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

Steps to Nowhere: The Thomasson of Essex Way

Steps to Nowhere: The Thomasson of Essex Way, Bloomfield

Well, it took long enough–three years and change.

It was that long ago, in this same electronic publication, where the author declared, “To Pittsburgh’s other Thomassons, hang in there: we’re coming for you!” (“A Thomasson!” Pittsburgh Orbit, March 16, 2016)

Rabid fans of architectural effluvia have been sitting on their hands for years now, waiting for a promised revival, but was the wait ever worth it! It’s not every day that a beaut’ like this comes along.

Five short steps form a poured concrete stoop along the alley side of a Bloomfield row house. They lead to a blank wall. The base has been freshly repainted in a deep slate blue with its risers and wooden railing accented in alternating colors of red, mauve, aqua green, yellow, orange, and a couple shades of blue. The whole construction pops from the otherwise nondescript off-white siding.

We’ll not go into the whole thing here, but a “Thomasson” is an artist-created name for an architectural or infrastructure relic that no longer serves any purpose but is still actively maintained. It’s that second clause that makes them so rare.

While Webster Hall’s former retail entrance (see the earlier story) is totally legit, it never felt quite right. The remaining two-step platform makes a pretty obvious nice long bench along the Fifth Avenue sidewalk bookended by a pair of planters. One could argue this is less Thomasson and more adaptive reuse. In reality, no one ever sits there; theoretically a person could.

In contrast, the Bloomfield side steps-to-nowhere are really textbook Thomasson. They clearly led to a door that’s no longer there, boxed in by after-market aluminum siding in a serious home renovation project. It’s expensive and/or labor-intensive to jackhammer out all that concrete–not to mention there’s a possible structural hazard for the home’s foundation. So one can imagine the very reasonable desire to just leave it be.

But by preserving the useless handrails and taking up the paint brush–in eight different colors, no less–the homeowners are working at some next-level Thomasson generation. It’s an oddball curio, discussion topic, and detour destination for a backstreet Bloomfield gambol.

Someone made the effort to redd up their Thomasson. We’re glad they did.

A Model City: Carnegie in Miniature

corner of West Main and Jefferson Street, downtown Carnegie, PA

There is a big hole in downtown Carnegie. Don’t worry—it’s nothing dangerous you might fall into. Rather, an enormous void is all that’s left in the 200 block of East Main Street. That’s where, just about a year ago, a massive fire erupted in the lovely three-story turn-of-the-century building that housed Papa J’s Ristorante for the last 26 years.

The fire damage was so extensive that the entire building has since been razed and the resulting pile of bricks and beams carted away. All that’s left is a large gravel-filled flat lot; a gaping missing tooth right in the heart of the borough’s business district.

York’s Appliance’s (sic.)

Liberty Theatre

The truth is, though, Carnegie—just like every small town and old commuter borough in America—had its share of challenges preserving the history and character of its main drag long before the fire last summer.

The automobile—with its distant reach and attendant expectation of acres of easy parking—big box retail, changes to shopping habits, and that demon Internet have all taken their pounds of flesh from Main Streets everywhere. When you then throw in the familiar one-two punch of big industry closing down and its resultant dramatic loss in population and buying power, there just aren’t even enough customers left over for many local retail businesses to make a go of it. Carnegie’s population peaked somewhere around World War II and it’s been slowly draining people ever since.

But—I’m guessing you know where this is heading by now—there’s a place where you can still see downtown Carnegie at its absolute zenith—and you don’t need a time machine to do it.

G.C. Murphy Co.

McCrory’s

Miniature Main Street is an incredible scale model of Carnegie’s business district as it existed in the 1940s. Block after painstakingly-accurate block were carved, painted, and glued by the hands of resident Walter Stasik. Stasik worked on this, his magnum opus, for the last ten years of his life, before passing in 2000.

The model buildings that make up Stasik’s recreation seem to clearly be a loving memory of the downtown he would have experienced in his youth. They’re now on permanent display at the Carnegie Historical Society.

Chartiers Plumbing & Electric Shop

Star Markets / Block’s / Sun Store

What Stasik crystalized in his elaborate, room-filling recreation is both humble and sublime. The Main Street Carnegie of the mid-twentieth century probably looked a lot like that of any other bustling town of the era. There were independent small businesses of all types filling the storefronts up and down: furniture and clothing stores, grocers and lunch counters, a plumber, insurance agent, beauty and cigar shops, a masonic hall and Moose temple. Downtown Carnegie had competing five-and-dimes and four different movie theaters.

Bale’s Restaurant / Harris / Isaly’s / Donahoe’s

diner interior

What’s fascinating about Stasik’s models is that they’re not just some nostalgia trip. Their scale—each floor is around eight inches in height—allow the visitor to get right down onto street level and look around in a kind of low-tech virtual reality experience without having to get wired-up to one of those goofy headsets.

