Aschkenas exhibit documents Civic Arena’s demolition

Published Jan 10, 2014 at 3:15 pm (Updated Jan 13, 2014 at 2:03 pm)

The Civic Arena is gone, but it will likely never be forgotten, thanks in part to the work that local photographer David Aschkenas did documenting its demolition. He was the only photographer licensed by the Sports and Exhibition Authority to do so. “Foolishly enough, I was probably the only one to ask,” he laughed.

The idea was born because Aschkenas’s friend, James Frederick, owner of the James Gallery, had been contracted to fill the new Consol Arena with artwork. “I said, ‘James, why don’t you see if you could get me permission to photograph the Civic Arena? After the arena is long gone, we can put those photos in Consol.’”

Serendipitously, the Pittsburgh Penguins and SEA had the same idea. An agreement was drawn up – Aschkenas was not paid, it was a personal project – and after a seemingly-endless number of insurance forms and waivers were signed, he began shooting. At first, he only had access once a week, after meeting with the head engineer and being told where he could and could not go. After the first few months, a rhythm and trust were established. Workers came to recognize him, and Aschkenas began photographing the site several times a week, after a quick check in with the head engineer.

The results are astounding. The powerful images capture a bygone era, and while many people made peace with the building’s demise some time ago, the photographs that Aschkenas took conjure up a sad sort of nostalgia – employees rolling up Mario Lemieux’s large 66 banner that had hung proudly there; old desktop computers abandoned on desks, with a view of the Pittsburgh skyline in the background; and a sign on the dated orange seats that reads simply: “Thanks for the memories.”

“I never really went to a lot of events there – but I though it was a very interesting and fascinating building,” Aschkenas said. “I’m a realist, my thought is when they put the call out for developers to do something with this building, I think someone would have stepped up and done it if they could have. Even though it was an interesting building, some things just run their course. I would have loved had they just kept a very piece of the back shell, just 30 percent of the dome and built stores and parklette, it would have been a great little green space with remembrance. But, I was told there was really no halfway on the table – it had to be all or nothing.”

The photos will be on display Jan. 17-March 2 at 707 Penn Gallery in Pittsburgh’s Cultural District in an exhibition titled “Arena: Remembering the Igloo.” He also self-published his photos in a book of the same name. Everything was shot digitally, and Aschkenas constructed some panoramas that are seven to eight feet long. “When you make them that big, they sort of take on a life of their own,” he said.

The Civic Arena wasn’t the first or last time Aschkenas documented a Pittsburgh landmark in a state of flux. He’s currently working on photographing the restoration of the Allegheny County Courthouse, and has gotten access to all areas of the building, including the sixth floor, which has been closed up for 60 or 70 years. He’ll be turning that project into a self-published book as well.

“There are so many interesting things and buildings in Pittsburgh to photograph – it gives a great historical record,” Aschkenas said. “I feel like I’m doing my part to preserve history.”

For more information on “Arena: Remembering the Igloo,” visit www.trustarts.com or daschkenasphoto.com.

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