Of course, it is inevitable as time passes that the 'where it used to be' manner of giving directions will change as infrastructure and landscape changes, rendering old descriptors meaningless even for long-time residents. After all, that's how we define progress: out with the old, in with the new.

Except those are pretty much fightin' words for historical preservationists, who work to assure that historic properties are kept intact and/or that modifications reflect a respect for the past. They must weigh the value of preservation against the limitations it places on urban growth, and sort through the layers of history to decide what to preserve and what to let pass into the realm of memory. What do we save? What gets consigned to dust boundless and bare? How will these decisions affect us? What is best for the community? The enormity of the task of preservation has been on my mind a great deal over the last few years.

Here in Western Pennsylvania we have always quite literally built upon our past. There are layers of history forever inaccessible to us, sacrificed to the necessities of surviving in what was once the edge of the colonial western frontier and later the hell-with-the-lid-off that was industrial Pittsburgh at its worst. There wasn't time to think; we simply moved forward, tore down, built anew. Our losses differ from the deliberate and mindless destruction that occurred as a result of ideological zealotry that we find parallels of throughout time, from the French Revolution and the Protestant Reformation to the modern-day destruction of statues of Buddha in Afghanistan or the current pillaging of Sufi tombs and mosques in Timbuktu by Muslim extremists intent on destroying what they find offensive in that ancient center of Islamic learning and faith. No, the loss of pieces of Pittsburgh's history wasn't usually due to willful destruction for destruction's sake (although there are some arguable cases), but we must nonetheless live with the results of decisions whose consequences were not well-contemplated at the time. 


These things haunt me and I feel a need to exorcise them by writing about them. This, then, is the first in a series of occasional blog entries in which I intend to explore some examples of lost architectural and social witnesses to Pittsburgh's history, and the ramifications of living with things that aren't there anymore.

And because I'm sort of lazy, I'll start with the most well-known examples: the Lower Hill District and the Civic Arena.

We often don't think about preserving history until progress reduces what we know to rubble. Such was the case with Pittsburgh's Lower Hill District, an area that would be completely unidentifiable to its former residents many times over due to multiple evolutions. Originally known as Farm Number Three and owned by a grandson of William Penn, then sold to a Revolutionary War veteran, farmland on the slopes nearest the city was purchased in the late 1840s by Thomas Mellon. He subdivided it into individual plots and flipped them for a profit, thus beginning the Lower Hill's development as a settled community. Population expansion after the Civil War brought freed slaves from Virginia then Jews, Italians, Syrians, Greeks, and Poles to the Lower Hill. Eventually a renowned Little Harlem developed and became a vibrant center of African American cultural life. 

Lower Hill District, with Downtown Pittsburgh in distance, circa 1906-10. Photo by William H. Matthews. Gelatin silver print. Source: Archives Service Center (ASC) at the University of Pittsburgh, Kingsley Association Records, 1894-1980, 705.23A05.KA,

By 1960 the City of Pittsburgh had razed 95 acres of the Lower Hill, forcibly relocating over 400 businesses and 8000 mostly black residents. 

Why such a drastic move? Because back in 1946 department store magnate Edgar Kaufmann and Councilman Abe Wolk had declared that the region needed a new amphitheater and cultural center, had garnered private pledges of nearly $100000 for its construction, and had been looking for a building site ever since. Pittsburgh Mayor David L. Lawrence briefly pitched a plan to build this complex at the city’s Point, which had some merit in terms of renewing what had become an area of industrial blight but was not practical in terms of handling the anticipated traffic. On paper, this proposed amphitheater was described a "Center for the Arts" and was meant to include a combination of opera house and symphony hall, multiple arenas, theaters, an art museum, luxury apartments, hotels and offices.

The Hill was desirable land due to its location and seemed ideal for this new undertaking. To many, the area was characterized by "riff-raff" and architectural blight and as noted by a Pittsburgh Councilman at the time, the buildings in the Lower Hill were sub-standard and "....have long outlived their usefulness....so there would be no social loss if they were all destroyed."  And so destroyed they were.  By September 1955 the federal government had approved an ambitious redevelopment plan in the Lower Hill and made more than $17 million in loans and grants available. Demolition began in May 1956 and construction of what became the Civic Arena began on April 25, 1958 once the mass demolition of 80 blocks under the principle of eminent domain had been completed.

