One More Time for the Skyline

painting of Pittsburgh skyline on retail storefront

ye olde city: Arnold’s Tea House, Northside

Close your eyes. No, wait–open them back up. You’ll need them for the rest of the piece.

Imagine the view of downtown Pittsburgh, straight-on, looking due east. You know the scene, even though few of us actually see the city from this middle-of-the-confluence angle. There are the spiky towers of PPG and Fifth Avenue Place in the foreground, Grant Street’s tall buildings farther back, various middle-height apartment and office buildings. The Fort Pitt and Fort Duquesne bridges bookend the whole display.

This is remarkable because–unless you’re a riverboat captain or Canada goose–you probably never see the city from this viewpoint. Sure, you can get a slimmed-down approximation standing near the fountain, looking back across Point State Park. But unless you end up on one of the Gateway Clipper party boats or happen to take a canoe out on the water to just the right spot, you won’t see the real thing.

That image, though, is instantly recognizable because we see it so often in so many places.

In this, the third collection of Pittsburgh skyline art, we’ll round up the latest findings. Links to the earlier stories in the series are included as well, below.

Ciminelli Property Management Services van with image of Pittsburgh skyline

Cinemascope city: Ciminelli Property Management Services van

Ciminelli Property Management and Arnold’s Tea House (above, top) have remarkably similar renderings of the downtown skyline. Both are from that same midde-of-the-rivers perspective with wide cinematic dimensions and both use the device of representing depth via shifting color values within the same palette.

Arnold’s has a folksier appeal as it’s clearly been painted by hand, directly to the tea shop’s wooden façade. Whereas Ciminelli is a pro job reproduced for the company’s maintenance vans (and likely other corporate materials). We’re fans of both.

artist rendering of Pittsburgh skyline in restaurant

glowing city: Railroad Grill & Tap Room, Bridgeville

The décor for Bridgeville’s Railroad Grill & Tap Room includes this innovative flat skyline in black silhouette, backlit by glowing yellow-orange lights. It’s a nice touch that likely goes unnoticed for many of the restaurants’ patrons inevitably dazed by the dozen or so sports-focused televisions. Yeah, The Orbit would proudly eat the onion rings and quaff the porters and brown ales at an all-skyline tavern. For now though, we’ll live with Railroad Grill’s hip height offering at the host station.

storefront window image including Pittsburgh skyline

pop art city: storefront skyline, Bloomfield

Pretty sure this one is gone now, so be glad The Orbit was there to remember it for you.

Über-stylized green and blue bubblegum clouds hover over downtown, appearing in crisp black silhouette in the wordless logo for an unknown Bloomfield business. This one is interesting in that we’re looking at town from the Hill District, facing west (with PPG on the left hand side) or the installers just chose to place the image on the inside of the office’s glass window making their customers see the inverse. If that’s the case, somebody goofed. Maybe that’s why this business isn’t around any more.

service van for Greater Pittsburgh Plumbing, Heating, and Cooling with Pittsburgh skyline

hot and cold city: Greater Pittsburgh Plumbing, Heating, and Cooling logo

Greater Pittsburgh Plumbing doesn’t fool around with city iconography. The company logo–repeated on three sides of the crew’s work van–features a giant golden triangle, black-and-gold color scheme, and a spot-on downtown skyline. We can’t attest to how well GPPHC can snake a drain or run a new service line, but they get a triple-A rating for hometown pride.

retail store sign for Pittsburgh Custom Ceramics with outline of Pittsburgh's skyline

grout city: Pittsburgh Custom Ceramics, Sharpsburg

Pittsburgh is famously the Steel City and thanks to Alcoa, PPG, etc. we could also legitimately claim to be Aluminum City, Glass City, and/or Paint City–although none of those sound quite as cool. [Also, Cleveland might have a better claim to that last one.]

Pittsburgh Custom Ceramics, operating out of a small storefront on Sharpsburg’s main drag, throws in one more raw material by rebuilding downtown in 6″ x 6″ tile. Here, the familiar skyline is rendered in a single continuous outline that seems to cycle through all colors of the rainbow.

neon sign for Heineken Beer including Pittsburgh skyline

neon city: some bar Downtown

In the most gestural of today’s offerings, Pittsburgh is simplified down to three tall buildings–Fifth Avenue Place, the U.S. Steel tower, and PPG–plus two bridges and the fountain at Point State Park. It’s all been created in neon light for a Heineken Beer sign in the window of bar that may or may not still exist. Count it.

terrazzo tile floor of Pittsburgh International Airport with rendering of Pittsburgh skyline

terrazzo city: Pittsburgh International Airport

Anyone visiting the airport in the last four years has noticed the massive floor project. Gone are the dated old clackety-clack tiles, replaced with a truly gorgeous terminal-wide terrazzo floor depicting four large-scale scenes.

One of these includes the downtown skyline, cast in amber hues from that same looking-east vantage point. It’s not as pretty as the radiant blue skies and stylized cloud forms elsewhere in the design, but the nods to legit downtown buildings–you know which is which by now–make this a winner, too.

painting on wood of Pittsburgh skyline

erotic city: Strip District

You’ve been past this one a zillion times, but it may never have registered. Heck–this blogger circumnavigated the whole building–an otherwise nondescript windowless warehouse on Liberty Avenue–which is decorated with a dozen similar-styled paintings, and I still can’t tell you what the damn place is.

