Exposition Hall, located along the shore of the Allegheny River near Pittsburgh's Point, was one of the city's main attractions when it opened in 1889. For the next thirty years it was the scene of many major events, including the annual autumn expo, which featured exhibits from across the nation. From the 1920s, until the final Exposition building was dismantled in 1951, the site was used as the city's auto pound.
In 1885, the Western Pennsylvania Exposition Society, commonly called the Pittsburgh Exposition, proposed building “a place of great social gathering where ideas and goods were exchanged freely.” Organizers were determined to have a venue that offered the feel of a County Fair with the mystique of a World’s Fair.
A year after the society formed, Pittsburgh City Council approved the purchase of near the Point along the Allegheny River and granted a fifty-year lease. Lifetime memberships, popular subscriptions and donations raised nearly $1 million to cover the cost of construction. The complex consisted of the main exposition building, a Music Hall and an adjacent Machinery Hall, which was built entirely of iron and glass.
The first Exposition took place in September 1889, and was attended by thousands of locals, as well as visitors from across western Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio and West Virginia. The annual Expositions were a great spectacle for two months every autumn. Near the turn of the century, the Expo averaged 10,000 visitors per day.
The Expos featured automobile, poultry and trade shows, along with some of the best orchestras and bands in the nation. Victor Herbert, John Phillip Sousa and many world renowned symphonies filled the hall with music. Fashion shows from New York and Paris attracted high society women, while free samples of balloons, popcorn and dairy products captured the attention of ordinary citizens. A roller coaster, ferris wheel and merry-go-round captivated the children of the region. The complex had 100,000 square feet of exhibit space, an art gallery and the Music Hall that held 5,500 patrons.
People travelled from great distances to join in the festivities; many wealthy patrons travelled up the Mississippi and Ohio rivers to moor their houseboats along the Allegheny River shore beside the Exposition site, much like they do for today's Three Rivers Regatta and holiday fireworks displays.
The Exposition Hall complex enjoyed great success for a decade before a disaster struck. On Saint Patrick's Day in 1901, a fire destroyed or damaged the majority of the complex. Wind-blown embers from a stable fire on Duquesne Way engulfed the great Main Hall. On the six-acre site, Machinery Hall was the only building to survive the inferno.
Most of the Exposition complex was rebuilt, at a cost of $600,000. The site included new versions of Machinery Hall, the Main Hall and the Music Hall. The new Main Hall was constructed of steel, stone and massive brick walls. The Main Hall’s heavy doors were adorned with cut white stone and the interior was ornately decorated. The inner hall was illuminated by 1,500 incandescent lights under a vaulted and girdered ceiling.
After the Expostion of 1915, chiller pipes and concrete were added to the floor of the Main Hall to convert it into an impressive sheet of ice. It was to be home to the Pittsburgh Winter Garden amateur hockey team. Interest in hockey was growing, and having an ice arena in downtown Pittsburgh seemed like a great idea.
The Winter Garden used the latest technology to produce hard, dry ice. The refrigeration plant was located in Machinery Hall almost 500 feet away and circulated a brine solution through 125,000 feet of pipe below the ice surface. The system pumped the solution at a rate of 15,000 gallons every minute to produce a minus 30 temperature on the floor. The size of the ice made hockey matches grueling tests of endurance. The playing surface measured 300 x 140 feet. By comparison, today’s NHL rinks measure 200 x 85 feet.
Just when the future of the Exposition Hall and Winter Garden looked to be reviving, a series of events led, instead, to it's demise. The Pittsburgh Winter Garden hockey franchise folded after just one season. World War I and a polio epidemic forced the cancellation of the annual Exposition in 1917. The Winter Garden remained in operation for the next three years, and the remaining buildings began to fall into a state of disrepair.
The Western Pennsylvania Exposition Society, in March 1919, voted to accept $360,000 from the city and give up the remaining seventeen years of its fifty-year lease of the six acres on which the buildings were located. The sale enabled the Society to pay off it's debts. The last hockey match at the Winter Garden was played in the spring of 1920.
Afterwards, the city leased the main buildings for a union trolley freight station, and the Machinery Hall was used as a city garage and machine shop. The Music Hall was still be used for conventions and large gatherings.
The Music Hall was demolished in 1941, and Machinery Hall was also dismantled, in 1942, to secure scrap metal for the World War II effort. The Main Hall stood as the last remaining building of the Exposition Hall complex until July 2, 1951, when the structure was torn down to make way for the development of the 37-acre Point State Park.
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