A Thomasson!

Man relaxing on unused, but well-maintained entry steps to apartment building in Pittsburgh, PA

At least one guy uses this thing. The Thomasson, after a full rehab, March, 2016

We got really interested in Thomassons from a story of the same name on the great 99% Invisible podcast. A Thomasson, as defined by the Japanese artist Akasegawa Genpei who first identified and named them, is an architectural leftover or vestige that no longer has any use and is actively maintained. The name is a reference to one Gary Thomasson, a baseball player who, through twist of fate and contractual obligations was paid to ride the bench–ineffective, but maintained. [The podcast has that whole backstory.] Pittsburgh Orbit became obsessed with finding a local Thomasson.

Pittsburgh is littered with evidence of architectural decay. The giant extant former stone supports of the old Point and Manchester bridges downtown or the countless foundations of long-gone hillside houses come to mind–but there are plenty of examples. The tricky part in identifying a Thomasson is in finding one that people are still actively taking care of.

Bellefield Tower and Bellefield Clinic, Pittsburgh, PA

Bellefield Tower, Oakland. The mother of all Thomassons or still in use?

Bellefield Tower, at the corner of Fifth and Bellefield streets in Oakland, is a potentially glorious Thomasson–we could go as far as saying the mother of all Thomassons. But does it count? Bellefield is a freestanding bell tower that appears to have outlived the church (we assume?) it was once attached to. It’s now mere feet from the curved puce and mauve shopping mall chic exterior of Bellefield Clinic, making for possibly the most painfully awkward architectural juxtaposition in the city.

But does the tower really have no current use? It’s hard to say–this blogger has never heard its bell ringing, and it seems too small and awkwardly-shaped for much else. But possibly the clinic stores scrubs and hypodermic needles there. Maybe a couple of lucky administrative employees get solo offices, each with a tiny staircase. The point is, it could be in use. An investigation is in order*, but we’re not ready to call this a Thomasson…yet.

Apartment building on Fifth Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA

In context: Webster Hall’s Thomasson (pre-rebuild), Summer, 2015

Luckily, though, almost right next door, on the corner of Dithridge and Fifth Avenue, sits Webster Hall and what is an undeniable Thomasson. The eleven-story apartment building clearly used to hold something like lunch counters, or maybe retail spaces, on each ground floor corner–you can tell by the decorative masonry work and big window openings. There’s also a strange pair of steps that lead up to a now-bricked-in and glassed-over former entry point. It’s dressed-up with a pair of inviting potted boxwood shrubs, but they’re not fooling this blogger: in nine years of working a block away, I’ve never seen anyone (except The Orbit‘s hired stooge/model) use this as a resting spot. And why would you? As steps, they’re an uncomfortable, awkward seat–there’s no back and not enough leg room–and who wants to relax on busy/noisy Fifth Avenue when you could walk two blocks and be in Schenley Plaza?

Work truck and crew repairing unused steps on apartment building, Pittsburgh, PA

The Thomasson during reconstruction, Feb. 2016

The steps are also undeniably under active maintenance. By last fall, they had lost some of their mortar, causing stones to shift and structure to break apart. The coming of winter only made it worse. When Team Orbit spotted a work crew out front in January it led to some great group rubber-necking and speculation, trying to get a glimpse at what was happening under the mysterious plastic tent. Would they tear up the downtrodden, useless steps-to-nowhere, dashing our hopes that this was our first legit Thomasson? Or was the crew there to make things right–to enpower Oakland’s pedestrians to once again bypass this funny stoop on their way to more pleasant places of repose?

Well, by this point in the story it’s no surprise that the workers came armed with mortar and trowels (not a jackhammer) and we can happily report that the Thomasson is alive and looking as good as new. To Pittsburgh’s other Thomassons, hang in there: we’re coming for you!

* Yes: finding out what’s up with Bellefield Tower is on The Orbit‘s big list!


7 thoughts on “A Thomasson!

  1. Vannevar Bush says:

    Here’s what I’ve read about the Bellefield Tower. There was once an entire church there. The people in charge of the church wanted to sell their building and land to a developer. People in the community didn’t want the church to go away, so they got a Historic designation for the church tower. Then the Church couldn’t sell it. The developer said: You know what, leave the tower, I’ll demolish and develop the rest of the space.

    I’ve read that the main function of the Tower now is to hide cellphone transmitters.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Will says:

      Thanks, Vannevar! Very interesting. That seems like a more believable explanation than anything I could come up with. I’m not sure if hiding cellphone transmitters counts as legitimate usefulness or not (for Thomasson qualification).


  2. Duncan Henricks says:

    If you take a look at James D. van Trump’s wonderful “Life and Architecture in Pittsburgh”, one of the essays is indeed about the history of Webster Hall and describes the very popular diner that used to occupy that space.


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