Regardless, the downtown skyline–plus a silent worker, wind farm, and nuclear reactor–look great in their various shades of purple. Over at The Portland Orbit, the crew was Johnny-on-the-spot last year with a Prince tribute to his signature color. If we had been thinking, this would have been Exhibit A.


Got a tip on a cool version of the Pittsburgh skyline? Hook us up!

See also:

Row House Romance: Double the Fun OR Twins Gone Wild!

identical brick row houses, one with elaborate mural across the entire front, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

Identical twins, born of the same womb. The exact face, height, and profile. Some are from the side-streets–tough, working-class, gritty, without pretension. Others, their high-brow peers; raised mere blocks away, but praised for their natural beauty, elegant stature, and enviable position in life. To the former, these may as well have been from the moon.

No matter how much each pair of siblings may appear as perfect duplicates at birth, time has a way of imprinting itself on every living creature in radically different ways: an unwise tattoo or regrettable fashion choice, the scar from a near-death collision or the catastrophe of an ugly divorce. Given a hundred and twenty years or so, a lot can happen.

pair of brick row houses painted aqua blue and olive green, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

matched pair of row houses painted red and pink, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

pair of matching row houses with many exterior alterations, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

Consider the humble row house. Two up, two down; squat stoop; a single shared chimney stack; window-window, window-door. Some are boxy and flat-topped, but most have clean, peaked roofs–almost always with a dormer inserted right in the middle.

For the most part, Pittsburgh wasn’t built with the kind of block-long identical row houses you see filling entire neighborhoods of Baltimore or Philadelphia. More often, we ended up with pairs–mirror-image houses sharing a common wall. So much so, Pittsburgh has its own term for duplex: double house. Sometimes these twins are built into long blocks of other row houses in various designs; often, thin walkways separate the next-door neighbors.

exterior of brick row houses, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

side-by-side brick row houses, Pittsburgh, PA

Bloomfield

pair of row houses with very different exteriors, Pittsburgh, PA

Bloomfield

What’s so interesting about these–and perhaps all–twins is the divergent paths their lives inevitably take. Different paint jobs, added siding, fake stone and tile. Historical markers: windows cut down during the energy crisis, consolidated into one central pane, or removed completely. Entire doorways bricked-over or made unusable by nonexistent steps.

In one house, a third-floor addition with an out-of-place mansard roof; another, a post-op porch rebuild–but only across half the façade. A set of tin-slatted awnings here, window boxes and gingerbread paint details there. An extant old-school TV aerial, never bothered to remove after cable was introduced in the ’80s.

side-by-side brick row houses, Pittsburgh, PA

Bloomfield

exterior of mirror-image row houses with many cosmetic differences, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

side-by-side brick row houses, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

side-by-side brick row houses, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

Imagined as life-long companions–and also inevitable rivals–the pairs take on their own personalities. These two dress alike–only he prefers hot red, she a cool aqua green. That one’s in the process of some cosmetic surgery; this one just broke his leg–that big cast will be on for a while. Another always has to outdo her sister–fancier clothes, more refined tastes, newer technology.

brick row houses in Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

side-by-side brick row houses, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

pair of brick row houses, both with many obvious alterations to brickwork and detail, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

… and then there are those that just kept doing their thing. Maybe she got some window awnings back in the ’60s and he added an air conditioner to cool the front bedroom; she enlarged the stoop, he stopped using the front door. But they basically stayed together, no one putting on any fancy airs, as one family unit.

These aren’t rare, but they’re more exception than rule. The ability to get along with one’s neighbors is crucial in a tight, city neighborhood–even more so in one of these conjoined, paired double houses. But if you do it right, you end up with a better price on a re-roof, full house paint job, or new aluminum siding.

side-by-side row houses with dingy aluminum siding, Pittsburgh, PA

Bloomfield

matched pair of row houses with fake brick siding, Pittsburgh, PA

Bloomfield

exterior of dilapidated row houses in Sharpsburg, PA

Sharpsburg

In these polarized times, a picture of neighbor-working-with-neighbor cooperation feels like the kind of rosy-eyed, optimism that’s been banished from the earth–but it hasn’t. It’s still here in the compressed side streets and awkward alley houses all over the city. All it takes to find it is a little row house romance.


A note to the Orbit’s readers in the Mexican War Streets, Spring Garden, Southside flats, Hill District, and all the other row house neighborhoods and boroughs: we’ve neither forgotten nor forsaken thou. This topic deep and wide and we intend to explore it over time. We’ll get to you.

Black-and-Gold: To the House! Steelers Structures

brick building with trophies in the window painted gold with black trim, Pittsburgh, PA

Steelers dojo: Martial Arts Against Street Violence, Homewood

To paraphrase a well-trod cliché, if you build it, they will paint it black and gold.

What’s the point of owning your own diner, butcher shop, or martial arts studio if you can’t serve up those eggs and home fries or break lumber with your bare feet in a building faithfully decked-out in the home team colors? Firing the boss and doing what you want is the American dream! And just like those other local goals–one for the thumb, cracking open a six-pack, and, yes, stairway to seven–dreams really do come true*.

