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.
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.
<h2Lawrence’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.
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.