This is about as Pittsburgh as it gets. A steep, nearly vertical, hillside forms a natural boundary between two distinct neighborhoods–Brighton Heights up above and Woods Run down below. Hillside erosion (or the threat thereof) has forced the hand of…someone (the city? industry? private property owners?) to infill cracks and fissures in the bare rock, but they’ve done it in the cheapest, most ramshackle way possible. It’s kind of like creating the goofy colored belt system instead of actually building any new highways–but to solve erosion issues instead of…directional? [The belts certainly do nothing for traffic.] In both cases, The Orbit applauds this philosophy of low-tech, minimally-destructive, infrastructure recycling.
Even with the bright morning sun shining on them, it’s a little hard to see what’s going on in these photos. The hill probably reaches fifty or sixty feet above street level at its highest and there are at least a handful of houses that back right up near the top edge. At the base is vacant land (today), but likely held row houses, retail, or small industry buildings back in the day.
Irregularly set into the rock face are a mortared collection of various masonry materials–bricks of all shapes, sizes, and colors, as well as cinderblocks, paving stones, and poured concrete. The overall effect is as if some bygone cheapskate public works director gave the order to “just fill the cracks with whatever you have laying around.”
The combination is beautiful, weird, and, yes, looks like the work of a mad scientist, or maybe a mad civil engineer. There’s the very awkward collision of nature and technology–like a brick and stone cyborg, only this one wants to keep loose rock from falling on you instead of hunting you down for crimes you’ll inevitably commit in the future. The spare parts and junk shop chic is something any crazy inventor with a bricklaying hobby would be proud of. The hill’s vertical face is rendered in wonderful 3-D, at points both smooth and jagged, metric and chock-a-block–it gives the whole enterprise this incredible depth and texture. Seeing these on a clear day, in the A.M. (when the eastern sun lights them up), will match any gallery experience. We guarantee it, just like Dr. Frankenstein did.
Getting there: The Frankenstein hillside runs along the dog-legged stretch of Woods Run Ave. between Eckert St. and McClure, right across the street from Mr. Jack’s Neighborhood Bar (“No guns. No knives.”)–just look up. Cyclists will be well aware of this particular patch of road as it’s the primary route from the very end of the river bike trail by the old jail to points west and north.
10 thoughts on “The Frankenstein Hillside of Woods Run”
It may look ragged, but if I know Pittsburgh, each one of those repairs required a consultation ($400,000), analysis ($800,000), cultural impact survey ($250,000), etc…
This is what used to be there: http://old.post-gazette.com/lifestyle/20030430schwerd0430fnp6.asp
Thank you, Don O.! I had no idea there was a building down there this recently. That must have been just before I started riding around there, so I never saw the place. Sadly, there don’t appear to be any obvious photos of the old Schwerd factory out there.
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Right. They had a website even which is crazy because I know that I’d driven through there a number of time as well as biked and skated going back 10 years or more and have no memory of there being a building there. I bet Pitt or the History Center have some photos.
I guess it’d have to have been more than 10 years ago since the fire was in 03 but I probably drove through there a time or two back then. Check this 1930’s catalog out. There’s a drawing of the factory (that doesn’t seem like a realistic rendering of the area). https://archive.org/stream/SchwerdQualityColumns/SchwerdQualityColumns0001#page/n0/mode/2up
Found this website about the company from someone who seems to have either worked there or cared enough to create a free website but that might know what the deal is with the bricks and things in the cliffside: http://schwerdmfg.weebly.com/contact.html
If you go to Second Ave near the county jail and pay close attention to the cliff to the left you’ll see stuff like this still in the walls, along with old chimneys, it may have been elsewhere but I even identified an old bathroom once.
Thanks, Brian! Consider this added to the big Orbit list to check out.
The area was owned by Mr Lecky and was a quary in the mid 1800s. When it was used up he sold the land to AF Schwerd in the late 1800s. The AF Sherwd company, which manufactured wood columns, built there mill on the site and “The Frankenstein Wall” was actually one of the four walls of the main large building that burned down in 2002. There were 3 wood framed walls and the west wall was the crumbling cliff face. Over the years the management at different time reinforced that wall with random bricks/blocks. Those repairs were not done ever by the city of Pittsburgh
Thanks for the great background information!