Today, for the start of the 2018 campaign, The Orbit salutes the über-fans who’ve gathered up brushes and tarps to decorate the façades of storefronts and residential exteriors in tribute to their favorite professional football team. Collectively, we’re calling these Steelers structures.

retail storefront painted black and gold, Pittsburgh, PA

Steelers storefront: Lawrenceville

empty retail storefront with cutout of Pittsburgh Steelers football player, McKeesport, PA

Steelers storefront: McKeesport

diner storefront painted black and gold, Pittsburgh, PA

Steelers diner: O’Leary’s, Southside

Sign for Cutty's Candy Store that includes the Pittsburgh skyline and a version of the Steelers logo with the word "Cutty" added

Steelers sweet shop: Cutty’s Candy Store, Homewood

retail storefront painted black and gold, Homestead, PA

Steelers snack shop: S&S Food Mart, Homestead

exterior of Ray's Barber Shop, Pittsburgh, with two homemade Steelers emblems

Steelers barber shop: Ray’s, Shadeland

storefront painted black and gold, Pittsburgh, PA

Steelers dojo: Three Rivers Martial Arts, Brookline

There are plenty of Steelers bars out there–pretty much every decent-sized American city has one (or more). Why, from Mugs ‘n Jugs in Clearwater, Florida to The Peanut Farm in Anchorage, Alaska, there will be no problem with Pittsburgh ex-pats catching the exploits of Antonio, Juju, and the gang any time soon. [There’s a semi-complete list up at SteerersBars.com.]

But if your local tavern runs the Steelers games on flat screen and imports a case of Iron City Beer for homesick fans, know they’re just doing the bare minimum. Real Steelers bars call to you from the street, wearing their own form of black-and-gold uniform or come bemuraled in crude renderings of trademark-safe generic football players frolicking on the gridiron.

brick building with first floor bar exterior painted black and gold, Brownsville, PA

Steelers bar: Brownsville

black tavern door with gold trim, Pittsburgh, PA

Steelers bar: Gametime Tavern, Spring Garden

exterior of roadhouse bar painted black and gold, McKeesport, PA

Steelers roadhouse: Mellon’s Pub, McKeesport

The fully-committed football fan doesn’t just enjoy a couple dozen games a year. No no no. He or she wants to live football–through the long, cold off season, the extended draft weekend, mini-camp, and boring preseason exhibitions.

One can literally inhabit the football lifestyle in a full-on Steelers house. Why fool around? Let’s go foundation-to-roofline in black-and-gold! The house will pop from the snow and bare trees in winter; in the fall, you’ll be conveniently camouflaged in your game-day jersey.

house painted black and gold, Pittsburgh, PA

Steelers house: South Side Slopes

row house painted black and gold, Pittsburgh, PA

Steelers row house: Lawrenceville

Not every homeowner is willing to go all-in on the black-and-gold, which leads to phenomena of the Steelers porch. This very much feels like a keep-the-peace compromise between one super fan and the rest of his or her (but who are we kidding? it’s probably his) family. That, or said supporter just didn’t want to do the hazardous second- and third-floor work on the extension ladder.

Either way, these awkward “business inside, party on the porch” houses get much respect…but probably not from the home decorati.

frame house with black-and-gold porch, Beaver Falls, PA

Steelers porch: Beaver Falls

house with brick porch painted black and gold, Pittsburgh, PA

Steelers porch: East Liberty

house front painted Steelers gold with black trim, Sharpsburg, PA

Steelers porch: Sharpsburg

Ma won’t even let you paint the porch? Well, there’s still an opportunity for a Steelers garage out back or around the side. The industrious football fan  can decorate a two-car shed in a bye-week afternoon. (Or even more time if his buddies “help”.) There’s no ladder work involved and they’ll look great housing your Steelermobile.

older 2-car garage with doors painted black and gold, Pittsburgh, PA

Steelers garage: Spring Hill

2-car garage painted black and gold, Pittsburgh, PA

Steelers garage: South Side Slopes

At this point, the casual Orbit reader may justifiably assume Steelers structures exist only in the spheres of retail storefronts, watering holes, and home improvement.

And you’d be wrong again! Make no mistake: you’ll have no problem locating the region’s favorite color scheme on factory buildings, car lots, and at least one (former) secret society.

ornamental dome painted black and gold on Dipcraft Manufacturing Company building, Rankin, PA

Steelers dome: Dipcraft Mfg. Co., Rankin

small masonry building painted black and gold, Pittsburgh, PA

Steelers used car lot: Lawrenceville

brick building with cinderblock doorway painted black and gold, Pittsburgh, PA

Steelers ex-secret society: Pythian Temple, Hill District

For those wishing to further pursue additional Orbit coverage of Steelers fandom, see also:


* No, a seventh Super Bowl win has not come to Pittsburgh…yet.

Only the Stones Remain: A Follow-Up Visit to Clairton’s Ghost Neighborhood

stuffed animal hung from its neck by caution tape on telephone pole, Clairton, PA

The scene of the crime. Lincoln Way, Clairton, Summer, 2018.