Further, each model was constructed with a lift-off roof letting the visitor peer straight down into the little dollhouse-like worlds within. Stasik didn’t have the opportunity to complete the interiors of every building in the set, but the ones that did get finished have a fascinating level of playful detail: specials chalked onto the menu board at the diner; a wooden armchair in a projectionist’s booth at the movie house; a customer testing the feel of a mattress at York’s Furniture.

York’s Furniture and Appliances (interior)

movie theater interior

Stasik’s models aren’t Smithsonian perfect. There’s a rough, folk/outsider art quality to the construction and some visible wear-and-tear on the buildings—fragile signs and lifting wallpaper need to be glued back in place; dislodged doors and lamp posts reset. In some cases, Stasik used molded letter forms for his storefronts; in others, we see the obvious curlicue schoolboy handwriting of the creator in Sharpie-written business signs.

This isn’t to diminish the work, but rather to praise how beautifully and lovingly handmade the entire display is. The materials appear scavenged and the execution improvised. Rows of theater seats are carved from single spindly blocks of wood and plexiglass windows have been carefully nudged into place by Stasik’s aging fingers.

Walter Stasik, “Main Street Creator”

bank interior

If this blogger had been thinking ahead, he’d have bagged a photo of Stasik’s rendition of the turreted building at the corner of Broadway and Main that would eventually be home to Papa J’s Ristorante. That would have made an artful bookend to the narrative about loss and preservation, the real and the imagined, historical accuracy vs. artistic license.

But alas, sometimes l’esprit d’escalier even catches our hardest-working speculative journalists flat-footed. Besides, there are way more model buildings in this collection than we could possibly photograph for this piece—the enormity of the creation is hard to overstate.

That, and the friendly volunteers at the Historical Society distracted us with a side trip to the mini Honus Wagner museum-within-a-museum so we could absurdly pose in a batting stance with Wagner’s hundred-year-old baseball bat. [Yes: this is worthy of its own Orbit story.] Either way, it’s an excuse to tell you to go check out the full extent of Walter Stasik’s Main Street—and the rest of Carnegie’s great historical collection—in person the next time you’re craving Papa J’s.

I want you … to visit the Historical Society of Carnegie. Uncle Sam inside bank lobby

Postscript: One glass-is-half-empty reading of the above story may suggest that present-day Carnegie is down on its luck or has “seen better days.” Rest assured, Carnegie’s business district seems to be doing just fine—storefronts are occupied, people are out, there are hip-looking restaurants and boutiquey stores. Heck, there’s even a monthly art walk, experimental theater, and meadery. Next stop, gentrification!


The Carnegie Historical Society is located at 1 West Main Street. There are limited daytime hours Tuesday through Saturday. Admission is free.

Lights Out: The Slow Death of Pennsylvania’s Largest Shopping Center

empty retail space in shopping mall, Baden, PA

One of dozens of former retail spaces now empty in Northern Lights Shopping Center, Beaver County

It’s a big room–maybe three thousand square feet. Where there used to be tile, the floor is now scraped clean, down to hard brown mastic. The walls and ceiling persist a very 1980s palette of hot mauve and battleship gray. Each side of the space still has one long set of track lighting, its bulbs intact, trained on the wall as if the space was most recently an art gallery or framing shop–possibly a dramatically-lit purveyor of boutique clothing or novelty gifts. At the back of the former store a single checkout island remains, its electric service dropped through conduit from the ceiling like a lifeline to the outside world.

This big empty space is a mystery–but it’s not alone. Pick a direction and there are many more like it: this one with colored tile and mirrored walls; that one with rectangular scars on the floor where heavy shelving used to be. An old A&P in glorious minty green and candy-apple red; an ex-Radio Shack with placards still advertising home theater, batteries, and wireless phones. In a former Chinese restaurant a grocery buggy is incongruously parked where diners used to eye up menu photos of Szechuan beef and General Tso’s Chicken.

interior of vacant, former grocery store in Northern Lights Shopping Center, Baden, PA

ex-grocery (A&P, probably?)

interior of vacant retail space in Northern Lights Shopping Center, Baden, PA

unknown

On November 1, 1956 an entirely new experience greeted citizens of the commonwealth. With some sixty-five retail spaces–many of them gigantic, sized for furniture or department stores–spread out over three separate, long, low-slung buildings and hosting free parking for four thousand automobiles[1], Northern Lights Shoppers City must have felt every bit of its believable claim as Pennsylvania’s Largest Shopping Center.

