A Visit to the Fountain of Youth

stone spring house embedded in wooded hillside
Fountain of Youth, North Park, Summer 2021

From the road, it is impossible to see much detail in the odd structure lurking in the woods. Built directly into the hillside with an impressive array of flora stretching up as far as the eye can see, there is a proscenium-like opening in the tree canopy such that it’s visible right from Kummer Road.

It’s obvious this is neither one of North Park’s many party shelters nor anything too utilitarian, so you’ll know you’re onto something out of the ordinary. Get closer and the etched stone ornament above the doorway clearly, cryptically, tantalizingly reads Fountain of Youth.

detail of capstone on spring house engraved as "Fountain of Youth"
Capstone, Fountain of Youth

Two visits to the fountain, separated by fifteen months and one global pandemic. The first–literally days before the world shut down in March, 2020–was brisk, way before leaves had returned to the trees, but lit up in glorious early afternoon sunshine under a pure blue sky. The second, mere weeks ago, on a hot and humid June afternoon, following the inevitably-introspective event of a friend’s gone-way-too-soon memorial service and a really rough few months in Nogginland.

If you, your friends, and loved-ones survived the pandemic with your (physical) health intact, be thankful. It was a really difficult year-and-change even if everyone in your world is still breathing. At best, we all probably feel like a year of our lives just evaporated into the aether.

interior view of the spring at the Fountain of Youth
An offering for the fountain sprites

Under these circumstances, who wouldn’t want to dip a ladle into a cool spring and drink crystalline mountain water–spiked with faerie dust, magick-infused, and blessed by the cosmos–to regain a measure of our collective lost year?

Spoiler alert: Don’t get your hopes up. First of all, no one (including your author) is recommending you drink the water from The Fountain of Youth. A 2019 Pittsburgh Magazine story informs us that by the 1950s, “tests revealed the fountain’s waters were no longer fit for human consumption due to ‘coliform organisms.'” Rumors have it that leaks within the nearby golf course watering system led to the spring’s demise. One can imagine graduating seniors from nearby North Allegheny and/or Pine Richland contaminating the water the old-fashioned way.

view through stone doorway to sunny wooded area
View from inside of the Fountain of Youth

The basic facts on The Fountain of Youth are both easy to find [Atlas Obscura, Roadside America, and WESA’s “Good Question!” series all got there before we did] and yet don’t tell us much at all. These sources agree the New Deal-created Works Progress Administration (WPA) constructed the spring house in 1938 and modeled the design to look like a Roman cavern. The short life (~15 years) of the spring as a water source, the pump-don’t-work-’cause-the-county-took-the-handle, and that stuff about water contamination are in common as well.

That’s about it, though. No one has an explanation for how a government works program decided to declare this place Fountain of Youth and not, you know, something more predictable like “Roosevelt Spring” or “Liberty Fountain.”

entrance to spring house grotto built into wooded hillside
Entrance to the Fountain of Youth spring house, winter 2020

It is a cruel irony–or, perhaps, the most clever of cosmic jokes–that as a functional entity the “Fountain of Youth” had a lifetime shorter than that of your average house cat. But the ornate built-into-the-hillside structure is still with us, sheltering in the rain, cool and tranquil in the heat of summer, and enticing the inner, curious child in all of us (ahem) no-longer-children out into the woods for an eye-opening explore.

Does simply breathing in the clean air of the Fountain of Youth give us a regenerative contact high? Does a proximity to natural spring water cleanse the soul even if we don’t ingest it? Does it matter? The Fountain of Youth got us up and out, into the woods, poking, pondering, and bathed in sunlight. So yes, it seems like the Fountain of Youth is still working its magic just fine.

spring house grotto built into wooded hillside
Fountain of Youth, seen from Kummer Road, late winter 2020

Getting there: The Fountain of Youth is maybe 100 feet off of Kummer Road, in North Park. It’s 0.7 miles north of the intersection with Ingomar Road and has a marker on Google Maps–you won’t have any problem finding it if you look.

Note: While the distance from the roadside is short, getting to the spring house from the road requires shinnying down a little hill, crossing a small stream, and then up again on the other side. The site is neither wheelchair-accessible nor recommended for those with any level of mobility problems or difficulty negotiating awkward terrain.

The Over-the-Wall Club: Searching for Wall Quarters

exposed formerly interior wall showing three paint colors in perfect quarters
One of humankind’s most glorious examples of wall quarters. Inside-outside wall, Wellsville, O.

The giant wall holds a lot of history–and likely not a few secrets. Two tall stories high and spanning the full depth of the lot–from the sidewalk on Wellsville’s Main Street all the way back to the service alley–this space did a lot of living. Demolition on the building that used to be here exposed a (former) interior wall that is an archeological treasure our shallow American memory will have to substitute for “real” finds like Sutton Hoo or Tutankhamun’s tomb.

The plaster walls still cling to a rich palette of battered colors. Each room had been painted in an entirely different scheme and what remains are beautiful antique reds, pale yellow-greens, and deep melancholy blues. There are channels on the surface where we see clear outlines of the old building’s load-bearing interior walls, a staircase, plumbing lines, slotted holes in the brickwork for tall floor joists.