Sex. Money. Murder. That thin plot outline pretty much describes every episode of Law & Order–or maybe a particularly raging bar mitzvah. In this case, though, we found the three words in faded spray paint on the crumbling single-lane blacktop of a dead-end street. The cryptic message, along with a set of orphaned telephone poles, a couple out-of-place retaining walls, and the world’s eeriest sad toy, are about all that’s left of Lincoln Way, Clairton’s “ghost neighborhood.”

single lane paved road with words "Sex. Money. Murder." spray-painted on surface. Clairton, PA

“Sex. Money. Murder.” Lincoln Way

The plight of little Lincoln Way, a former residential street maybe a half-mile long on the north end of Clairton, has sparked a remarkable amount of interest in ye olde Orbite. Our story from early last year surveying the couple dozen remaining structures on the street has somehow made its way into the most read Orbit story, month-over-month, for the year-and-a-half since we originally ran it. [If you missed that one, read it here.]

Given the collective interest of both readers and writers, we thought we owed Lincoln Way a return visit to see where it is now, what’s left, and what it looks and feels like today.

single lane road leading into empty valley surrounded by trees, Clairton, PA

Today: entrance to Lincoln Way from State Street/Rt. 837.

The short answer is everything has changed. Gone are all of the dilapidated, burned-out, falling-down houses that lined both sides of the street. In their place is flat earth, newly reseeded with fresh grass that competes against wildflowers and knee high weeds in the most literal of turf wars.

The former houses of Lincoln Way were modest, two-up/two-down pre-war single-family homes and duplexes. But in their absence we get to see how large the lots actually were–especially on the upper part of the block as the valley dog-legs around to the right. A wide plain of greenery expands on either side of the remaining street surface, ending abruptly in tree-covered hillsides.

single-lane residential street with abandoned houses, Clairton, PA

A year earlier: Lincoln Way, February, 2017

The absolute lush green overgrowth of summer in the Mon Valley is stark contrast to the February day we visited a year-and-a-half ago. There was no snow on the ground, but every other telltale mark of winter was there: bare gray trees, threatening storm clouds blocking all sunlight, cold howls of gusty wind.

We mourn the loss of the compact little neighborhood we never got to know in its heyday, but on this hot afternoon with the sun out, birds chirping, critters buggin’, and deep deep green as far as the eye can see, it feels like nature (by way of the Redevelopment Authority of Clairton) may just do all right in this exchange.

overgrown hillside with retaining wall and masonry debris, Clairton, PA

hillside, retaining wall, masonry debris, Lincoln Way

The elephant in this particular room–err, empty valley–is the lives that were inevitably disrupted (at best) when residents relocated out of the neighborhood. Information on why Lincoln Way was abandoned is sketchy. There are plenty of empty houses in Clairton all on their own, but folks have also mentioned a planned connection of the Mon-Fayette Expressway to Rt. 837, which kind of makes sense. A 2015 Post-Gazette story mentions both natural abandonment, arson, and the city’s safety and redevelopment concerns.

broken toy soldier on street

sad toy on Lincoln Way

Regardless, most of the signs of (human) life we found in our last visit are all gone. That said, the demolition crews weren’t going through the weeds picking up every bit of effluvia wafted by the belch of a house with (possibly) generations of leftover, discarded stuff. A couple mangled toys, a scattering of broken records [oh! the humanity!], and that phosphorescent stuffed animal strung up by the neck with caution tape all made for creepy reminders that this quiet spot wasn’t always so placid.

street blacktop bordering overgrown weeds with broken records, Clairton, PA

Like a broken record. 45s among the many household items left at Lincoln Way.

No, people lived here. They worked, played, danced, swayed, and sung along to those 45s here. They grew up, grew old, and eventually moved-on from this little street in Clairton, one way or another.

These things are important. But when you’ve got a dead-end street, completely cut-off from the rest of town, full of dilapidated housing with both fire and safety concerns for the community–and then there’s that whole sex/money/murder thing–we’re pretty sure the City of Clairton made the right choice here.

For Lincoln Way, we can only hope the bright new beginning it’s received will invoke the prosperous future this little street–and all of Clairton–deserves.

former cul-de-sac surrounded by overgrowth, Clairton, PA

The end of the road: Lincoln Way’s terminal cul-de-sac

The Over-the-Wall Club: Mon Valley Mondrian

brick wall with many styles and paint colors, Clairton, PA

Composition in Four Quadrants, Large Avenue, Clairton

One needn’t be an art connoisseur to recognize Piet Mondrian’s Composition No. III, with Red, Blue, Yellow, and Black. The 1929 oil-on-canvas painting is a simple geometric abstraction consisting of heavy black lines separating different-sized rectangular spaces. The three primary colors make cameo appearances, but the vast majority of the canvas is plain white.

Even if you don’t know this particular artwork, the piece is typical of Mondrian’s late-career shift that would define him. The easy-to-imitate style would be nicked for everything from textiles to housewares to TV game show sets; we still see plenty of it today. Three years ago, the original Composition No. III sold at auction for a record $50.6 million dollars[1].

