Look Out Loretto, Part 2: He’s Dead, Wrapped in Plastic

detail of marble headstone with embedded ceramic photograph of young man protected by purple plastic cover, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

unknown (detail)

He stands bolt upright, looking straight into the camera. The man is young–probably in his early twenties–dressed formally in jacket and tie with a corsage pinned to the lapel. Black hair is combed flat and parted hard to one side with a pair of troublesome locks springing loose across the forehead just above his eyebrow. The facial expression is curious: fixed formal, let’s-get-this-right sternness appears just on the edge of breaking to a suppressed, forbidden smile. This may have been his wedding day.

The small rectangular photograph is preserved in thick, transparent violet-hued Lucite and has one transverse crack across the man’s chest. A handful of small dings decorate the surface as if an assailant has taken to it with a crude weapon but gave up before doing any real damage. Otherwise, it is in fine shape.

The combined piece is about the size of a deck of playing cards and mounted to a beautiful marble headstone featuring Jesus on the cross, a pointed arch shape like a cathedral window, and a fading old-world cross-and-sun image we’re not familiar with. [Pious Orbit readers: help us out here–what is that thing?]

marble headstone with embedded ceramic photograph of young man protected by purple plastic cover, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

unknown

detail of marble headstone with embedded ceramic photograph of middle-aged man encased in plastic, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

unknown

The irony of the photos mounted to headstones at Loretto Cemetery–most preserved on ceramic discs as we discussed in the previous post, but this and one other encased in thick acrylic–is that for so many, we don’t even know the names of the deceased.

What’s unique among the vast majority of photo markers here is the complete absence of identification remaining. At one time, the de rigueur details–name, birth and death dates, perhaps an epitaph or Lahke mu Zamlja inscription–almost surely filled the flat faces of the stones. But now on all but a few, they’ve been completely wiped-clean.

ceramic photograph with image almost completely disappeared on headstone of grave, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

unknown

detail from marble headstone with embedded ceramic photograph of young man, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

unknown

How this came to be, we can only speculate on–but that’s what this blogger does best! It seems likely the cause has to do with the underlying material (marble? fieldstone?) and what was literally falling from the sky around Pittsburgh through most of the twentieth century. With the Jones & Laughlin steel mill occupying both sides of the river just downhill from Loretto Cemetery until the 1980s–not to mention plenty more like it up and down each of the rivers–regular doses of acid rain had to do a number on all the headstones made from susceptible materials.

This is a noteworthy turn of the tables for an environment where typically all we know are names and dates, forever left to wonder who these people were.

marble headstone with embedded ceramic photograph now broken, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

unknown grave with faded and broken photo

detail from marble headstone with embedded ceramic photograph of woman, broken, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

faded and broken ceramic photo (detail), unknown

In Part 1 of this story we looked at a bunch of these headstone photos where the name of the deceased may or may not be known, but at least we got a pretty good (literal) picture of him or her. In almost all cases the ceramic has weathered with irregular cracking throughout the piece, but the image survives with enough clarity to get a sense of the person below the earth.

Not all these photos fared as well, though. First of all, at this point there are roughly an equal number of empty oval cutouts in headstones where the photos simply don’t exist any more. It’s impossible to know if these were stolen or vandalized or simply dropped out of their markers through a century of freeze-and-thaw cycles.

But even the ones that are still here aren’t necessarily all here. The sun had faded a number of the South-facing photos to mere ghosts represented in strange gray negatives. One of the pieces (above) has been broken with only the bottom half remaining. The detail is all gone, leaving just a vague outline of the woman’s face and basic description of the house dress she wore in the photo.

ceramic photograph with image almost completely disappeared on headstone of grave, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

faded ceramic photo, unknown

detail from granite headstone with embedded ceramic photograph of man in military dress, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Joseph Andreucci

Consider the plight of Joseph Andreucci (above) whose loved-ones ponied-up for a beautiful deep red and black granite that never suffered the erosion present on so many of the other stones. All this only to have his photo in military dress attire worn- or scraped-through to the iridescent green of oxidizing copper underneath.