With all this, it is one particular section of the wall surface that intrigues more than the rest. In it, we see the intersection of three colors, each scarred, smeared, and pockmarked with age but still brimming with verve. A strong yellow line runs due north-south and gives the whole thing the composition of a modernist painting. Everything exists in perfect right angles.

cinderblock and plaster wall with loose bricks
The wall that started it all. Forest Hills

The obsession with wall quarters began way back in 2015 with a reporting trip to Forest Hills. We were there to commune with the ex-atom smasher and later found ourselves by another, similar, inside-outside lot. Amongst the rubble of felled bricks and illegally-dumped housewares were four squares within a larger square: the right side faded green-blue, the left a dirty white; plaster above, cinderblock below. The section lines could not have been more precise.

It was perfect: balanced and meditative, color, material, and texture arrayed in transcendent harmony. It’s the kind of lightening bolt that may only land once in a generation–heck, once in a lifetime if you’re lucky.

brick and masonry wall sectioned into four colors, Pittsburgh, PA
Strip District

But, wall-watching naifs that we were back then, the hard truth wasn’t fully understood. It seemed obvious that we’d run into more big, glorious, quad-sectioned walls just as soon as the mind was opened to them. Why, once you set the controls for Marys or Steelermobiles or The Dog Police you see them everywhere–wall quarters must be just as easy … right?

brick wall with loose bricks
Bloomfield

Well, you know where this is going. No, it is not easy to locate a perfect wall square–and this poke-down-every-alley and look-inside-any-abandoned-property keister is here as a material witness. Six years later–six years of looking for these things!–and we’ve come up with merely a handful of specimens. A lot of them aren’t even that good!

But if you take the collection we did manage to cobble together and throw in a (good-sized) set of bonus/pseudo-wall squares, we end up with a pretty nice haul. Hopefully they’re as pleasing to Orbit readers’ eyes as they are for staff to deep focus on when we’re destressing in Chez Orbit’s salt cave. Breathe in, breathe out, close our eyes and say it until we believe it: everything is going to be all right.

cinderblock wall sectioned into rough quarters by paint, Pittsburgh, PA
South Side
section of plaster and marble wall divided into four distinct quarters
Millvale
detail of brick wall where different paint layers have made distinct geometric sections
Bloomfield

Row House Rejoinders

I’m not going to lie, The Over-the-Wall Club has some purists who frown on the relatively easy wall quarter pickins found in row house blocks. While it took us half a decade of constant scouring to come up with just the few “real” quarters (above), any Sunday stroll through the South Side Flats or the Mexican War Streets will reward with a bounty of these interfaces between next-door row houses.

With brickwork and foundations in a continuous plane, it just takes neighboring homeowners with different color preferences and a little bit of luck (steps, stoops, porches, and downspouts all get in the way; sloping hillsides break a lot of linear connections) to get really nice, perfectly squared-off intersections.

detail of row houses where paint colors make four perfect squares
Lawrenceville
detail of row houses where paint colors make four perfect squares
Lawrenceville
detail of row houses where paint colors make four perfect squares
Lawrenceville
detail of row houses where paint colors make four perfect squares
Lawrenceville
detail of row houses where paint colors make four perfect squares
Lawrenceville
detail of row houses where paint colors make four perfect squares
Lawrenceville
closeup of bricks meeting foundation of two rowhouses, forming equal square quandrants
Lawrenceville
detail of row houses where paint colors make four perfect squares
Lawrenceville
detail of row houses where paint colors make four perfect squares
Lawrenceville
detail of painted row house walls and foundation showing distinct square quarters of different shapes and colors
Lawrenceville
detail of painted row house walls and foundation showing distinct square quarters of different shapes and colors
Lawrenceville
detail of painted row house walls and foundation showing distinct square quarters of different shapes and colors
Lawrenceville

No Room for Squares

As with life, things on a wall don’t always line up perfectly. One shouldn’t let that diminish the shear ecstasy of a beautiful mixed-media surface, though. An extra drain pipe here, foundations that don’t line up there–we’re all better off to roll with these as … not imperfections, but rather elements that broaden the depth of the final composition. Ain’t nobody perfect, but a wall with a whole lot of problems sure might come close.

detail of row houses where paint colors make four perfect squares
Lawrenceville
detail of retail storefront where colored glass joints have made distinct geometric shapes
Vandergrift
brick exterior wall of row house painted in multiple sections
Lawrenceville
detail of row houses where paint colors make four perfect squares
Lawrenceville
wall surface with geometric shapes formed by paint colors, siding, drain pipe
Lawrenceville
detail of row houses where paint colors make geometric pattern
Lawrenceville
detail of row houses where paint colors make four perfect squares
Lawrenceville
detail of brick retail storefronts where paint choices have made distinct geometric shapes
Lawrenceville
detail of painted row house walls and foundation showing distinct square quarters of different shapes and colors
Lawrenceville
detail of painted row house walls and foundation showing distinct square quarters of different shapes and colors
Lawrenceville
detail of painted row house walls and foundation showing distinct square quarters of different shapes and colors
Lawrenceville
detail of painted row house walls and foundation showing distinct square quarters of different shapes and colors
Lawrenceville

Row House Romance: The Monochrome Set

Bob Ross would be proud: lots and lots of red! Bloomfield

Behind a six-foot brick wall sit two side-by-side row houses facing a thin alley in Bloomfield. On the left is a typical Pittsburgh wooden worker house: two up/two down, three windows wide, no decorative flourishes. Immediately abutting it is either a small house with an unexpected garage door or a small garage/workshop with an apartment upstairs–it’s not really clear. Everything is painted red.

