In the early 1970s a site on the opposite side of Downtown Pittsburgh was considered for a modern convention center, on the shores of the Monongahela River. On September 20, 1971 the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania failed to approve that location, and site work slowly began on the present site as the city and county submitted it to the commonwealth on December 10, 1974. There was a proposal in mid-1974 to locate the center at the then transitioning Penn Station. The center had its ceremonial groundbreaking on June 8, 1977. On February 7, 1981 the original $35 million ($106 million today) structure opened with a ribbon cutting ceremony by Mayor Richard Caliguiri, County Commissioner Tom Foerster and Governor Dick Thornburgh.
After the Commonwealth approved funding for the redesigned center on February 3, 1999 Rafael Viñoly Architects, P.C. was chosen as the designer for the modern center on February 28, 1999. Viñoly along with Dewhurst MacFarlane & Partners and Goldreich Engineering P.C. constructed the $354 million ($532.4 million today) riverfront landmark to contain 313,400 sq ft (29,100 m2) of exhibit space (236,900 sq ft (22,000 m2) of which is column-free), 76,500 sq ft (7,100 m2) of additional exhibit space, a 31,610 sq ft (2,940 m2) ballroom, 51 meeting rooms, two 250-seat lecture halls, teleconference and telecommunications capabilities and 4,500 sq ft (420 m2) of retail space (currently in development). The architect, Viñoly, began the design with a goal in mind of achieving the status of a "green" building. In 2003, the building was awarded Gold Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification by the U.S. Green Building Council, making it the first such convention center in the U.S. and the largest "green" building in the world.
The current building replaced the former convention center of the same name that was constructed in 1981. The old convention center was 131,000 sq ft (12,000 m2) and lacked a ballroom. All of the old building was demolished to make way for the current structure which was built on the same site.
The center—though completely a structure of 2003 construction—chose to retain the name of the earlier convention center on the site completed in 1981 in honor of David Leo Lawrence (June 18, 1889—November 21, 1966). Lawrence was an American politician who served as the Democratic Governor of Pennsylvania from 1959 to 1963, only retiring because of the state's then term limit of 1 per governor. He is to date the only mayor of Pittsburgh to be elected Governor of Pennsylvania. Previously, he had been the longest tenured mayor of Pittsburgh (1946-1959) and the primary force behind Pittsburgh's urban renewal projects including the Mellon Arena, Gateway Center, Fort Pitt Tunnel and Point State Park. He was Pennsylvania's first Catholic Governor (at the time a major breakthrough for an Irish Catholic), and a major force in the national Democratic Party from the 1930s to the 1960s. Historians credit him with among other behind-the-scenes labors, leading a compromise at the 1944 National Democratic Convention that eventually made Harry Truman president. As well as healing a divided national convention of 1960 that resulted in the John F. Kennedy/Lyndon B. Johnson ticket, it is for these reasons as well as his work in the state and the city that he was dubbed "kingmaker" by party leaders.
On February 12, 2002, less than two weeks before the scheduled opening of the new center, a 165-ton truss that was under construction collapsed, killing one and injuring two workers. The truss was part of the second phase of construction, scheduled for opening in 2003, and did not delay the February 23 opening of phase one.
On February 5, 2007, a section of concrete floor from the second floor loading dock collapsed under the weight of a tractor-trailer and fell onto the water feature area below. There were no injuries. The building remained closed until investigations by the contractors were completed on March 9, the fault was repaired, and the convention center reopened.
June 8, 1977: Groundbreaking at 10th Street and Ft. Duquesne Way.
February 7, 1981: Ribbon cutting ceremony by Mayor Richard Caliguiri, County Commissioner Tom Foerster and Governor Dick Thornburgh as the 9 day Premier Expo kicks off free to the public with exhibits from the consulates of China, France, Italy, Spain, Greece, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. HJ Heinz and Westinghouse bringing two interactive talking robots to their displays and US Steel and Alcoa hosting large exhibits.
Smith, a CBS crime drama that showcases the convention center's interior waterway during Ray Liotta's and Amy Smart's escape chase scene with the Pittsburgh Police. The exterior riverside of the center is shown prominently as the gang transfers to a speed boat on the Allegheny River.
Toker, Franklin (2007). Buildings of Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh: Chicago: Society of Architectural Historians; Santa Fe: Center for American Places ; Charlottesville: In association with the University of Virginia Press. ISBN 0-8139-2650-5.
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