If you've ever watched a Penguins game and thought, "These guys should be playing in a barn" -- and really, who hasn't? -- the answer will gratify you. Up until 1956, the Penguins, or rather their predecessors, played in a converted trolley barn known as Duquesne Garden.
The structure was located on Craig Street in Oakland, just off Fifth Avenue to the northeast. A 400-foot-long, 140-foot-wide structure of brick and sandstone, it was a garage used by the trolleys of the Duquesne Traction Company. Hence the name, and the fact that facility was created at all. For the Duquesne line was owned by one of the most powerful men in Pittsburgh: Christopher Magee.
In order to boost ridership, carlines in the late 1800s would develop attractions for people to ride to. The trolleys ensured easy transportation to the attraction, and the attraction ensured riders for the trolley. Cranberry Township has a similar relationship with PennDOT, apparently, ensuring lots of traffic to keep workers busy with orange barrels in the summer in exchange for a rapid gas-guzzling commute. Duquesne Garden was just one of several trolley-park destinations; Kennywood was another -- the last such attraction still in existence here.
The Garden was originally used for ice skating, an activity made possible by the creation of new ice-making technology at the end of the 19th century. But Magee's expressed desire was to create not just an ice rink but a "nice place for nice people to go to see nice things." If that sounds, well, nice, it was. News accounts described the facility as being a "veritable bower of beauty" with marble floors, crystal chandeliers and thick carpeting. As a 1956 architectural obituary in the Pittsburgh Press noted, the men's room was "adorned with plush red drapes"; the women's room was "mirrored and primpy with Brussels carpets and polished mahogany furniture." In other words, it was almost as nice as the bathrooms at our sports facilities today.
The building quickly became the site for all manner of gatherings: There were opera performances, boxing matches and political rallies that included elements of both. Billy Conn, the famed Pittsburgh boxer who nearly won a match against Joe Louis, fought there. (In tribute, the portion of Craig Street facing it was renamed "Billy Conn Boulevard.") Famed opera singer Enrico Caruso sang there. Shriners danced there. Bowling championships were held there. A pamphlet advertising the location boasted that it could host functions ranging from poultry shows to "pageants of progress" and everything in between. "Pittsburgh then was on a pleasure binge," the Press reported, in perhaps the only instance when such a phrase has ever seen the light of day.
And as you mentioned, Pittsburgh's pro hockey team, then known as the Pittsburgh Hornets, played there right up until the very end.
After more than a half century as one of the city's premiere sports and entertainment venues, the Garden was wiped out by the other great Pittsburgh spectator sport: urban redevelopment. In 1950, the Garden was sold to some real-estate developers who wanted to use the site to build luxury apartments. The planners of the city's first Renaissance were already devising plans for a new Civic Arena, and as was self-evident to everyone at the time -- it was the 1950s -- a multi-use cultural and entertainment facility would be much better if it had a retractable dome on top. Demolition began in August 1956, just four months after the Hornets had played their last game in the Garden. (They lost to a team from Cleveland.) A great chapter in Pittsburgh entertainment history was over.
On the bright side, for just a few hundred million dollars, Penguins owner Mario Lemieux is willing to build a whole new arena that will take us back to the luxuries of yesteryear -- marble floors, polished wood and chandeliers. All we have to do is get behind him as a region, dammit, support our cherished hockey franchise and start moving Pittsburgh forward.
Of course you'd have to buy a luxury box too.