This is a prime specimen for the row house fancier who wants a single, coordinated palette: lots and lots of red with just enough white trim to outline features of the two houses and make design snobs’ blood pressure rise. On a sunny day, with a big blue sky and just one wispy cloud dancing above it, don’t that look like America, man.

Spring green and clean. Bloomfield

After the mental and physical exhaustion of last week’s sob session, it’s time for some spring cleaning. We’re sitting on sixty-eight stories in draft mode–so it’s well past time to clear out the cupboards, beat the rugs, and maybe throw some things away. Yeah, we may never get to Andy Warhol’s weight set or great Men’s Room signs, but if the brain will cooperate, expect a return to the weekly format for a while.

For the latest installment of our Row House Romance series, we’re digging into that elusive sub-genre of row house watchers–the side-by-side bestest buddies that decided to dress up in identical outfits. (Or, at least, came pretty close.) Enjoy.

pair of wood frame row houses, both painted white, in Pittsburgh, PA
White on white, Bloomfield
Gray parade: gray house, gray house, gray sky. Bloomfield
large row house painted bright green
A green dream, Lawrenceville
pair of matching row houses, one painted white, the other black
Back to basics, Lawrenceville
pair of row houses with matching yellow siding
Mellow yellow, Marshall-Shadeland
pair of row houses, both painted gray
Gray parade redux, Lawrenceville
pair of row houses, both painted gray
Light/gray, Lawrenceville
Yellow(ish) fever! Bloomfield
pair of row houses, both painted in shades of red
Three shades of red, Sharpsburg
pair of row houses, each with gray shingled siding
Blue sky/gray fish scale, Perry Hilltop

Row House Romance: Odd Couples Edition

row houses of very different architectural designs, Pittsburgh, PA

The holy grail! Side-by-side row houses of different width, height, design, color, and modernization, Bloomfield

If there is a high–the dragon, if you will–that the  hardcore romancer chases, it is this. A pair of stout row houses, butting right up against each other like books on a shelf, but otherwise as unrelated as chalk and cheese.

He with the faded green aluminum siding, splotched with decades of not-quite-matching touch-up paint; she with a prim new black-and-white scheme on her brick façade, ready for the town in never-going-out-of-style two-tone. He made the regrettable decision to turn his windows into port holes; she’s left the nice big double-hung two-paners intact, and has the afternoon sunlight to prove it. He’s still lugging around the same set of heavy-lidded awnings he picked up after high school; she’s newly trimmed her detail work–all clean lines, tight accents, and graceful ornament.

We could go on about how he’s put on a few pounds from all that sitting around, but that would just be cruel. No, we’re here to celebrate that great accident of residential architectural history–the side-by-side odd couple pairings one finds in Pittsburgh’s many row house blocks. Each evinces an anthropomorphic reaction to the unlikeliest of subjects: old-school worker housing.

There was enough commonality in some of these to group them into loose themes. Really though, this one’s all about the visuals, so we’ll quit yappin’. Whether you live in one (guilty!) or are just a drive-by wanna-be, happy row house romance to one and all!

To Peak or Not to Peak?

row houses of very different architectural designs, Pittsburgh, PA

Bloomfield

Bloomfield

row houses of very different architectural styles, Pittsburgh, PA

Bloomfield

row houses of very different architectural designs, Pittsburgh, PA

Bloomfield

row houses of very different architectural designs, Pittsburgh, PA

Bloomfield

Bloomfield

3-story brick townhouse adjoining 2-story frame row house, Pittsburgh, PA

Bloomfield

Big Buddy/Little Buddy

large brick row house next to small row house with aluminum siding, Pittsburgh, PA

South Side

pair of row houses of different architectural styles, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

row houses of very different architectural designs, Pittsburgh, PA

Bloomfield

Bloomfield

row houses of very different architectural designs, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

Bloomfield

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

Lawrenceville

Brothers From a Similar—but Definitely Other—Mother

row houses of very different architectural designs, Pittsburgh, PA

Bloomfield

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

Bloomfield

side-by-side brick and frame row houses in Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

exterior of wooden row houses, Pittsburgh, PA

Brighton Heights

Mixed-Media

Victorian-era brick row house next to modern metal and glass row house, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

older brick row house next to under-construction house, Pittsburgh, PA

Deutschtown

pair of row houses with very different siding treatments, Pittsburgh, PA

Deutschtown

brick row house with flat roof next to wooden row house with peaked roof, McKees Rocks, PA

McKees Rocks

row house with collapsed roof next to row house with new siding, Pittsburgh, PA

Marshall-Shadeland

ornate brick Victorian row house next to plain designed row house, Pittsburgh, PA

Mexican War Streets

Humble Pei: A Pi Day Salute to I.M. Pei’s City View Tower

City View (originally Washington Plaza Apartments) designed by I.M. Pei, Pittsburgh, PA

Golden hour on the lower Hill: City View (neé Washington Plaza) Apartments, Centre Ave.

