University of Pittsburgh | Pitt Home | Find People | Contact Us  


Head Games

It’s not one of the Petersen Center’s more striking architectural features. Yet inside the Willis Academic Center on the second floor, important work is being done. Under the oversight of Ron Brown, director of academic support services for student athletes, tutors and counselors make sure that the word “student” remains as important as “athlete.”

Besides enormous constraints on their time, athletes are under pressure from the public and themselves to perform, says athletic director Steve Pederson. They have to learn to juggle schedules and deal with stress, and that’s where Brown’s advisors step in.

The Willis Center was placed inside the Athletic Department’s suite of offices so that administrators can regularly “bump elbows” with students, Pederson says. It makes it easy for them to hear students’ concerns and keep tabs on their academic progress.

“I think it gives us a tremendous leg up in both recruiting and retention of athletes,” Pederson says. “You talk a lot [to parents] about how you can really be successful in getting their son or daughter educated, but when they see this center, they know it’s not just talk.”


The wait is over. The new King of the Hill is the John M. and Gertrude E. Petersen Events Center.

Center of Attention

Jason Togyer

It isn’t his. But as architect Paul Apostolou walks through its newly-finished corridors, soaring lobby, and observation deck, his sense of ownership is evident. “Pittsburgh is my hometown. Pitt is the institution in my city, and I wanted this to be the best anywhere.”

It isn’t Steve Pederson’s either. Yet Pitt’s athletic director has a real feeling of accomplishment. “We’ve had a tremendous amount to sell academically for a long time,” he says. Now he believes the bricks and mortar have caught up.

No one seems to disagree, at least not if regular Pitt folks like Christopher Kowalsky (CGS ’76 ) and his son Ross (CIS ’02) are any indication. After they had their first glimpse of it this summer, the elder Kowalsky had this to say: “This will be a new tradition. There’s a new spirit emerging.”

That new spirit, new tradition, is the Petersen Events Center.

It came to life slowly this summer, a little bit opening each week, like a new kid arriving on campus and finding his way around. Unlike most freshmen, however, this new arrival made a big first impression. With each student, alumnus, and employee who visited the building, the word spread—something very special has come to Cardiac Hill.

EJ Borghetti (CAS ’92), assistant athletic director for media relations, met with prospective season-ticket holders when they came to check out the seating. “Some of them got a little misty,” he says. “This is a building with high aspirations.”

Formally known as the John M. and Gertrude E. Petersen Events Center, in honor of the 1951 business school graduate and his wife, who donated $10 million toward its construction, it’s the most significant addition on the Oakland campus since Forbes Quadrangle, now Posvar Hall, was completed in 1978. With no slight to the Quad—still among the world’s largest academic buildings—all five of its floors together will likely never inspire the affection the Pitt community will soon have for the Petersen Center.

It’s not “bigness” that awes visitors to the Petersen Center, though the numbers are impressive. It’s 430,000 square feet, including the arena, with 17 private boxes and 12,500 seats. The Bill Baierl Student Recreation Center (named after the CGS ’51 alumnus) features four racquetball courts, two squash courts, free weights, four dozen workout machines, and classrooms. There are 16 concession stands available during events, many of which will double as a day-to-day food court for students and staff. There’s a new Pitt sports hall-of-champions, a tutoring center for athletes, and training facilities.

Because—or in spite of—the Petersen Center’s size, what surprises first-time visitors are the building’s human touches. “I love the little things that people will notice as time goes on, the little rounded staircases, the roof design,” Pederson says. “I love to take people up the escalators to the club level and look at the five levels, as they tier down through the lobby. There’s a lot of good architecture in this building.”

From the sunlight that filters through translucent roof panels to the muted colors (you better believe they’re shades of blue and gold) and the airy five-story lobby, it’s easy to see the Petersen Center as a prime place for people on the Upper Campus to hang out. It resembles an upscale shopping mall, and that’s a compliment.