Piet Mondrian's painting "Composition No. III, with-Red, Blue, Yellow, and Black"

Piet Mondrian, “Composition No. III, with Red, Blue, Yellow, and Black,” 1929

You can buy a three-bedroom home in the City of Clairton, around 15 miles from downtown Pittsburgh, for somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 to 30 thousand dollars[2]. Clairton’s story is a familiar one to its sister (ex-)mill towns in the Monongahela Valley–a boom for the first half of the 20th century following the massive growth of the steel industry, gradual exodus to the suburbs as families bought cars and became more mobile, then the steep decline with the collapse of Big Steel in the ’80s. Today, Clairton’s population is around a third of its peak in the 1950s[3].

That’s left a lot of vacant real estate. It’s not an exaggeration to say that for the sale price of this one little artwork–Composition III is just 20 inches, square–every for-sale property in Clairton could be purchased, many times over[4].

cinderblock wall painted red and blue with a white stripe, Clairton, PA

Lavender over Dark Red with White Stripe, Stewart Alley, Clairton

minimal abstract painting "Number 207 (Red over Dark Blue on Dark Gray)" by Mark Rothko

Mark Rothko, “Number 207 (Red over Dark Blue on Dark Gray),” 1961

While it’s unlikely anyone in Clairton owns an original Mondrian, the fine residents of the “City of Prayer” have a trick up their collective sleeve–they just have to look out the window or walk down the block. There, for public view on the side streets and little alleyways, is an accidental, but absolutely spot-on survey of 20th century modern art.

Stewart Alley, just a block or two from the center of town, has a dead ringer for Mark Rothko’s soft-form, two-color ambient abstractions. Clairton’s version is rendered in deep red and light purple on the cinderblock wall of a commercial backside. The artist has upped the ante with a jaunty high-level racing stripe just under the roofline.

brick with layers of "ghost signs" overlapping, Clairton, PA

Treat Yourself to the Best, Waddell Avenue, Clairton

mixed media/collage artwork by Robert Rauschenberg

Robert Rauschenberg, “Magician,” 1959

Just a couple blocks away and across a grassy vacant lot, sits the long side wall of an empty retail storefront. The wall features a riot of overlapping ghost advertisements–for Gold Medal Flour, some kind of tobacco, and others faded beyond recognition. The drywall and peg board from an ex-next-door neighbor are included in the collage, as is the yellow after-market siding protecting the apartment residences above. [Note: not all of this made it into the photo detail.]

Together, the life-imitating-art-imitating-life tableau made up a composition that spoke to the mixed-media/assemblage work of Robert Rauschenberg. Here, some stray, recycled text; there, paint smears, crumpled forms, jagged angles, and overlapping imagery.

exterior wall built in multiple styles of brick and cinderblock, Clairton, PA

Komposition von mehreren Mauerwerk (Composition of Multiple Masonry), Miller Avenue, Clairton

Karl Peter Röhl's geometric abstraction "Komposition mit Ruhendem Quadrat"

Karl Peter Röhl, “Komposition mit Ruhendem Quadrat (Composition with Resting Square),” 1924

Nearby, a wall so exquisite it quite figuratively took our breath away. Four interlocking, independent types of masonry–six patterns when you add in the squeeze of mortar and one stray white square–form such a simple, perfectly-balanced arrangement that it’s hard to fathom how the wall could have ended up that way by chance…or maybe it didn’t?

An older garage on Large Avenue features unique multi-tiered depth around its single, truck-sized garage door, a weathered two-tone paint job, and a bricked-over window that inserts an unexpected vertical box into the façade. That shape plays against the stair step drama of the doorway for a feeling that’s both harmonic and unresolved, balanced and weighted all wrong.

brick wall with worn paint job in several different levels, Clairton, PA

Five Layers, Large Avenue, Clairton

Jasper Johns stacked painting "Three Flags"

Jasper Johns, “Three Flags,” 1958

The Over-the-Wall Club held the latest of its infrequent, haphazard meetings in Clairton and we couldn’t have selected a finer set of public verticals. The small city has been through a lot, and contrary to the old saw, these walls do talk. They speak volumes, in fact, on growth and change, weather and time, industrial might and D.I.Y. ingenuity.

Sure, walking into a nice brand new construction brings a bunch of modern amenities and the rehab and reuse of older buildings is terrific. But there’s so much…not world history, but the people’s history in an old wall that often gets lost when the paint rollers and drop cloths come out.

brick wall with handmade "no drugs" painting on wood, Clairton, PA

No Drugs, Mulberry Alley, Clairton

Burgoyne Diller's geometric abstraction "Second Theme"

Burgoyne Diller, “Second Theme,” 1949

Sometimes club members–like faithful parishioners waiting on the Rapture–get hung up on what’s on the other side. Clairton’s walls tell us to look right here, right now, at the intense beauty we can see in front of our eyes without going anywhere. We can reach out and touch it without the tantalizing prospect of a jackpot lottery payout or taking out a loan on the house. And it makes us value the moment–if history is any guide, these will be gone before you know it.