It must have felt like a dream. At the crest of Centre Avenue, mere blocks above the hubbub of downtown Pittsburgh and the still-smoldering remains of the lower Hill, twenty-four stories of clean, sharp concrete and grid-patterned windows shot from of the earth like a dramatic rock formation or the liftoff armature of a rocket ship, just launched into space.

City View (originally branded Washington Plaza) wasn’t Pittsburgh’s first large-scale, post-war modernist building–there are a handful of big office towers built downtown in the 1950s that meet that description–but its position standing alone, at the top of its hill and with eyes cast out in all directions, had to have felt like something completely different. The future–whether Pittsburgh really wanted it or not–was here right now.

exterior of City View Apartments building, designed by I.M. Pei, in Pittsburgh, PA

City View Apartments, southeast side

This speculative journalist has driven and/or biked past the City View towers a hundred times and seen its cold concrete form from every direction imaginable–it’s hard to miss if you’re anywhere nearby. But I’ll be honest here, if you’d asked me a year ago, I would have just considered it the anonymous big ugly apartment building uphill from the hockey arena.

signage for City View Apartments featuring simplified graphic version of the building's shape

City View Apartments signage with abstracted/graphically-simplified version of the building’s design

And thenI.M. Pei died.

Pei, if you’re not a design geek or a regular crossword-puzzle-doer, is one of the giants of modern architecture who planned marquee office towers and airline terminals, art museums and corporate headquarters all over the planet. In his long career–he was 102 when he passed last year and worked most of those decades–Pei designed projects from Beijing to Bloomington, Doha to Denver, Paris to … well, you guessed it.

exterior of City View Apartments building, designed by I.M. Pei, in Pittsburgh, PA

Old vs. … not quite so old. City View Apartments, seen from Fifth Ave.

The Washington Plaza Apartments arrived in 1964 at the height of Pittsburgh’s urban renewal efforts, the tail end of the razing of the lower Hill District,[1] and just a few years before the real boom in downtown glass-and-steel skyscrapers would hit. With its climate-controlled interiors and uninterrupted 360-degree views, moving from a cramped city row house into a brand new Washington Plaza apartment, mere steps from downtown, must have satisfied many a jet-age urban fantasy.

On this come-for-the-pun, stay-for-the-dessert Pi/Pie Day, we thought we’d add Pei Day to the ramshackle who’s-driving? feel of the occasion. (Just know that the name is actually pronounced PAY.[2]) In this version of the “holiday” we celebrate the master architect’s sole Pittsburgh project and give ourselves the opportunity to really take a good long look at the building, from a bunch of angles across different seasons, and see if its tan concrete and wall-of-windows would whisper its secrets of the modern age to us.

exterior of City View Apartments building, designed by I.M. Pei, in Pittsburgh, PA

City View Apartments, north face

And … I guess it worked out that way. Perhaps it was because we’re so easily swayed by star power or maybe it was just taking the time to actually look at the place–to set aside a bunch of prejudices and commune with Pei’s big apartment building at street level[3]. Either way, we found that enough time spent walking around the place, looking up, picture-taking, and photo-editing made all that concrete warm up, wave back to us, and glow against several different impossibly-blue skies.

exterior of City View Apartments building, designed by I.M. Pei, in Pittsburgh, PA

City View Apartments, east face

Look: there are no plans for us to leave our decidedly old-world row house with its boxy quarters and interior windows looking straight out on the neighbor’s brick wall. But there are times–up on the ladder, re-patching cracks in the same 140-year-old horsehair plaster one “fixed” not that long ago–that the mind wanders to an easier, simpler, more modern existence–big on sunlight and small on crumbling sandstone foundation dust. Yesterday’s modernists may have really had something there, and that’s how we ended up here, at Pei Day.


[1] The story of the destruction of the Lower Hill and forced displacement of its (largely black) resident/business community in the name of “urban renewal” is an extremely important one, but not the subject of this piece.
[2] The temptation to call this piece Pei Day Loans or Pei The Man or some such foolishness was strong, but for everyone (like me) who previously thought the name was pronounced PIE, that just wouldn’t make sense.
[3] The Orbit was escorted from City View’s lobby by security before we could either get a good look at the interior or any photographs. We’re not holding a grudge.

The Scarlet Letter: Saying Goodbye in New Kensington

older brick commercial building with red "X" for demolition, New Kensington, PA

X marks the spot. Former Penn Washer & Appliance Service building (c. 1910) on 10th Street, tagged for trouble.

The three-story, brick structure stands alone on a block surrounded by vacant lots. It’s got the obvious profile of many turn-of-the-century urban downtown buildings: a big storefront on the ground floor, apartments upstairs, ornamental brickwork at the crown, and the date of construction, 1910, etched into a stone header.

Most recently, the little building on 10th Street was the home of Penn Washer & Appliance Service. But between the age of the hand-painted sign and the amount of viney overgrowth consuming the façade, it’s probably safe to say no one’s had their Kenmore serviced here for some time.

older brick commercial building with red "X" for demolition, New Kensington, PA

4th Ave.

