Dahlen Ritchey was born January 31, 1910, and grew up in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh on Parkview Avenue. Along with his sister Virginia, Dahlen was one of two children of Charles and Anne Ritchey. Their father was employed at J&L Steel, and the family lived close to Forbes Field where Dahl often worked as an usher.
Since Parkview Avenue was in close proximity to Forbes Field, many Pittsburgh Pirates chose to make their homes there as well. Dahl’s neighbors included players like Max Carey and Carson Bigbee, and he knew their children as friends. These associations gifted Dahl with a lifelong love of baseball that would serve him well in later years.
Following his 1928 graduation from Schenley High School, Dahl studied architecture at the Carnegie Institute of Technology or “Tech” as he called it. Today we know the Institute as Carnegie Mellon University (CMU). Dahl was the first in his class when he graduated from Carnegie Tech. It was while attending Carnegie that Dahl made the acquaintance of a fellow classmate born in Greece, James Mitchell (originally Dmitri Michiel).
After Dahl and James graduated with their Masters degrees (Dahl being first in his class once again with a Masters in Architecture from Harvard), they each won a fellowship to study European architecture. This enabled Dahl and James to travel throughout Europe studying and sketching the architecture they encountered there. Dahl continued studying and sketching throughout his life. His own home often reflected his love of drawing, with his artwork gracing the walls throughout.
Edgar Kaufmann first met Dahl when the young Ritchey was hired by the Kaufmann’s Department Store to design their window and furniture displays. It was during this time that Dahl and Edgar began a long-lasting friendship, even though Dahl stayed with the Kaufmann’s Department Store for only a year.
In 1938 Dahl and his friend James Mitchell decided to set up an office together after they each earned the right to be called registered architects. Times were lean and both taught classes to help raise the money needed to pay the rent on their office, which was located in the Harvard-Yale-Princeton Club courtyard.
Building a Home in Bradford Woods
Bradford Woods, a northern suburb of Pittsburgh, was an area where the city folks built their summer cottages. Dahl and his wife, Kay, decided to build a house on a wooded piece of property they purchased in Bradford Woods. At that time, Bradford Woods did not have a large year-round population.
The foundation of the house was started on December 6, 1941, but the home was not finished until 1950. The attack on Pearl Harbor occurred the day after work on the foundation began, prompting the house to be put on hold as Dahl and Kay signed up to help with the war effort. Dahl enlisted with the Navy and served on the USS Saratoga and Kay did decoding work during the war.
While on the Saratoga, Dahl drew up a new design for his Bradford Woods home. Building the house when he returned, though, was not an easy project, since materials were hard to come by after the war and the lack of electricity meant that all of the materials had to be cut by hand. His house to this day is tucked away up a beautiful wooded drive. Unless you knew it was there, you would pass right by on your way through the little community of Bradford Woods.
After the war, Dahl and James Mitchell once again chose to work together, establishing an architectural firm in 1946, which they named Mitchell & Ritchey. In 1947 Edgar Kaufmann, on the occasion of his 75th birthday, asked Mitchell & Ritchey to develop a report looking forward 75 years and what they envisioned for Pittsburgh. The document, entitled “Pittsburgh in Progress” showed their vision of a new, modern Pittsburgh. Some of the buildings they envisioned in their report were actually built many years later.
Six years after establishing Mitchell & Ritchey, another up and coming architect and WWII veteran named William “Fritz” Sippel joined the firm. As the firm grew so did the projects they took on. One of their most important opportunities came 1949. Wallace Richards of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development walked into their office on a Friday afternoon before the long Labor Day weekend.
The Allegheny Conference had powerful connections with influential Pittsburghers such as the Mellon family and Mayor David L. Lawrence. Since architectural assignments were usually sealed with a handshake at the private clubs and by reputation based on previous projects, making these contacts while they were starting out was crucial. Since Dahl and Jim did not walk in those influential circles, this was an opportunity not to be passed up.
The young architects were given a verbal picture of what would come to be known as Mellon Square. The green Square in the heart of the city that Richards told them about had been envisioned by Richard King Mellon. Since drawings were needed by the following Tuesday morning, the young men spent the weekend studying and walking the 1.37 acre block in the heart of the city and working diligently until they were satisfied with their plans. Their drawings were well received and they were awarded the job. They worked in conjunction with the landscape architectural firm Simonds & Simonds to design an oasis in the middle of what would soon become the towering office buildings in the city of Pittsburgh.
Ground was broken on Mellon Square in 1953 and it was opened in 1955. The reviews were terrific and Mellon Square was a success. At the time, the Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa) was threatening to move to New York City, but was persuaded by Richard King Mellon to stay in Pittsburgh and build beside Mellon Square. The U.S. Steel Building was built close by as well.
