David L. Lawrence- Pittsburgh’s Renaissance Mayor

For those born after 1960, the name David L. Lawrence may mean nothing more than the it being the formal title of the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, but the man behind this name is one of the most important figures in the city’s history and quite possibly its best mayor. If it weren’t for Lawrence, Pittsburgh would be a whole lot different today.

Who Was David Lawrence?

David Leo Lawrence was born on June 18, 1889, in a small house on what was then Greentree Alley near the Fort Pitt Blockhouse at The Point. The Irish immigrants living there were called “Point Irish.”

Like many working-class Irish at that time, Lawrence had very little education. He left school at 14 to take an apprenticeship with attorney William J. Brennan, who was the city’s Democratic chairman. Pittsburgh hasn’t had a Republican mayor since 1933, but in those days Republicans controlled the city, but as more immigrants moved into the region, the electorate began to change.

Political Beginnings

In 1912, Lawrence attended his first Democratic National Convention as a page and was soon taken under the wing of future U.S. Senator Joseph Guffey, who campaigned for presidential candidate Woodrow Wilson.

In 1916, Lawrence and Republican State Senator Frank Harris started an insurance business, which provided Lawrence with a steady income throughout his political career. In 1918, he enlisted in the U.S. Army to serve in World War I.

In 1922, at the age of 32 Lawrence married Alyce Golden, the daughter of Irish immigrants. The couple had five children, three boys and two girls. Sadly, his two oldest sons, Brennan and David Jr., where killed in an automobile accident in 1942 near Zelienople, when they had taken their family car for a joyride unbeknownst to their father.

Lawrence’s Political Star Rises

Lawrence’s alliance with Guffey led to his being named Commonwealth Democratic State Chairman in 1934, the first of many political positions Lawrence would go on to occupy. When Governor George Earle was charged with corruption, Lawrence was charged with bribery but was acquitted.

In 1945, Lawrence was drafted to run for mayor of Pittsburgh, achieving this he felt would be a longshot because he was a devout Catholic. However, he was elected by a slim majority of 14,000 votes and was re-elected the city’s mayor three more times, serving from 1946 -1959.

Strife Mars His First Term

Lawrence’s first year as mayor was tumultuous. Union workers at Duquesne Light Co. went on strike, shutting off the power in Pittsburgh for 27 days. Steelworkers went on strike for 26 days, Westinghouse Electric Corp. workers went on strike for 115 days. He also faced two coal strikes, a 53-day hotel strike, and according to his obituary in The Pittsburgh Press, he dealt with 81 other work stoppages.

Mayor Becomes Governor

Lawrence went on to run for Governor of Pennsylvania and was elected in 1958 as the first Catholic governor in Pennsylvania and the only mayor of Pittsburgh to be elected governor. When his term as governor was over in 1963, Lawrence remained politically active.

On the Trail Until the End

On November 4, 1966, while campaigning for Milton Shapp, the candidate for governor, at the Syria Mosque in Oakland, Lawrence, 77, suffered a heart attack while at the lectern. He was taken to Presbyterian University Hospital where he lingered for 17 days until dying on November 21. His funeral Mass was held at St. Mary of Mercy downtown, and he was buried in Calvary Cemetery.

Lawrence’s Greatest Accomplishments

Though Lawrence has been dead for 50 years, his legacy lives on. While the labor issues he weathered were enormous, his biggest challenge was revitalizing a filthy, unhealthy, dingy Pittsburgh. (See just How Bad Was Pittsburgh?). Before Lawrence took office, a Renaissance was often talked about, but it wasn’t until he took office that the issues of pollution, flooding, and dilapidated areas were addressed.

Lawrence Partners with an Unlikely Pittsburgher

Lawrence knew he could not tackle these problems alone and would need help from the business community. He found a sympathetic ear in an unlikely man–Richard K. Mellon, a Republican and one of the heirs to the Mellon fortune. Together this unusual duo helped to transform and set the stage for the beautiful city that we know and love today.

Most Recent Articles

  • Entrepreneurs You Should Know in the Pittsburgh Region
    Our Entrepreneur of the month: Gail Bayer wants to do your bookkeeping. From writers and business coaches to tech companies, Pittsburgh is home to a growing number of entrepreneurs. If you are an entrepreneur and would like to see your business featured below, please contact us for details at: TeamRenoPittsburgh Michel Wright and Jeff Philibin are lenders specializing in...
    Read more
  • An Icelandic Vacation
    By Scot Noel   Our Trip Begins It’s mid-September, 2017, and we are on our way to vacation in Reykjavik, Iceland. WOW Airlines, which operates direct flights from Pittsburgh to Reykjavik, has some really good prices. My wife Jane and I heard about tours to Iceland becoming very popular, and when we mentioned it to friends and relatives, we quickly...
    Read more

Contact Us

Pittsburgh, PA 15212
Phone: TOLL FREE 800-231-4788
Fax: 412-761-4706

Advertise With Us

See our Advertising Opportunities. Visit our Advertising Page.