May 31, 1956. "A ceremony to mark the beginning of demolition for the redevelopment of Pittsburgh’s Lower Hill District neighborhood includes Mayor David L. Lawrence symbolically commencing the project."  Note bemused on-lookers, presumably Lower Hill Residents, in the background. Source: Archives Service Center, Allegheny Conference on Community Development Photographs, 1892-1981, MSP 285, Library and Archives Division, Senator John Heinz History Center.

Preservation of the Lower Hill neighborhood was clearly not a viable issue in the face of the need for a municipal auditorium to benefit the entire tri-state area. A Pittsburgh Press article from the time notes that "The Hill...was completely worn out, like an old pair of shoes that has gone the last mile."   Problem is, residents of The Lower Hill didn't believe their community was on its last mile. It wasn't posh, to be sure, and new building and renovation were undeniably necessary. But instead, the entire neighborhood was eradicated, displacing thousands who had no voice in the matter. A contemporary headline from the Pittsburgh Courier, a newspaper for Pittsburgh's black community, read "Urban Renewal Means Negro Removal" but few paid heed.
  
Colwell Street looking west toward the intersection with Stevenson Street, October 1956. Photo by John R. Shrader. Source:  Archives Service Center, Allegheny Conference on Community Development Photographs, 1892-1981, MSP 285, Library and Archives Division, Senator John Heinz History Center


Much has been written about the ramifications of urban renewal attempts in general, and specifically about the impact of the demolition of the Lower Hill neighborhood. Today it's well nigh impossible to defend such heavy-handed actions for the greater good, not when the mass relocation of so many families (in this case mostly black and mostly without a voice in the pre-Civil Rights Era) affected this entire region.  After all, the impact of leveling the Lower Hill wasn't limited to only the residents of that neighborhood. The mass exodus of so many people increased urban crowding in other areas and accelerated the 'white flight' of city residents to the suburbs. The prices folks got for their homes were not enough to buy somewhere else, leading to opportunistic slum landlord domination of housing in impoverished, over-crowded neighborhoods and an increased burden on the developing public housing system, all of which contributed to the incubation of failed hopes and dreams and gave birth to high-crime communities. New housing in the Hill was promised when the Lower Hill was torn down, but it wasn't until 1993-2000 that Pittsburgh's Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) acquired the abandoned and derelict land above the Arena and built the Crawford Square development there -- long after the displaced residents of the Hill who might have benefited from such development had died or moved on.

And what replaced the Lower Hill neighborhood? Originally budgeted at $19 million, the Civic Arena took forty months and cost $21.7 million to construct.

Cleared Lower Hill with footprint of Civic Arena under construction, c February 1958. The architectural firm of Mitchell & Ritchey and the engineering firm of Ammann & Whitney and Robert Zern designed the structure. Source: Archives Service Center, Allegheny Conference on Community Development Photographs, 1892-1981, MSP 285, Library and Archives Division, Senator John Heinz History Center.

A massive cantilever arm allowed the six movable parts of the roof to retract without any interior supports, considered to be an architectural marvel. Anyone who ever witnessed the dome opening during a concert or event remembers the awe-inspiring sight of 'raising the roof.'

Circa 1961, from the Collections of the Pennsylvania Department, The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh

 
Considered the world’s first and at one time largest indoor sports arena, the building was most fondly known as "The Igloo," though called the Mellon Arena from 2008-2010 due to ubiquitous corporate sponsorship naming rights.  Circuses, rock stars, the Harlem Globetrotters, monster truck shows, and political campaigns regularly flocked to the Arena, although The Pittsburgh Penguins hockey team was its anchor tenant.

Pittsburgh Business Times file photo

The Civic Arena was decommissioned almost fifty years later when its successor the $321,000,000 CONSOL Energy Center facility opened near-by in October 2010. There was much impassioned and polarizing debate about the merits of preserving the doomed dome and designating it as a historic landmark. Efforts were spear-headed by concerned individuals and groups like Preservation Pittsburgh and Reuse the Igloo. Preservation supporters cited the need to preserve the building due to its innovative retracting roof, its symbolism of mid-20th century urban renewal, and its status as a cultural center for the community. The latter argument was countered as an ironic parody of the feelings of those who remembered the wholesale displacement of the Lower Hill community so that the Arena could be built fifty years earlier.