This modern square gave many Pittsburghers a pleasant escape from the hustle and bustle of their hectic work and school schedules. It was built over a parking garage which could accommodate 1,000 vehicles and brought with it both style and beauty as it incorporated fountains, gardens, and seating, all with a sense of graceful modern design.
Mellon Square’s green roof was well ahead of modern greening initiatives. Over the years, lunchtime concerts have been held to the delight of those who happened by. Little do today’s visitors know what this park meant to its young designers so long ago. Because of this successful accomplishment, other jobs soon followed.
Just thirty years after its construction, in 1985, Mellon Square was listed in the National Register of Historic Places!
Mellon Arena/Civic Arena/The Igloo
When Edgar Kaufmann was having his family’s vacation home Fallingwater built, Edgar would on occasion call young Dahl and ask him to come out and see the building. Edgar had some concerns about the cantilever design. Frank Lloyd Wright assured Mr. Kaufmann that the design would work and Wright actually had the plans to have Fallingwater be buried on the grounds to be found again by future generations.
When Dahl was introduced to Wright by Edgar as an up and coming architect in Pittsburgh, Mr. Wright’s only comment to Dahl was “what did you ever do?” Little did Wright know that young Dahl was someone to watch.
It was through Edgar Kaufmann that the firm of Mitchell & Ritchey got involved in designing the Civic Arena.
Kaufmann personally donated the initial money to make the Civic Arena a reality, a sum of one million dollars. Kaufmann loved the Civic Light Opera (CLO) and he wanted this new arena to be their summer home. Kaufmann, though, recognized that it was not feasible for this building to be in use only during a single season, so he sought out another influential Pittsburgher, John Harris, to become involved with the Civic Arena project.
Harris was the owner of the ice hockey team, the Pittsburgh Hornets, and also the Ice Capades. Both Kaufmann and Harris were demanding of the architects. Edgar wanted the performers and audience to be outside when the Pittsburgh weather was nice but he also wanted to have a roof over the audience and performers if the weather turned disagreeable. Harris insisted that every seat, even the most remote, have a constant view of the puck while it was on the ice. The challenges were many, but Mitchell & Ritchey were up to the task.
A dome three times larger than the dome of St. Peter’s in Rome (415 feet in diameter) would be necessary to create a view that was unobstructed from each seat in the house. The roof was designed to have six moveable and two stationary stainless steel leaves. Each leaf was made up of four acres of metal, and the moveable ones could retract at the touch of a button in 2.5 minutes. The design of this new structure was truly revolutionary.
The Civic Arena debuted with the Ice Capades on September 19, 1961. Incorporating Kaufmann and Harris’s ideas, however, did not make a perfect world for the CLO performers. The acoustics of the Civic Arena were less than ideal when the roof was open and the wind, even a shallow breeze of 7 mph, would whip around the stage, blowing music off of the musician’s stands and moving scenery and props from their designated spots.
At the same time, this was a very visible project for the architects to undertake at a time when Pittsburgh was attracting world-wide attention for its new urban rebirth. Despite the problems, the Civic Arena would go on to host many famous artists, including Frank Sinatra, The Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead, and Garth Brooks.
Edgar Kaufmann, unfortunately, did not live to see the Arena’s completion, but he did watch each step of construction from his apartment on the top floor of the William Penn Hotel.
The Civic Arena was a project that was always dear to Dahl’s heart. It was during the construction of the Civic Arena that Dahl’s partner, James Mitchell, decided to move to Connecticut in 1957.
Allegheny Center and the University of Pittsburgh
The Pittsburgh Renaissance and the rapid growth of enrollment at the Pittsburgh universities presented many opportunities for architects in the city. For the North Side of Pittsburgh, Dahl designed Allegheny Center, a shopping mall, parking garage, professional offices, town homes and apartments all in one large complex. The Center opened in 1966.
Dahl was involved in designing buildings for the University of Pittsburgh (Tower Dormitories and Trees Hall) and his alma mater, Carnegie Tech (Donner Hall, Wean Hall and Cyert Hall).
In 1959 Dahl formed a partnership with Russel O. Deeter. Deeter was very involved in university architecture in the city of Pittsburgh. At first the firm was known as Deeter & Ritchey, but by 1964 had become Deeter, Ritchey and Sippel Associates, with offices located in Four Gateway Center.
While Dahl knew that to make it really big in the architectural world he should move to New York, this lifelong Pittsburgher choose to stay in his hometown and had a very successful career despite not making the big move. The size of Deeter, Ritchey and Sippel Associates fluctuated over the years and at one time 83 people were employed there.