The new uber-plaza wasn’t in Philadelphia or its expansive suburbs, nor did it serve metro Pittsburgh, Allentown, Erie, or Harrisburg. It was located twenty-some miles northwest of us in Beaver County.

interior of vacant retail space in Northern Lights Shopping Center, Baden, PA

unknown

vacant retail space in former Northern Lights Shopping Center, Conway, PA

unknown

The terrific all-things-Beaver County blog Ambridge Memories has a great post on the opening (and, seven months later, Grand Opening) of Northern Lights. In this pre-mall era[2], the “shoppers city” monicker (it would be renamed Northern Lights Shopping Center some time later) turns out to be remarkably on-target. Unlike indoor malls we’ve come to expect, Northern Lights opening array of retail reads like a quintessential Main Street for any small town in America.

In addition to mall staples like department stores, restaurants, shoes, clothing, cards and gifts, there were two pharmacies, three supermarkets (A&P, Kroger, and Star), plus a butcher, green grocer, and bakery. Northern Lights offerings also included a bank, furniture store, optometrist, appliances, laundromat, hardware, automotive, dry cleaner, and beauty salon.

vacant retail space in former Northern Lights Shopping Center, Conway, PA

unknown

vacant retail space in former Northern Lights Shopping Center, Conway, PA

unknown

The little Ohio River town of Conway (pop. ~1,800 in the mid-1950s; a little larger today[3]) might seem a strange choice for the location of such a gigantic development. In fact, the footprint for Northern Lights is just about identical in acreage to Conway’s lower street grid. Imagine a shopping plaza equal in size to your entire home town, with parking for cars numbering twice the total population.

The location was inevitably aimed at drawing from the larger Ohio Valley region, then still booming with active mill towns. Conway sits just about half way between the substantially-larger Ambridge to the south and the quad cities of Rochester-Beaver-Beaver Falls-New Brighton to the north. Across the river and easily accessible are Aliquippa and Monaca.

vacant retail space in former Northern Lights Shopping Center, Conway, PA

unknown

vacant retail space in former Northern Lights Shopping Center, Conway, PA

unknown

Today, it would be unfair to call Northern Lights a dead mall. There are definitely still enough open businesses to fill a lesser destination. Giant Eagle and a Wine & Spirits store alone make the location viable, but the shopping center also includes Dollar Tree, Napoli Pizza, and Avenue Boutique, a dialysis clinic, laundromat, a couple doctors’ offices, barber, and police substation.

But take a walk around and it won’t feel like Northern Lights’ property owners see a lot of future here. The former Ames (which was a Hills before that; we don’t know what the space opened as) is being readied for demolition with all the construction fence and heavy equipment to prove it. A number of glass storefronts are covered in protective plywood. Looking through the windows of other spaces yields an eerie view–not of available retail space, but rather one that reads as closed-and-left-town-in-the-night, leaving a pile of junk behind.

vacant former Radio Shack store in former Northern Lights Shopping Center, Conway, PA

ex-Radio Shack

vacant retail space in former Northern Lights Shopping Center, Conway, PA

unknown

There’s no one factor that led Northern Lights to this point. We know retail in general and shopping malls in particular have suffered for years. This is a national trend affecting city, suburb, and small town alike.

Northern Lights would have to deal with serious competition–first from the more modern Beaver Valley Mall (opened 1970), then The Internet. Couple that with the loss of thousands and thousands of well-paying steel industry jobs and the massive buying power they once provided all evaporating.in short order in the 1980s.

vacant retail space in former Northern Lights Shopping Center, Conway, PA

unknown

vacant retail space in former Northern Lights Shopping Center, Conway, PA

unknown

Perhaps the cruelest plot point is that Northern Lights Shopping Center–itself a ruthless aggressor in the retail war with various Main Streets up and down the Ohio River Valley–was ultimately cannibalized by the same buy-cheap-and-convenient economic forces that brought it to life.

In 2014, WalMart opened a new megastore on the hillside just above the plaza, despite a major legal fight with Giant Eagle. The route to get there is a brand new road, created via eminent domain, right through the demolished space where J.C. Penny used to be[4]. If no one shops at Northern Lights anymore, at least they drive through its enormous parking lot to get to WalMart.

interior of vacant Chinese restaurant in Northern Lights Shopping Center, Baden, PA

ex-Chinese restaurant


[1] Source: http://ambridgememories.blogspot.com/2013/11/northern-lights-shoppers-city-opening.html
[2] Actually, Southdale Center, the “world’s first modern shopping mall,” opened in 1956–the very same year as Northern Lights–in suburban Minneapolis. Source: https://gizmodo.com/the-worlds-first-modern-shopping-mall-5114869
[3] Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conway,_Pennsylvania#Demographics
[4] Source: https://archive.triblive.com/news/pittsburgh-allegheny/work-on-wal-mart-supercenter-set-to-begin-in-beaver-county/