The poor fellow below is not only unknown in name, but unknowable as image. It appears that some miscreant took a hammer directly to the photograph, rendering it completely unrecognizable. All that remains is a hint of combed, dark hair above the damage and a suit with jaunty floral accent below.

ceramic photograph with image vandalized on headstone of grave, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

unknown

If it’s possible to end both on a high note and six feet under, we’ll wrap this whole thing up with the big smile and voluminous curly locks of Anna Vensak. Her passing in 1996 is decidedly outside of the early century/between-the-wars window where we find all the other headstones in the series. But it seems notable for inclusion by virtue of its proximity here at Loretto Cemetery and the monument-maker’s continued use of the technique–certainly antiquated by the 1990s–deploying the oval-shaped photo, mortared directly to an inset cutout in the stone.

detail of granite headstone with embedded ceramic photograph of woman, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Anna Vensak

In an age where photographs are so immediate, disposable, and omni-present as they currently are, it’s fascinating to think of a time not that long ago when a single image may be all that remains of the legacy of a human being’s time here on earth. For that one last opportunity to reach beyond this mortal coil to end up cracked, faded out entirely, or lost in the weeds of Arlington Heights is humbling at best and reaches to full-on existential crisis at worst. Either way, The Orbit will still be here, looking out for you.

Look Out Loretto, Part 1: Lahka Mu Zamlja

detail of marble headstone with embedded ceramic photograph of a young girl and baby, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

unknown

The first thing you’ll notice are the names: Kolesar, Zgurich, Csajka, Lippl, Knezevic. Any cemetery in Pittsburgh–certainly any older cemetery associated with a Catholic parish–will have its share of Eastern Europeans as long-term residents, but this one’s different.

Sure, there’s a couple token Irish and Italian names loitering among the stones–we spotted a Finnegan, a DiBlasio, and an Andreucci–but you’ll not any find any Smith, Jones, Williams, or Davis buried here. Kusmircak, Blosl, Czegan, Fabijanec, and Kuchta are the rule, not the exception.

marble headstone with large cross and embedded ceramic photograph of young man, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

unknown

detail of marble headstone with embedded ceramic photograph of young man, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

unknown

Loretto Cemetery rests at the very easternmost end of the big mount that rises above the South Side. Far below, but difficult to see from the steep angle, is an S-shaped crook in the Monongahela as it snakes between Hazelwood and the South Side. It’s an enviable location: quiet, vacant, and with terrific long views across the river to Oakland and Greenfield on the other side.

We hadn’t come here looking for the dead, but any new cemetery is worth a poke-see when you trip across it. When we did, those names–Cvetkovic, Vnencsak, Mlinac, Turkovich, Opacic–just popped right out like candy on the shelf. Something interesting would surely await.

detail of marble headstone with embedded ceramic photograph of young man, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Toni Poljak

detail from marble headstone with embedded ceramic photograph of baby in high chair, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

unknown

That something came in the form of a small black-and-white photograph, cast onto an oval-shaped ceramic disc and inset directly into one of the tower-like headstones. The posed portrait was of a middle-aged woman, “Mother” Antonija Komlenić, Victorian in both high-necked formal dress and dour, no-fun-allowed expression.

The colored mortar used to anchor the piece in stone is half chipped-away, eroded by a century of industrial mill exhaust and harsh Western Pennsylvania weather[1]. The image is all there, but it’s faded and scored by sharp cracks awkwardly bisecting Komlenić’s face and torso.

headstone for Antonija Komlenić, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Antonija Komlenić

detail of ceramic photograph on headstone for Antonija Komlenić, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Antonija Komlenić (detail)

Looking around a little closer now, another headstone is embedded with the same kind of oval-shaped photo just steps away. This one features a large man in suit and tie, his head is cocked and he wears a kind of bushy mustache that hasn’t been in vogue for a very long time. Both the deep black of his dress jacket and the shade of the photo’s backdrop have worn away significantly. There’s an angled crack through the ceramic just under the deceased’s chin suggesting a sinister garrote, but the man’s face is calm–bored, even–and remarkably untouched by the hands of time.