Three Rivers Stadium
Three Rivers Stadium, as it was built, was not the first design Dahl had in mind when he was approached with the idea for the stadium in 1958. The design Dahl envisioned was very much like the present day PNC Park, with the park open to the river and the city skyline and having many movable seats. Dahl would have preferred having two stadiums, as Pittsburgh has today, instead of having one stadium for both football and baseball. Unfortunately, after long delays, political entanglements and construction costs rising with inflation, it was decided that the stadium Dahl designed would cost too much to build.
Dahl was sent back to the drawing board. He looked at the Three Rivers Stadium project as both his greatest professional challenge and his greatest disappointment. He thoroughly enjoyed his time with Art Rooney Sr. while working on the Three Rivers project. There were many times both men would climb up a ladder during the construction of the stadium, one after the other, to make sure all the details were being taken care of.
Three Rivers Stadium was completed in 1970 and taken down 31 years later in 2001. It made way for Heinz Field and PNC Park, giving the city the stadiums it deserved, just the way Ritchey thought it should have been all along.
Dahl was loved by his staff and known as a kind and caring man to all who crossed paths with him. Despite having such demonstrated talent and skill, Dahl did not let it go to his head. He treated his famous friends and the janitor in his building with the same good natured respect. When one of his staff members, Elsie, had a medical emergency while at work, it was in Dahl’s arms that she took her last breath. Dahl’s beloved wife Kay died in 1973. After two or three years passed, the staff in Dahl’s office thought it time for him to marry once again. Since Dahl had a liking for sauerkraut, he announced that he would marry the woman who made the best sauerkraut. After many sauerkraut dinners made by some very eligible ladies, Dahl asked the head treasurer in his office of thirteen years, Bea, if she made sauerkraut. Bea replied that she did. Well, Bea must have made fabulous sauerkraut because she and Dahl were married three months after that first meal in 1976. They wed at St. Paul’s Cathedral in Oakland, PA.
Dahl officially retired three years later in 1979.
Dahl’s Later Years
Always on the lookout for exceptional architecture, Dahl and his wife, Bea, traveled all over the world looking for something new to discover. If Dahl felt a place didn’t have great architecture, he wasn’t interested in going there. When in Africa, instead of taking photographs like most travelers, Dahl pulled out his notebook and sketched what he saw. Those drawings graced the walls of his Bradford Woods home for many years and were a reminder of a wonderful time in his life. He would often give away the drawings from his travels to friends and colleagues.
Dahl loved Bradford Woods and his community church there. He had a big heart and he donated land to the church for the minister’s house and even served as a Boy Scout leader for a troop sponsored by the church. Dahl, by his actions, proved that you’re never “too big” to give back to your community and for that the residents loved him in return.
Some of Dahl’s friends were quite powerful and others regular folks. Dahl said that each person was special and that is how he treated everyone. He had friends all over the world. Even while waiting for a flight in an airport in India he was spotted by someone he knew who called out his name. It turned out to be the U.S. Ambassador to India. His path crossed that of Presidents (Truman, Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson) as well as those of famous Pittsburghers such as Edgar Kaufmann and Art Rooney, Sr., both of whom he was also proud to call his friends.
Dahl was honored by the American Institute of Architects in 1998 for his lifetime of architectural contributions.
Many young architects were beneficiaries of Dahl’s teaching at CMU, Harvard University, and Georgia Institute of Technology, as well as his mentoring over his career spanning almost five decades.
In addition to the few buildings mentioned in this article there are many more where Dahlen Ritchey played a key role in their design.
Carnegie Mellon University houses the Ritchey Collection which includes photographs, drawings, films, reports, renderings, slides, microforms, brochures, and clippings representing approximately 100 projects he participated in over his career.
After a lengthy illness, Dahl Ritchey died on January 12, 2002, just two weeks prior to his 92nd birthday and on his 26th wedding anniversary to Bea. Despite being ill and depending on Bea for his care, he never lost his positive outlook and cheerful disposition.
The contributions Dahlen K. Ritchey made to Pittsburgh are long lasting and the lives he touched continue today through a scholarship program set up at Carnegie Mellon University in his name and through the buildings he designed that are still in active use. Even Dahl’s architectural firm continues on as DRS Architects.
The next time you enjoy a lunch-time concert in Mellon Square or move a college student into the towers at the University of Pittsburgh, think of the architectural genius behind the creation of those buildings, of Dahlen K. Ritchey, and of how good guys and great Pittsburghers never finish last.
Written by Diane Gliozzi