“It’s kind of like the Student Union times 50,” says Borghetti. “It’s a place to study, to work out, go to the hoops game, buy a sweatshirt for mom or dad or the girlfriend you left behind. We envision alumni meeting each other in the lobby. It really is a destination point.”

With no place in Oakland to hold large events indoors, Pitt has been waiting for a convocation center for a long time—10 years, maybe longer. Panthers’ fans watched in mounting frustration as other schools replaced old gymnasiums with modern facilities. Finding the money and the space for the project wasn’t easy. And as the years went by, the costs escalated. In 1997, the yet-unnamed convocation center was estimated to cost $52 million. With the recreation center and food court, which were not part of the original project, the actual cost topped $96 million, including $53 million in state funding made possible by former Governor Tom Ridge. The increases certainly caught the attention of the Pittsburgh media.

The delays, though, allowed Pederson and Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg to learn from the experiences of other schools, making sure that the money was well spent here.

“As we traveled around to look at other arenas, in so many cases they had to open them up,” says Pederson, who became Pitt’s athletic director in November 1996. “I didn’t want a basketball shrine that’s only used 18 days a year. It’s going to be a student university building. We didn’t build it to host the circus. Our goal was to accommodate all of the University events that make sense in here.”

And he wanted the building to be used daily by people from the general University community, not just athletes or staff. For that, Pederson knew the building needed amenities—a coffeehouse, restaurants, a retail outlet. “The most important component we have at the University is our students, and here was the opportunity to do something really nice for them,” he says.

Also along on these trips, which began in the late 1990s, were representatives of the two architectural firms picked to design the building, Apostolou Associates of Pittsburgh and Rosser International of Atlanta. The firms complemented each other’s strengths—Apostolou specializes in educational and institutional buildings, Rosser in sports arenas. The architects interviewed groups of students, athletes, and administrators. They boiled the interviews down to 6-by-9 index cards, eventually covering a wall with comments they solicited.

Designers asked Nordenberg what he preferred in architecture. “He said, ‘I favor classical and traditional forms, but don’t let that inhibit you,’” recalls George Bushey, lead architect on the project for Rosser. “That was kind of cool.”

Early on, the design team decided the new center had to have a “wow factor,” says Bushey—it had to take advantage of the expansive views from the top of Cardiac Hill, including what Bushey refers to as “the Tower of Power.” (That’s the Cathedral of Learning to y’all.)

The University originally planned to build the center on a parking lot between Trees Hall and the Cost Center—a tight fit, but Apostolou and Rosser thought they could make it work. The building would have been connected to Pitt Stadium, so that its concession stands and other amenities could be used during football games. Then, as the 1998 football season came to a close, Nordenberg and Pederson dropped a bombshell. The Steelers had offered to share Heinz Field with the Panthers. What could the architects do if Pitt Stadium were gone?

What could they do? With 11 acres of prime land in the heart of campus? It was liberating, say Bushey and Apostolou. While the land sloped steeply—Pitt Stadium was nestled in a natural bowl—that was hardly a drawback, they say. “A difficult site only adds to the building. Anyone can design something on a flat lawn,” Apostolou says.

As generations of students have learned while slogging up Desoto Street, several hundred feet in elevation separates the Lower Campus from the Upper Campus. Bushey and Apostolou saw the convocation center as an opportunity to bridge the gap, literally and figuratively. Inside the building, they created a giant moving staircase, running from Terrace Street nearly to the top of the old Pitt Stadium bowl. On the other side of a curtain wall of plate glass, steps parallel the moving stairs. The corridor is expected to become a major shortcut for residents of the Upper Campus—and not coincidentally, a chance to be diverted along the way.

Around the building is a sweeping lawn, to be used for picnics, studying, Frisbee games—it’s totally unprogrammed. “Let the students decide what they want to do with it,” Pederson says.

