Before Squirrel Hill was the center of Jewish life in Pittsburgh, that designation went to the Hill District, specifically the lower Hill a.k.a. “the big empty lot where the Civic Arena used to be.” Not a ton remains, but then again, maybe more than we expected. There are a couple really spectacular examples that we visited in our Memorial Day weekend travels.
First up is the former Hebrew Institute, now the Blakey Program Center, on Wylie Avenue. A beautiful (exactly) one hundred-year-old red brick building with an ornate front portico that’s been kept in terrific condition. It spent nearly sixty years as the Kay Boys Club/Kay Program Center and is now a community center that is part of the Hill House Association.
I love that the cornerstone was set with both Hebrew and Gregorian calendar years. The original institutional name has been updated to its current purpose, but executed nicely–I imagine this is no small feat in a set block of stone.
On the corner of Webster and Erin Streets sits the large cube of a building that used to be the Congregation Kaisor Torah Synagogue (although you wouldn’t know it from the defaced cornerstone) and is now Zion Hill Full Gospel Baptist Church. A hand-painted alternate cornerstone also shows evidence that the building served as an A.M.E. church somewhere in the between time.
The big building has clearly seen better days as many of the windows are knocked-out, others replaced by plywood including the huge Star of David-shaped circular windows on the third floor of both the east and west sides. On its Erin Street face, the building shows evidence of removed staircases and stair rooflines (a mirrored set still stands on the other side). But the trees and sidewalks are looking good, and this heathen can testify that he heard a Zion Hill preacher doing the same to a rapt congregation inside last Sunday morning.
These first two buildings were all The Orbit was aware of going into this piece, but combing through some old maps of the Hill District turned up a bunch of other things that we’ll be back to check out. So, you know, don’t touch that browser–stay tuned for the exciting sequel.