In fact, old Clairton is coming down hard and fast. An entire block of the St. Clair Avenue main drag has been torn down and planted with fresh grass seed since the last time we were in town. The Treat Yourself to the Best ghost sign was only exposed from a similar pair of demolitions on Miller Avenue. You’ve only got a limited window on these lovely old time-worn and tale-telling walls before they’ll either be meeting the paint brush (hopefully) or, more likely, the wrecking ball (sigh). Consider it your one shot at a traveling exhibit. Take the opportunity to see it and say goodbye while you still can.

10-speed bicycle leans against a weathered cinderblock wall, Clairton, PA

10-Speed (The Orbitmobile), Stewart Alley, Clairton

minimalist painting "Series #14 (White)" by Robert Ryman

Robert Ryman, “Series #14 (White),” 2004


[1] Source: https://www.christies.com/features/In-The-Saleroom-Piet-Mondrians-Composition-No-III-6090-3.aspx
[2] Source: https://www.zillow.com/clairton-pa/
[3] Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clairton,_Pennsylvania#Demographics
[4] The irony of Clairton is that it still hosts one of the few operating mills in the region: U.S. Steel’s massive Clairton Coke Works dominates the entire curling riverfront downhill from all parts of town. It’s a cliché, but if you’re anywhere in the area you can’t miss it.

Heavy Living: Cement City, Donora

2-story cement house with large side yard, Donora, PA

Cement City, Donora, PA

Spoiler alert: Cement City is neither. No, the lovely little residential neighborhood consists of a combined 80 single-family homes and larger duplexes lining just a few streets on a hilltop at the south end of Donora. With its 360-degree views across several different valleys, glorious green lawns, and kid’s bicycles left carelessly on front sidewalks, this is hardly the picture of urban life.

That name, though–Cement City. It’s industrial, brutal–fantastic even–like the fictional world created for a shoot-’em-up video game or dystopian science fiction. One might imagine each resident of Cement City as some version of Snake Plissken or Sarah Connor–an eyepatch, leather wristbands, and heavy weaponry required for the epic quest just to make it out alive.

Rest assured, though, nothing could be further from the truth. That said, Cement City does have a certain retro-futurism in its very interesting past.

row of cement houses in Donora, PA

houses on Walnut Street

In the first couple decades of the twentieth century, the Borough of Donora, 30 miles south-southeast/upriver from Pittsburgh, grew like crazy. It went from incorporation in 1901 to reaching its peak population just 20 years later. That was all on the boom of the American Steel & Wire Company. With its integrated blast furnace, open hearth, and ancillary industries in zinc smelting and product finishing, the U.S. Steel subsidiary was the local employer in this prototypic company town. We learned all about these in our tour of the terrific Donora Smog Museum over the winter.

Twice a year, the same folks from the historical society throw a terrific combined educational lecture/walking tour of Cement City, a hundred-year-old housing development borne of the perfect storm of new innovation, high-demand for middle-management lodging, and a massive corporate entity that could take the whole project on and manage it after its completion.

wooden door detail showing 30 small window panes

original arts and crafts-style wood door

Today, Cement City doesn’t look that different than many other neighborhoods of pre-war, detached, American four-square houses–each with its own concessions to time. Here, a mismatched garage addition or fresh paint job, there, some buckling stucco or an obvious collapse in the fascia. Many houses have decorated with lawn statuary (including a generous number of front yard Marys) and ornamental landscaping; in others, the grill is lit, children’s toys are scattered in the yard, and bass-heavy party music blasts from open windows on this perfect Spring day.

There’s one big difference, though. Under the wide eaves and behind the technicolor paint jobs live skeletons of pure concrete. [Yes: concrete, not cement.] When industrial America needed to grow the most, Thomas Edison was trying to figure out what to do with all the concrete he’d been tinkering with. As a building material, concrete seemed perfect: it was cheap, wasn’t going anywhere, the termites wouldn’t touch it, and–most importantly in a pre-fire code America–it was impossible to burn down.

detail of cement ceiling in home in Donora, PA

basement ceilings reveal the original cement forms

We’ll not go into the whole history here–it’s just too much for one little blog post and we’d get the facts wrong anyway. But if you can go on the tour, D.H.S. president Brian Charlton will spin an engrossing yarn in a history that blends the often at-odds interests of Big Steel, quality-of-life, architectural design, and Age of Innovation new technology[1].

Suffice to say, it’s not easy to build a community of houses out of concrete–even more so on the slanted hillsides of Donora in 1916. Making the project cost-effective proved to be the biggest challenge of all. It takes an entirely different building model to pour in place the walls and floors of any construction. You need elaborate forms, a mobile mixing and delivery system, accounting for multi-day cure times, and then back-filling all the various trades that complete a home.

several cement houses on a hill in Donora, PA

Cement City houses on Bertha Ave.

Regardless, it all got done and the homes remain charming to this day. Eventually, the one-time company village grew from identically-maintained, corporate ownership to being sold off to individuals with the surrounding tennis courts and playground lots redeveloped into newer housing. Early photos show the neighborhood denuded of all vegetation as the land was clear-cut for build-out. Today, hundred-year-old sycamores line the sidewalks and reach way above the rooflines on Bertha and Ida Avenues as flowering dogwoods and manicured cypress decorate front yards.