Every time we visit New Kensington, there’s a little less of it there. It’s not that the hillsides are eroding or the river is rising or municipal properties are being sold off to neighboring boroughs. No, the land is holding tight, but the city is losing its downtown buildings at an alarming rate.

In other places, you might see official Condemned paperwork stapled to the front of a “dead building standing” or maybe there’s no warning at all–one day it’s there; the next there’s a pile of rubble. But in New Kensington, derelict buildings are literally marked as living on borrowed time with a big red X crudely painted across a white square of plywood nailed to the front door.

small wood frame house marked with red "X" for demolition, New Kensington, PA

5th Ave.

Officially, the red Xs don’t necessarily mean the site will be torn down, but rather it’s a warning for emergency crews and first-responders that the building is unoccupied and structurally unsound. X marks the spot where the roof–or the floor–could cave in at any moment.

Unofficially, it’s really hard to imagine anyone investing in the massive undertaking of saving–or at least stabilizing–any of these buildings in New Kensington. There’s just not that kind of money for such a limited demand. So while the X is telling us be careful, it’s really saying goodbye.

two brick retail buildings in downtown New Kensington, PA with second floor windows removed and plywood covering the storefronts

404-412 9th Street, Sept. 2018 [photo: Google street view]

The last time The Orbit was in town (some time in 2019) we noticed the red X’s across a pair of side-by-side commercial buildings on 9th Street, the main crossway through downtown if you’re coming straight off the Schmitt Bridge. Stupidly, no one took a picture then [note to self: always record!], but The Internet had our back[1]. (See photo from 2018, above.)

That last Google drive-by shows a pre-X-marked era when the once-charming pair of c. 1900 brick retail buildings are clearly not in a good place. All the windows have been removed, the big glass storefronts replaced by temporary plywood, and from the amount of daylight we’re seeing, it’s obvious one of the roofs is completely gone.

vacant lot where buildings have recently been demolished, downtown New Kensington, PA

404-412 9th Street, Jan. 2020

Returning to the scene just last month, 404-412 9th Street has been erased from the earth. Two buildings still stand on the block like bookends on an otherwise empty shelf. In between are 40 or 50 feet of vacant lot, reseeded with new fescue that is coming in nicely with all the recent rain. In the distance–across yet another vacant downtown lot–lies the suddenly-exposed side of a two-story brick building facing 4th Avenue.

older brick commercial building with red "X" for demolition, New Kensington, PA

5th Ave.

Throughout downtown New Kensington, you’ll see the tell-tale red Xs on buildings big and small, houses and commercial structures, on obvious death traps and others that look perfectly fine from the sidewalk right outside.

Take, for example, this yellow brick storefront on the 900 block of 5th Ave. (see photo, above) Aside from the obvious lack of a street-facing entrance door–which is a little weird, for sure–all the windows are intact, the redone masonry work on the first-floor façade looks perfect, and it’s even on a stable block with (literally) upstanding neighbors.

older brick commercial building with red "X" for demolition, New Kensington, PA

5th Ave.

Just a block away, still on 5th Ave., is half-block-long row of five single-story brick storefronts. A leftover hand-stenciled sign informs us that space #4 was most recently home to Bobby’s New York Fashion (see photo, above). Perhaps Bobby left New Ken for the five boroughs and that’s what started the whole exodus–either that, or Alcoa shutting down their massive riverfront plant.

Regardless, another etched stone inlay names and dates the structure as McDonough Bldg. 1916. While it’s tough for anyone to make a go of retail today, it’s easy to imagine this sweet set of five pocket-sized, pedestrian-friendly storefronts populated with quirky small retailers, a little art gallery, business or professional offices. Instead, ex-Bobby’s and the one next door are flagged with the scarlet letter.

former Syrian restaurant marked with red "X" for demolition, New Kensington, PA

3rd Ave.

Now, none of these downtown New Kensington buildings are the Sistine Chapel and when they reach the point where they could kill someone, something obviously has to happen.

But these kinds of stout brick-and-mortar urban spaces have an intrinsic value–historical, architectural, and aesthetic–that represent a period of expansive American opportunity. New Kensington built these places when our cities were growing like crazy, immigrants from all over the world were pouring into the country, America still made stuff, and things were built to last … and look good doing it. It was also before both the Depression and the automobile would come along and shut everything down and then move everyone out of town, respectively.

We’ll also throw in that shoe leather beats car tires; sidewalks and street trees beat parking lots. Downtown New Ken has its share of problems, but it’s still got a great, walkable core with the potential for just about anything.

wood frame house marked with red "X" for demolition, New Kensington, PA

3rd Ave.

wood frame house marked with red "X" for demolition, New Kensington, PA

3rd Ave.

brick house marked with red "X" for demolition, New Kensington, PA

3rd Ave.

I don’t know what the answer is. It is a cruel irony that while much of metro Pittsburgh is–for the first time in generations–rapidly escalating its cost-of-living, there’s a fully intact little city just 20 miles up Rt. 28 that can’t find anyone to populate its nice little downtown. The fantasy urban planner in me imagines all kinds of possibilities, but the realist knows I wouldn’t want to take any of them on.