By mid-1999, as it became clear the convocation center was moving to the Pitt Stadium site, administrators were considering a multimillion dollar renovation to the fitness center at Trees Hall, where the problem was space—the lack of it. Students complained about long lines to use workout machines, which weren’t invented when Trees was built. When Trees was new, students were more likely to play team sports than to work out, says Marilyn Ross, co-director of intramurals. Along with Lou Fabian, she oversees the University’s seven fitness centers.

Then there was the Trees’ location. Is it even in Pittsburgh? “It’s just at the top of the hill, but for some reason, the perception was that it was so far away,” Ross says.

Rather than shoehorn more activities into Trees, Pitt administrators realized they had the chance to start fresh at the Petersen Center. Plus, a fitness center met Pederson’s goal of making the building come alive seven days a week. “Some things just fit together right. This fit together right,” he says.

Ross expects the fitness center at the Petersen to be “the focal point” for many students.

“I’ve never seen one that compares with it on a college campus, and I’ve seen a lot of them,” she says. Based on use of the University’s other exercise facilities, Ross estimates the Baierl Student Recreation Center at the Petersen Center will see about 20,000 visits per month from students, whose fees are included in their tuition. “They can eat here, work out here, attend an event here. It’s a place where they can come and stay for most of the day.”

A university fitness center is different from a commercial health club, Ross says. “We’re into a far more personal approach. We teach them [proper workout techniques], and our [strength] testing is far more extensive. The educational component is greater.” Graduate and PhD students in exercise physiology are available to create personal workout programs, she says, and the Petersen Center features practice areas for martial arts and other aerobic activities.

Rick Moses of Hershey, Pennsylvania, a 2002 graduate of Pitt Dental School who’s now serving his residency there, looks forward to crossing the street to lift weights—presumably because some teeth have really deep roots.

No, not really. Like many Pitt students, Moses is just trying to stay fit. He won’t miss the crowded Trees Hall weight room. Moses predicts the Petersen Center will draw more students to the Upper Campus and the area around the medical school. Some students don’t realize there’s life at Pitt above Fifth Avenue, he says, adding with a laugh, “Half of the undergrads don’t even realize we have a dental school up here.”

All this is fine, say hardcore basketball fans, but what’s the Petersen Center like for watching hoops? No one will know for sure until November 23, when Pitt meets the Duquesne Dukes for the first-ever game in the new building. Early indications from fans and alumni who visited during the summer are promising.

“It was sad when [Pitt Stadium] was torn down,” says Gary Eden (CAS ’76) of Scottsdale, Arizona, but he and his son Will, a 2002 political science graduate, call the Petersen “a worthy replacement” for the stadium.

“It’s unbelievable,” Will Eden says. “They did a fantastic job. The season we had at the Field House was great, but part of that’s the spirit of the fans, and I think that’s going to continue right into this building.”

Possibly the building’s most unusual feature is the courtside suites, where the basketball floor continues right into the rooms. There are five suites, and another one double the size that can be rented for special events and parties. Pederson got the idea from the courtside seats available at NBA venues. He and Bushey, the Rosser architect, decided to take the idea to its logical extreme by putting private suites on the floor. “George and I started drawing and dreaming, and to be honest with you, the idea was just too cool,” Pederson confesses.

While it’s hard to find a bad view—even the upper concourses overlook the court—the best one is reserved for students. Except for the section of courtside suites, the entire lower level is set aside for students. Pederson was firm on that point, though the seats would probably sell for big money on the open market. “This is a university,” he says. “Students come first, so they’ve got the best seats in the house.”

During last year’s NCAA tournament, student tickets were distributed in a lottery. Pederson foresees a day when every event at the Petersen Center creates that kind of demand on campus. “The other students will help sell that,” he says. “They’ll say, ‘You’ve got to come here.’ They have to know that this is an exciting place to be.”

Jason Togyer is associate editor of this magazine.

Photography by Ric Evans.

*Denotes an external link. Links to external Web sites are offered for informational purposes only and the information there is not guaranteed or endorsed by the University of Pittsburgh or its affiliates.

 Top of Page Home | Pitt Home | Find People | Contact Us