All of Cement City’s original houses are still standing, largely occupied and in good shape. A remarkable number of other features–including original sluiced backyard storm drains and locally-made Ellword woven wire fencing–persist as well. There are similar Edison-era collections of concrete houses all over the Northeast and upper Midwest, but Donora’s set of 80 homes makes it the second-largest development of its kind.

detail of Ellwood woven wire yard fence made by American Steel & Wire Co.

hundred year old Ellwood woven wire yard fence, made locally by American Steel & Wire Co., in a Cement City backyard

Like we saw with Aluminum City Terrace in New Kensington, the transition from high-concept, mass-produced worker housing to present day free-market community is an interesting one. Were they alive to see them today, the after-market shutters, dish TV hook-ups, dangling gutter systems, and quaint lawn ornamentation would probably have given Edison and American Steel & Wire fits.

But the fact remains that good design endures, even if the humans that come along later monkey with the architects’ master vision of clean lines and a uniform presentation. It speaks volumes that 100% of Donora’s original concrete houses remain today–a hundred years after they were constructed–in a town that has lost more than two-thirds of its population in the same time frame[2].

cement house in Donora, PA with lawn statuary and porch modifications

Lived-in. Cement City house on Walnut Street with lawn statuary and porch modifications.

The next time you’re in Donora–and yes, make sure there is a next time–you’ll have to take in the classic McKean Ave. twofer of the Smog Museum and Anthony’s Italiano. Grab a hike up to St. Nick’s if you get a chance, too. But then consider making the short drive south and up the hill for a post-pizza constitutional around Cement City’s handful of streets. You’ll not be sorry you did.

concrete house in Donora, PA's Cement City

Cement City house on Ida Avenue

The Donora Historical Society will offer the next Cement City lecture/walking tours the weekend of Saturday, Sept. 22 and Sunday, Sept. 23. at 1:00 p.m. both days.

RSVP by calling 724-823-0364 or email donorahistoricalsociety@gmail.com


[1] Brian Charlton literally wrote the book (or, at least, detailed article) on Cement City. His article “Cement City: Thomas Edison’s experiment with worker’s housing in Donora,” appeared in the Fall, 2013 issue of Western Pennsylvania History.
[2] Donora’s current population is around 4,600 people, down from 14,000 in 1920. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Donora,_Pennsylvania

Show’s Over: Ex-Theaters, Part 1 – Mourning the Recently Departed

former Plaza Theatre in Pittsburgh, PA

Plaza Theatre [now Starbucks Coffee] (1917-1998), Bloomfield

For years–ten of them, to be precise–the scene on West Liberty Avenue was unchanged. There, as the street rises just past Dormont’s little downtown business district, was a true last-of-its-kind (for Pittsburgh, at least) cast in the amber of its final waking moment. The old Cinema 4 (neé Harris/South Hills Theatre) was a classic American neighborhood movie house. Built in 1927 to seat 1200 and later sectioned into four smaller screening rooms, the theater–when it was still open–had enough old glamour, oddball kitsch, and weird juju to make any goofy second-run feature a fun experience.

Those opportunities ran out abruptly when the theater closed forever in 2001. For the following decade, Cinema 4’s giant, façade-spanning marquee pathetically clung to the plastic letters advertising its final program: Morgan Freeman in  Along Came a Spider, the drug-dealing/using drama Blow, and, permanently etched in this blogger’s brain, Paul Hogan gettin’ it done one last time in Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles[1]. [Side note: will America ever understand what a real knife looks like?!?] Alas, no departing staff ever bothered to update the marquee with a final “Closed. Thanks for 74 great years.” message.

former Cinema 4 movie theater, Dormont, PA

Cinema 4, sometime in the oughts, Dormont (1927-2001; demolished 2010) [photo: cinematreasures.org]

Though the theater stayed dark for all that time, somehow it always felt like it would be return to life. The building was too impressive, too unique, too important to let go. Those giant multi-story glass windows! The gleaming chrome–likely added in the ’50s or ’60s–reflecting along the sidewalk entrance! The big, reach-out-over-the-street neon marquee! Seven decades of South Hillsian memories, popcorn debris, garish paint jobs, and sticky floors.

But…you already know where this is going. In 2010, Dormont felt it needed a fancy new drug store more than a derelict movie house that had sat empty for the last decade. Cinema 4 was razed and West Liberty Avenue got a brand new CVS franchise with plenty of surface-level parking. Not only won’t you be able to see the latest Crocodile Dundee for a dollar, but the borough lost another local business at the same time–CVS ultimately made it impossible for Your Hometown Pharmacy (just down the hill) to compete and now they’re gone too. Sigh.

wooden ornament of apothecary mortar and pestle, Dormont, PA

Ghost apothecary. All that’s left of Your Hometown Pharmacy, Dormont

In the mid-1990s, greater Pittsburgh was awash with bargain movies. I know this very very well. As a new transplant to the city with neither television nor friends [don’t worry–I would pay dearly for both, later] this movie nut would go out three or four nights a week to feast on the unbelievable buffet of discount/second-run movies operating in the glorious cinematic salad days that ended way too early. I’d go see everything–some Wesley Snipes shoot-’em-up, dumb rom-coms, The Spice Girls movie. To this day, I’ll stand by the philosophy that any picture is a worth a buck on a the big screen–but try finding a movie that cheap any more!