If you get a chance, though, get yourself up to New Kensington, check out Voodoo Brewery’s rehab of a gorgeous old art deco theater into its newest tap room and beer garden [note: not quite open just yet!], get a weird pizza from P&M [yes, that’s technically in next-door Arnold], an Ethiopian coffee from Kafa Buna, or a Reuben from Eazer’s. While you’re there, say goodbye to some new old friends–they’re already marked for you.

older buildings with red "X" for demolition, New Kensington, PA

3rd Ave. (rear)


[1] An earlier, undated, photo on New Ken’s wiki page shows the 404 9th painted white and there still appears to be an open business in 412 9th (at least). See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Kensington,_Pennsylvania#/media/File:New_Kensington,_Pennsylvania_(8482190929).jpg

Failing Media! SAD! The Fourth Estate, Six Feet Under

former offices of The Daily News, now with boarded up, downtown McKeesport, PA

The Daily News, McKeesport (1884-2015)

Walk by the old Post-Gazette building, on the very last block before Boulevard of the Allies terminates at Point State Park, and you’ll likely be the only one on the sidewalk. It’s a surprisingly desolate section of our otherwise healthy and lively downtown. Boxed-in by highways and a complete lack of any retail nearby, this hulking, ugly building sits alone and empty at one corner of downtown.

At street level, there are giant windows that used to look straight into the busy printing floor of the newspaper. Here, for more than 50 years at this location, you could stand on the sidewalk, peer straight in, and watch the incredible synchronicity of massive printing presses spinning at full speed, cranking out the daily news. It was quite an operation.

former printing floor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

former printing floor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (1927-present)[1]

You can still peer through those big windows, but you won’t see any equipment filling the space today. That’s all been removed–sold off, presumably–with the Post-Gazette‘s upgrade to a brand new suburban printing facility a few years back. The subsequent relocation of the news office to the near North Side followed. On the bright side, the P-G‘s current crew of journalists, editors, and the like need only head downstairs for a fill-up on No Joke Mac ‘N Cheese or a flight of shooters at Tequila Cowboy.

entrance to the former News-Tribune office, Beaver Falls, PA

The News-Tribune, Beaver Falls (1928-1979)

If you’re on Boulevard, grab a gander while you still can. What’s left is a fascinating view into a work space once pumping with activity. Floor mounts for all the heavy machinery are still intact; blank walls are scarred with the gouges and pockmarks of a half-century’s hard physical abuse. One visible section of below-street-level wall still contains taped-up news clippings, notes, employee graffiti, and torn photos of women in bikinis. All surfaces appear blackened with a spray of printing ink that one imagines hung in the air like thick fog.

The Burgettstown Enterprise (1878-1999)

For now (at least), the Post-Gazette is still very much alive–although it continues to try to figure out how many days a week it can actually afford to print and deliver a paper.

The same cannot be said for many of the region’s old news sources. Head out of town in any direction and each Main Street will almost invariably offer up the spent carcass of a former local newspaper.

eight-story stone Victorian office building in downtown Pittsburgh

The Pittsburg (sic.) Times, 1880-1906

Jeannette Dispatch (1889-1918) [2]

With banks being the notable exception, newspaper offices erected a century-or-so ago seem uniquely confident in their place in society among private businesses[3]. A huge number of papers have the original masthead built right into the brick and granite framework of their headquarters buildings.

You can’t always tell from these photos, but trust that it was the engraved crowns on the Jeannette Dispatch (above) and Leader-Times (below) that gave them away; no pre-research was necessary to find them–we just looked up and read the rooflines.

Simpsons’ Daily Leader-Times, Kittanning (1921-1961)

brick building with sign reading "The Times Publishing Co.", Duquesne, PA

The Duquesne Times (1918-1960)

For this piece, we decided to only include photos of newspaper buildings where the passer-by can still read the original mission of its previous host. If we were to do all the forensics on every old paper in the region … well, we’d never get back to weird pizza and sad toys.

That said, the great all-things-Beaver County blog Ambridge Memories has a terrific post on the various former locations of the Daily Citizen. They’ve done an amazing job of tracking and showing then-and-now pictures of the five different Ambridge buildings the Citizen occupied during its 55-year run (1904-1959). None of the current photos give any hint to their past life in media.

Valley Journal/The Green Sheet, Millvale (1941-2019)

The latest casualty! Yes, even The Green Sheet (aka “Ye Olde Green Sheet”) has fallen victim to cheap/free Internet classifieds announcing their closure over the summer. No longer will you see the once-ubiquitous piles of pale green newsprint stacked by the door at Shur-Save, Kuhn’s, and Shop’n’Save. If you want to swap cemetery plots or trade for guns, that business will have to be conducted elsewhere.

former office of Butler Eagle newspaper, Butler, PA

Butler Eagle (1903-present)

Rest assured, the Butler Eagle is still publishing–but they’ve moved their news office to a more modern, large scale printing operation on the edge of town. That consolidation has vacated the c. 1924 art deco-lite building, just off Main Street, where you’ll now find the unique property listed for sale. For our purposes, we think that counts too.

former office of The Valley Indpendent newspaper, Monessen, PA

The Valley Independent, Monessen (1926-2015) [4]


[1] As the name implies, the Post-Gazette was created by a merger of two much older newspapers, The Pittsburgh Gazette (first published 1786) and The Pittsburgh Post (neé Daily Morning Post) (first published 1842). The papers were merged in 1927 and moved into the building on Boulevard of the Allies in 1962.
[2] The Dispatch merged with another local paper in 1918, forming The Jeannette News-Dispatch, which continued publishing through 1981. Sometime in there, the office moved around the corner to Fourth St. We didn’t get a picture so we’re not sure if there is still a visible marker of it’s life as a news office.
[3] It is extremely common to see government buildings, schools, libraries, etc. with this kind of confidence in its future, but much less so with businesses.
[4] The Valley Independent has stopped printing, but lives on in the Mon Valley Independent.