The merits of saving the Civic Arena were publicly contested for months amidst accusations that the official discussion process was corrupted (or more benignly, affected) by competing special interests. The elephant in the room of those discussions was the history of demolition of the Lower Hill to make way for the Arena. The Civic Arena had its fanbase but even fifty years after its demise, Lower Hill residents and advocates remembered that neighborhood with aching fondness, anger and regret. One organization dedicated to preserving modern architecture stated: "Civic Arena was surely worthy of being included on any one of these (preservation) listings but 20th century architecture has one big disadvantage: people remember it being built, they remember what was torn down to build it, and that sentiment or stigma is often harbored regardless of the objectivity of building advocates."  Such sentiments were eloquently summarized by Councilman Sala Udin at one of the City Council hearings about Arena preservation: "The demolition of my home along with 8,000 others in the 1950s and 1960s began a multi-generational wound. The redevelopment can begin a healing process to preserve the people, and I hope that once this arena is demolished we can depend on this entire preservation community to support the development of the people with the same vigor that you now support of the preservation of a building."

Practical concerns were also voiced. While the National Trust for Historic Preservation concluded that a comparison of buildings of equivalent size and function shows that building reuse nearly always offers environmental savings over demolition and new construction, we all know that building rehabilitation and renovation is expensive. There had to be a compelling purpose for refitting a building the size of the Civic Arena, plus deep pockets to make it happen.

Ultimately, historical sentiment and cultural interests lost to financial and business agendas that sealed the Arena's fate. Preservation attempts failed and demolition began in the fall of 2011. This stunning time lapse video by YouTube user "DayGraphics2012" shows how it was deconstructed over a nine month period:




At this writing, essentially five weeks after its demolition, the Arena is an empty lot awaiting future development. It remains alive in community memory and even has a new Facebook page devoted to chronicling personal reminiscences of events attended there. 

Nothing can bring back the Arena; it was doomed by its own historical baggage and there was no room on the development agendas for such a colossus.

Likewise, nothing will return the pre-Civic Arena Lower Hill to its former vibrancy.

But out of this dust and rubble, Pittsburgh's power-brokers have a unique opportunity to build something fabulous and to right past wrongs.

A 2007 option agreement gave the Pittsburgh Penguins exclusive rights to develop a 28 acre site over a ten year period. If the Penguins fail to develop 2.8 acres in any given year the team must forfeit the rights to a parcel of equal size, and the Sports Exhibition Authority or the Urban Redevelopment Authority have the right to offer the land to another developer. While an official site plan has yet to be released, it has been stated that there are commercial, residential, and retail components being considered -- what has been referred to as a "mixed-use live-work-play community." In June 2012, although quick to reassure that the area is not envisioned solely as an entertainment complex, Penguins officials acknowledged that they have looked to Philadelphia's development of a sports-themed entertainment complex for inspiration (never mind the age-old antipathy between these two great Pennsylvania cities!)

Careful new investments and sensitive development can mean economic revitalization for the area and attract new residents, businesses and even tourists. I hope that pressure to hold onto this valuable real estate will not prevent a thoughtful and responsible process of discernment and reflection from occurring regarding its development. Foresight needs to be directed to deciding what will be best for the good of the community at large, and the process needs to pay heed to the voice of the public. At the very least, I hope that there will also be dedicated physical homage marking what once was on the site -- both the Lower Hill community that was sacrificed and the beloved Igloo it made room for.

Ironically, today there is a concerted effort to draw more people to living space in the Downtown area. Had the Lower Hill been developed as promised, it would have provided Downtown with housing stock that could have redeveloped or gentrified. Historic buildings in older neighborhoods attract people to urban living and are an integral part of defining a city's personality. But done is done. We owe it ourselves to channel the energy spent regretting what was done to assure that we don't foster even more regrets over future development plans.

We have layers upon layers of history in Pittsburgh. We can't bring back what is gone, but we can and should honor our own legacies when we rebuild, so a phoenix may rise out of the Lower Hill/Arena ashes.

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Selected Bibliography and Further Reading

Arena History
Council votes down Civic Arena preservation
Many ask council to preserve Civic Arena