Suddenly aware and on the lookout for more, the grave photos are all over–on stones tall and thin, mounted below marble crosses and flat on granite. There may be a couple dozen in total, scattered across the sections closest to Loretto’s entry gate on Devlin Street. At least as many feature an empty cutaway in the stone where the inset image is no longer present; its former tenant stolen or broken, weathered or vandalized long ago.

detail of marble headstone with embedded ceramic photograph of older man, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

unknown

detail from headstone reading "Rojan 1893 - Umro 1927 - Lahka mu zamlja", Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Lahka mu Zamlja

Lahka Mu Zamlja (alternately Laka Mu Zemlja), the Internet informs us, is either a Serbian or Croatian (perhaps both?) expression of condolence that translates to “may the black earth be easy on him.” Confirming this with Google translate was not very successful–it came up with preposterous gropes in the dark such as “easy land of mu” or “light mu country”[2]. But as this is likely an arcane idiom, it seems a pretty safe Balkanization of Rest in Peace.

We found this phrase on quite a number of Loretto’s graves, including some of the very ones with the inset portraits. While it’s impossible to know how “easy” the black earth was on each of these folks, the atmosphere above ground has taken varying degrees of torture out on their memorials. The photos here labeled unknown aren’t for lack of note-taking–there simply isn’t any text still readable on the headstones.

weathered marble headstone in the shape of a cross with embedded ceramic photograph of young woman, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

unknown

detail of marble headstone with embedded ceramic photograph of young woman, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

unknown

The Orbit has spent considerable time in a whole lot of bone yards over the years and we’ve written quite a bit on the subject already. It’s nothing special to see more recent headstones with all manner of high-tech integral photos, bas reliefs, and digital engravings of the deceased, his or her family, loved ones, hobbies, and The Pittsburgh Steelers. But these hundred-year-old…ish[3] photographs-turned-grave ornaments are new to this blogger. Even if I have encountered other late Victorian/pre-war ceramic photos on headstones before, it certainly wasn’t with the quantity or density found in Loretto.

They’re something special, for sure. For one, simply because of the number that are still here [and that’s even more remarkable by the obvious number that are not]. More than that, though, it may be the context or the unpredictable deterioration they’ve been through, but the people in these photos seem to look right through you with a dark, foreboding wisdom of time and fate.

Old photos are almost always interesting. In these, though, there’s somehow a deeper presence. “Wife” Maria Miklin died in 1941, but her sepia-toned portrait as a young woman–scored, chipped, and cracked across the face and torso–seems to defiantly say is that all you got? Just wait ’til you get here, Jack. Lahka Mu Zamlja, indeed.

detail of marble headstone with embedded ceramic photograph of woman, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Maria Miklin

detail from marble headstone with embedded ceramic photograph of a woman in bridal gown, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

unknown

If existential blogging is what you’re looking for, The Orbit is qualified to satisfy. This whole bag conjured up all kinds of deep thoughts on memory and preservation and forever–luckily, we’ve also got a bunch more interesting photos to back that up. We’ll get to all that in Part 2.

GETTING THERE: Loretto Cemetery is in Arlington Heights and can be reached by going all the way to the east end of Arlington Ave. until it curls around to become Devlin Street. If you want a great hike, though, The Orbit recommends starting on the South Side at the base of the Oakley Way steps and making the journey all the way up and over on foot.


[1] In this case, literally a century; Antonija Komlenić died exactly one hundred years ago, in 1916.
[2] Note to Google: when you get tired of mucking about with driverless cars, see if you can translate “mu” from Croatian!
[3] An incredible number of these headstones have no remaining legible text, but the ones that do date from the 1910s to 1940s.

Get Out The Voegt: Finding the Spring Hill Spring

natural spring in concrete pedestal embedded in hillside, Pittsburgh, PA

Spring is sprung: Voegtly Spring, The Spring Hill spring

Ask a Spring Hill local how to get to the neighborhood’s newly-unearthed and re-opened natural spring and he or she will make it real easy for you: “It’s right by the boxing ring.” Me: “Oh, thank you very much, that helps a lot. Just one more question: where’s the boxing ring?”