Hold the Cheese: Son of Ghost Pizza

hand-painted sign for former Yolanda's Pizza & Italian Restaurant, Monaca, PA

Yolanda’s, Monaca

The lovely woman approaches, jet black hair up in a tight bun, dressed in a plain green skirt and poofy red peasant blouse. She’s headed straight toward you, carrying an enormous plate of indeterminate pasta, red sauce, and meatballs–let’s just assume the carafe of house chianti is already breathing on the table. Her facial expression is difficult to discern as the detail has been lost to weather and time, but we’re willing to bet that once it concealed a secret, Mona Lisa smile.

brick wall of former hoagie shop painted with "Subs," "Hot Sausage," Meat Ball," "Sandwich," Johnstown, PA

unknown, Johnstown

Yolanda’s Pizza & Italian Restaurant, the source of this faded gastronomical fantasia, appears to still be very much around. It’s even multiplied, with dining rooms both in Beaver Falls and here, the original location, in a converted gas station/car wash on Pennsylvania Ave. in Monaca.

But it sure didn’t look like (the possibly-fictional?[1]) Yolanda was still slinging sauce the summer day a year ago when this interloper was wandering around town, dying for an eggplant parmigiana or meatball volcano big enough to sate a blogger’s schnoz-poking appetite. Instead, there was just an empty lot, a Closed sign in the window, and that faded, peeling mural. Sigh.

Ed’s Pizza House, Jeannette

While Yolanda’s is still serving their traditional Italian chicken pot pie calzones and Polish pizzas–just not when we’re in town–the restaurant’s success doesn’t extend to other regional pizzerias and hoagie houses.

For all the true fans who loved The Orbit‘s 2017 Pi/Pie Day salute to “ghost pizza” and have been waiting a cruel a couple years for more photos of boarded-up Italian restaurants, blinds-drawn dining rooms, and pizza shops vacated long enough ago for their buildings to be condemned, well, here you go.

Happy Labor Day, y’all. Go out and eat a damn pizza before they’re all gone!

Angelo’s Pizza and Hoagie House, Wilkinsburg

DiBacco’s, Weirton, WV

older brick apartment building with former Pizza Prima restaurant in ground floor space, Pittsburgh, PA

Pizza Prima, Oakland

exterior of former Luigi's Pizzeria, Bellevue, PA

“Thanks for 42 great years,” Luigi’s, Bellevue

exterior of former Rosario's Pizzeria, New Kensington, PA

Rosario’s, New Kensington [Note: “X” = building condemned]

empty storefront with sign reading "Italian Restaurant", Monaca, PA

Italian Restaurant, Monaca

sign for closed pizza shop in alley, Etna, PA

Ciocca’s “Italian Maid” (sic.) Pizza, Etna


[1] On yolandaspizza.com, the About section mentions the restaurant was founded by a carpenter named Pete Samovoski. There is no explanation as to who the namesake Yolanda is.

Dying To Get In: The Mid-Century Mausoleum at Penn Lincoln Memorial Park

Penn Lincoln Memorial Park mausoleum and chapel, c. 1960, North Huntingdon

The unusual roofline, viewed from either end, has the perfect semi-circular curves of a series of long sheets of paper, each arched gracefully to bend back in on itself. Across the front of the big building are evenly-spaced openings echoing the same design motif. The big spaces are filled with aluminum grids and stained glass windows that echo the fantastically frenetic line drawings of Ben Shahn or Paul Klee.

In fact, one can imagine the entire structure modeled in miniature, constructed from simple cardboard tubes, thick paper stock, and colored gels. You can almost see the architects–’50s beatnik-meets-big city corporate; all cigarette ash, turtlenecks, and horn rims–as they talk the wary customer through an unexpected design laid out before them in the firm’s big conference room.

Penn Lincoln Memorial Park mausoleum and chapel, North Huntingdon, PA

Appearing like a retro-futuristic science-fiction film set, the mausoleum at Penn Lincoln Memorial Park rests atop a gentle hill along Route 30, east of Pittsburgh. Driving by–one would have no good reason to walk or bicycle this stretch of highway–it may not even be obvious what you’re seeing as the big building flashes past the driver’s side window at 45 MPH.

An industrial R&D laboratory? Experimental school? A sneaker preacher’s mega-church? Heck, maybe even some crackpot millionaire’s attempt at an ex-urban Utopia. Any of these seem as plausible as something this designy winding up as an “above-ground burial” for Westmoreland County’s deceased moderne.