Aside from the Cinema 4, Dormont also had the Hollywood (which is still sort-of operating?). There was the two-screen Bellevue Theatre (now a Family Dollar), four or five screens out in Cheswick (since demolished), and a similar number in a Penn Hills strip mall (amazingly still open and still half-price!). There was one obscure little theater in Whitehall or Brentwood that I only made it to a couple times (current status: unknown) and there were the big bargains of suburban sprawl: Northway Mall’s Super Saver Cinemas 8 with its sci-fi/spaceship looking gangways (closed 2007) and the completely generic $1.50 monster multiplex at Century III Mall (closed for a while, then reopened and rebranded as Century Square Luxury Cinemas).

Family Dollar store with the marquee of the former Bellevue Theatre, Bellevue, PA

Bellevue Theatre [now Family Dollar] (1920s-2002), Bellevue

The most painful loss was The Plaza–mainly because it was just so close to where I was living. Bloomfield’s little $2.00 second-run house was evidently a totally charming single-screen, 500-seat neighborhood theater when it opened in 1917. It went through a series of ups and downs including a substantial closure during the 1970s and eventual re-opening and reconfiguration as a two-screen bargain theater.

The layout was nuts. Typically when an old theater gets subdivided, they either figure out a way to cut the space down the middle or the balcony becomes one theater and the ground floor the other. For The Plaza, some genius came up with the idea to make one theater larger than the other using a bizarre L-shape that necessitated projecting the film from such a severe angle the screen was a perpetual trapezoid with only about half the frame in focus. A substantial portion of the seats couldn’t actually see the left hand side of the screen.

ornate stone building in Pittsburgh, PA

King’s Court/Beehive [now Noodles & Company/T-Mobile] (1965-1990s), Oakland [2]

When you start digging, it’s a history that will break your heart. It’s astounding how many nickelodeons, dance halls, opera houses, and movie palaces Pittsburgh–and pretty much every other place–once had. Three or four or five different theaters on every commercial drag in every part of town. A whole lot of those buildings–like the Cinema 4–are just gone forever. But an amazing number of them survive today and they’re mostly not what you’re expecting.

former movie theater in Pittsburgh, PA

Princess Theatre/Beacon Theatre/Guild Theatre [now Friendship Circle] (1937-1979), Squirrel Hill

If the building’s owners let the marquee stand, you’ve got a pretty obvious clue to what was once there. Most visitors to Squirrel Hill have probably noticed the big sign for Friendship Circle (and for decades before that, Gullifty’s restaurant) on Murray Ave. [See photo, above.] That, and the clean, art-deco design are a dead giveaway for the building’s past life as a movie theater. The Warner Centre, downtown, has its exterior so well preserved that you’d assume it still is the grand movie palace it was built as a hundred years ago. You’d be wrong.

façade of former Warner Theatre, downtown Pittsburgh, PA

Grand Theatre/Warner Theater [now Warner Centre shops] (1918-1983), downtown

This is a big topic with a fascinating history. We went from one story about the rash of (somewhat) recently-closed movie houses to digging into all of the various places that used to be theaters and performance halls. There is plenty of documentation out there about the lovely, ornate old theaters of yore [the web site cinematreasures.org is an invaluable resource] but what really interested The Orbit were the places that have held on–not as the handful of still-operating theaters, but a building’s transformation from nickelodeon to retail space, 200-seater to neighborhood bar, community theater to taxi stand.

A space like Cinema 4 could really only serve one purpose–and that’s probably what would ultimately doom it. Others, though, were far more humble in design–baked into retail blocks with apartments or office spaces above and storefronts bookending their entranceways. These seem to have survived much better than their great single-use siblings and have the intriguing quality of hiding in plain sight, masquerading as health clubs and laundromats, juice bars and dentists offices.

marquee of former Squirrel Hill Theatre, Pittsburgh, PA

Squirrel Hill Theatre (1940-2010), Squirrel Hill [3]

There are some bright spots, too. We’d intended on including a photo of the old Denis Theatre in Mt. Lebanon, but it’s currently getting rehabbed to be a new community-run theater/art space. North Side’s Garden Theatre is undergoing similar treatment and Row House Cinema in Lawrenceville likes to claim it’s the first new, single-screen theater built in America in the last 50 years (or something like that).

We’ll get to all this as the series unspools. Until then, just like Siskel & Ebert, we’ll see you at the movies.


[1] There is no indication why only three films were listed on the marquee of the four-screen theater. Perhaps technical difficulties precipitated Cinema 4’s ultimate closing or maybe souvenir-hunters just scavenged the lowest-hanging set of removable marquee letters. We’ll probably never know.
[2] Obvious in the photograph, the old King’s Court was not originally a theater. It was built as a police station and only converted into a movie theater some time in the 1960s. As we’ll see–especially when we get into the nickelodeons–this is not an uncommon practice.
[3] Squirrel Hill Theatre, along with the Denis, were both first-run theaters, so not included in the bargain buffet discussion. At the time it closed, the rumor was that the whole block was going to be razed and redeveloped along with the Poli plot, but that hasn’t happened and there’s a For Sale sign on the theater now, so keep your fingers crossed on this one.