From there, it just gets more confusing. The “boxing ring” is actually the Steel City Boxing Association and Google Maps puts it way down the hill from its true location. Assuming you do find the right place, the stonework is engraved Hook & Engine Co. 53 for its (former?) life as a fire hall and contains no after-market mention of the sweet science.

How about the Internet–a recently excavated and restored piece of local history should be front page news, right? Well, you try a web search for “Spring Hill spring”–it’s un-Googleable! Spring Hill’s Internet presence doesn’t assist at all–there’s nary a peep about the spring from the neighborhood associations or its wiki page. C’mon, guys–help a blogger out!

Rest assured, dear reader: if we achieve nothing else, The Orbit will get you to the Spring Hill spring.

Detail from public mosaic "The German Settlers of Spring Hill" depicting the Spring Hill spring, Pittsburgh, PA

“The German Settlers of Spring Hill” (detail) mosaic depicting Voegtly Spring, Spring Hill

A large mosaic installation titled The German Settlers of Spring Hill welcomes visitors near the corner of Homer and Damas Streets*, one of just a few access points to the hilltop neighborhood. The final section of the four-panel piece features various community members in old world garb gathered around the image of the hearth-like Voegtly Spring, the natural water source that gave Spring Hill its name.

In that depiction, the spring is a flooding outpour overflowing its basin, its output equal to a dozen garden hoses. That’s not exactly what we found. The constant stream of water–there is no Off valve to a natural spring–is more of a dribble or a trickle than the gusher one might expect from the artwork mere feet away. That may have something to do with us visiting after a run of dry weather, so we’ll have to go back to verify after a decent stretch of rain.

masonry enclosure around pipe dribbling natural spring water, Pittsburgh, PA

The spring

Some background, from the Voegtly Spring historic nomination form**:

A stream ran down from the top of Spring Hill, ran through the intersection of Humboldt St. (now Homer St.) and an unnamed street (now Damas St.) and down into modern day Spring Garden (Fig. 4). In 1912 a rectangular stone and concrete structure was built into the shale hillside alongside Damas St. (formerly Robinson Road) to harness the flow of water beneath the ground to provide easy access to drinking water for the residents of the neighborhood and surrounding area.

The nomination form goes on to mention that “the spring water was tested and shut off sometime in the 1950s” and that house construction above the spring “may have contributed to [its] contamination”. Furthermore, “It is reported that during this time the spring water developed a distasteful odor and became a yellowish orange color.”

There’s no official word on whether the discoloration is still in effect, but it looked fine to my admittedly low standards. Despite the warning that “public works does not encourage its use because [the water] is not treated”, it’s certainly right there for the drinking and let’s face it: it’s cool to suck spring water right out of the hillside. Lesser journalists–speculative or otherwise–would turn toward home after snapping some pictures, but this blogger rushed in for a righteous century-in-the-making quaff.

glass of water from Voegtly Spring, Pittsburgh, PA

No discoloration here. Voegtly Spring water.

So…what does Voegtly Spring’s water taste like? Well, it ain’t Perrier, that’s for sure. If it’s not too vague, we’ll describe it as earthy, or maybe minerally. Flavorful–but I wouldn’t describe that flavor as desirable. It’s maybe a little gritty–like a woodsy stream–surprisingly warm, and decidedly different from city tap water (for good or bad). That said, it doesn’t have the natural toe-tingling effervescence of more celebrated waters. I’ll go out on a limb to suggest it’s unlikely we’ll encounter Winnebagos parked on Damas Street with tourists filling five-gallon jugs like you regularly see down in Berkeley Springs.

I’ll be honest: there’s not a lot else to do at the spring. You can drink from it straight like a water fountain and you can fill up a jug. That’s pretty much it. As entertainment, a visit is pretty low rent compared to, say, Pac-Man or The Jumble. Regardless, it’s a neat little old world nugget to trip across if you find yourself hanging out by the boxing ring or, more practically, desperately need some hydration and can’t quite make it down to Penn Brewery.