CMS East, Inc., the parent company that owns Penn Lincoln Memorial Park, along with 22 other cemeteries across five states, declined to provide The Orbit with any information on the architect who designed the mausoleum or any history of the design. CMS didn’t even respond to our request so it’s safe to say we do not recommend having any organization this rude turn your lifeless body to cinder!

The Google Machine offers no more information, so we’re left to wonder and speculate.

chapel interior

And that’s a shame. Not the wonder part, mind you, but the complete lack of recognition this remarkable construction seems to have received.

I’m no architect, but the artful curved concrete pours, the clean lines with no square corners, and the New Age yoga camp-meets-abandoned spaceport atmosphere all feel like ample source material for some academic’s Ph.D. thesis or a full-color spread in a glossy design magazine. At the very minimum, it’s worth pulling over to take a walk around the next time you’re headed east, toward Jeannette or Greensburg.

Most of metro Pittsburgh was constructed in a relatively short period of the city’s great industrial build-up–say, from the 1880s to the start of the Great Depression. So the prevailing design heritage here is curlicued Victorian filigree and blunt worker efficiency. The modernism of mid-century American design–so prevalent in breezy West Coast cities and Sun Belt oases–largely passed us by.

There are some notable exceptions, of course–Gateway Center’s gleaming aluminum cladding, Pitt’s brutalist expansions throughout Oakland, and (sigh) the old Civic Arena’s extraterrestrial colony come to mind.

But the lovely mausoleum at Penn Lincoln Memorial Park reminds us that the brilliant ambition of post-war America extended everywhere–to gasoline stations and dry cleaners, ice cream stands and car dealerships. It even came out here, to the distant suburbs of Pittsburgh, as a place one might entomb their loved-ones forever … in the future.

“above-ground burial” plots


Getting there: Penn Lincoln Memorial Park is on Rt. 30, half way between East McKeesport and North Huntingdon. It’s about a half hour’s drive from downtown Pittsburgh.

Onion Dome Fever: The Domes of Jeannette

St. Demetrius Ukranian Catholic church and clergy house, Jeannette

Come around the back, narrow your focus a little bit, and forget about how you got here. It doesn’t take too much imagination to feel instantly transported several thousand miles away–to Khmelnytskyi or Zhytomyr, Bila Tserkva or Ivano-Frankivsk.

The scene is something right out of a movie depicting a romanticized rendering of old world Eastern European rural quaintness. In all directions, hills rise with gentle grace, their trees a deep green in this wet summer’s lush glow. A simple old stone church, built for maybe a hundred congregants, rests aside its semi-attached, wood frame clergy house.

Saint Demetrius Ukrainian Catholic Church has a peaked roof, tiled in red shingles, with a single small steeple at the front. Atop it sits a glorious–if weather-worn–steel onion dome, accented by the Byzantine cross of the orthodox church.

St. Demetrius

It’s not alone. Jeannette had around 8,000 people at the time of the 1910 census. Likely most of them were working in the small city’s many glass factories–there were at least seven and there is a claim that at one time 70-85% of the world’s glass was made in Jeannette.

Yeah–that seems like a stretch. Regardless, the little boom town clearly attracted a fair number of these folks from old Russia as two different orthodox Catholic churches were constructed that same year, mere blocks apart.

cornerstone, St. Demetrius, 1910 (remodeled 1954)

St. Demetrius Ukranian Catholic Church, Jeannette, PA

St. Demetrius, the Ukrainian church on Gaskill Avenue, is the smaller and more humble of the pair. It sits in an otherwise unremarkable row of simple wood frame houses just a block off the railroad tracks that bisect Jeannette. It’s also a little ways downhill, so you won’t spot the gleaming silver-colored ornament until you’re relatively close.

Ss. Cyril and Methodius Russian Orthodox Catholic Church, Jeannette

The same can’t be said for Saints Cyril and Methodius. The eponymous brick Russian Orthodox church constructed in their honor decorates the absolute peak of Scott Avenue on the north side of town. The building’s distinct roofline, featuring multiple sky blue-with-gold crosses, is visible from just about anywhere in the city.

Ss. Cyril and Methodius

Cyril and Methodius is a magnificent brick-and-stone structure of multiple depths and angles, details and decorations, murals and stained glass. It also appears to be in spectacular shape, freshly repainted and bricks tightly pointed, on well-groomed grassy grounds. Catch it as we were lucky enough to on a cloudless day, gleaming in the hot sun, and looking resplendent against a perfect blue sky and even this atheist feels like he’s died and gone to heaven.

Cornerstone, Ss. Cyril and Methodius, 1910. We don’t know if the smiley face skull and cross-bones is original.

It’s doubtful anywhere in the area–heck, anywhere in America–has the per-capita domes of little Lyndora, up in Butler County. (Not to mention being able to righteously claim Poison’s Bret Michaels as a former congregant.)

That said, Jeannette’s lovely pair of orthodox churches, mere blocks from one another on the same side of town, are a feast for the onion ogler and an invitation to sidle out to Westmoreland County that should not be turned down. You can load up at DeLallo Foods, pace anxiously as two new microbreweries threaten opening any day now, and walk off that nervous energy with an old world constitutional. Recommended.

steeple view, Ss. Cyril and Methodius