Daze of Future Past | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Daze of Future Past

Pittsburgh, PA – A group of local preservationists have joined to nominate the Consol Energy Center (designed by Populous, a global sports architecture firm, and completed in 2010) for Historic Landmark status. Preservationists have noted that attempts to save the Civic Arena, also known as the Mellon Arena, were begun almost 10 years ago, but that they may not have started soon enough. This despite the building's eligibility for the National Register of Historic Places and its nomination as a National Historic Landmark. Having learned a lesson, local preservationists are adopting the strategy of nominating buildings for historic status as soon after completion as possible.

The nomination for historic status for the Consol Energy Center cites many of its architectural features, including: its gargantuan scale, towering over those adjoining modestly scaled buildings that were not demolished under threat of eminent domain (seizure of private property traditionally used to benefit the public through utility or highway construction); a wall of reflective glass that looks so much like a corporate headquarters that numerous visitors to Pittsburgh have thought that the Consol Energy Center was the headquarters of Consol Energy; and state-of-the-art luxury boxes available to any member of the public who can afford them. 

The nomination also asserts that, more than any other building in recent memory, the Consol Energy Center exemplifies a big-box mentality more closely associated with corporate retailing -- "a Wal-Mart with windows" in the words of one local architect. Gary Bettman, Commissioner of the NHL as well as a leading authority on contemporary architecture, has called the building "very well designed." 

The Consol Center was funded through a unique public-private partnership: a backroom deal arranged between Penguins owner Mario Lemieux (and perhaps other undisclosed partners, since privately owned companies accepting public subsidies are not required to disclose the names of those who will benefit); Pittsburgh's #1 Sports Fan (as evidenced by the slogan on his coffee cup) and Mayor Luke Ravenstahl; and former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell. Adding to the historic interest, Rendell is prominently featured in The Art of the Steal, an acclaimed documentary investigating another backroom deal -- namely the effort to dislodge the Barnes Foundation's priceless art collection from its legally established permanent home and relocate it to Philadelphia. Oddly enough, while the deal to have taxpayers subsidize the Consol Energy Center for the Penguins was arranged under the guise that the Penguins were considering moving, Lemieux later disclosed that, "[I]t was a negotiation tactic to help the team get funding for the arena from both state and local officials."

If the Mellon Arena is demolished, as the Penguins have planned, possible outcomes for the surrounding development include a vast permanent parking lot for the fans, or a mixed-use development in an oversaturated market consisting of a nationally franchised hotel, nationally franchised shops, nationally franchised bars, and nationally franchised restaurants. 

A spokesperson for the preservationists reports that they had misgivings about nominating a building named for a company engaged in controversial mining practices, as well as many alleged environmental infractions, but that those concerns were superseded by recognition of the graceful form and bulk of the structure itself.

One of the criteria for historic landmark status is the significance of what has taken place in a building. Pittsburgh's Historic Review Commission recently decided that Mellon Arena's record of concerts by Elvis Presley and The Grateful Dead, boxing matches with Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston, and countless other events over a period of almost 50 years were not of sufficient importance. But it is hoped that in addition to a concert by Lady Gaga and the WWE SmackDown, further stature will accrue to the Consol Center from upcoming events -- perhaps a dance performance by Bristol Palin and a Quran burning by Florida's Pastor Terry Jones.

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