Here, on this eve of an incredibly important national election, we can only recommend that Orbiteers first get out and vote. And then, if you’re still not satisfied, get out and Voegt.

masonry enclosure for natural spring in hillside, Pittsburgh, PA

Voegtly Spring, The Spring Hill spring

Getting there: Voegtly Spring is on Damas Street, just off Homer. When you see the old Hook & Ladder Company or the big public mosaic/garden, you’re real close. The easiest way to get there (especially on bicycle) is from Spring Garden Avenue, up the hill on Homer. We’ve also added a pin for the spring to our Map page.


CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story quoted an August, 2016 Post-Gazette piece on the re-opening of the spring that incorrectly lists Fred and Wilbert Bergman as the builders. The Bergmans took the earliest known photograph of the spring, but construction was done by the city Department of Public Works.


* The mosaic was constructed by a large group at the leadership of Linda Wallen, whose Yetta Street mosaics (also in Spring Hill) we profiled last year.
** A big thank-you to Spring Hill resident James Rizzo for helping to clarify the facts on ownership and construction of Voegtly Spring.

Get the Gist: The 1917 Manchester Bridge Sculptures

Preserved Manchester Bridge sculptures in their new location near Heinz Field, Pittsburgh, PA

The Manchester Bridge sculptures in the drifting yellow fog of the Color Run cleanup

Has anybody seen the bridge? Robert Plant asks on Led Zeppelin’s 1973 time-scuttling pseudo-funk jam “The Crunge,” Where’s that confounded bridge? It’s a preposterous rhetorical question–an inside joke, to be sure–but it wasn’t so funny when this blogger found himself in the very literal position of being unable to locate the bridge he was looking for.

To be fair, The Orbit was actually just trying to find some ornamentation–not, you know, an entire bridge. Still, we were on the hunt for three giant bronze sculptures that originally adorned the Manchester Bridge, and are now on display on the North Shore. We had only the most minimal of directions–“near Heinz Field”–but they couldn’t be that hard to find, right?

Well, it took wheeling around the entirety of the stadium, down along the riverfront, and then a befuddled dose of Googling to actually locate the new installation. [Readers: fear not, we’ll make it easier for you–see below.]

Black and white photo of Manchester Bridge in 1918, Pittsburgh, PA

Manchester Bridge as it looked in 1918, the year after the sculptures were added (photo: Wikipedia)

The story goes that the old Manchester Bridge–which spanned the river between the point and where Heinz Field is now–was erected between 1911 and 1915 and then had these sculptures added a couple years later in 1917. When the old bridge was replaced by the much larger Fort Duquesne Bridge in 1969 someone thankfully had the wisdom to put the big bronze decorative pieces in storage instead of the scrap yard.

It’s kind of amazing that now–forty-seven years later–the sculptures should finally move off the shelf to out on the street where everyone can see and enjoy them[1]. The location–in the literal shadow of Heinz Field–seems a little goofy. It’s really only convenient if you happen to already be walking in to a football game or urinating before a Kenny Chesney concert. However, it is within a stone’s throw of where the old Manchester Bridge touched down on the North Side, so in that way it makes pretty good sense.

Detail of frontiersman Christopher Gist from the preserved Manchester Bridge sculptures, Pittsburgh, PA

Frontiersman Christopher Gist (detail)

And what of the sculptures? Well, on one side you’ve got Christopher Gist, the “frontiersman” who mapped the Ohio River valley in the 1750s crouching with musket, buckskin, and one very manly beard. Up close, there’s a deep, dazed look in his eyes and remarkable detail considering how high the piece was suspended above the bridge deck.

Opposite is the figure of Guyasuta, who was also involved in the colonial exploration of the Ohio[2]. The Seneca chief acted as local guide to one George Washington, in his pre-father of the country role as a young officer on a mission to survey what was then The West. Guyasuta’s posture is a near mirror image of Gist: hunkered down on one knee with a weapon at hand (in this case, bow and arrow), ready for action, but not yet drawn.

detail of Chief Guyasuta from the preserved Manchester Bridge sculpture, Pittsburgh, PA

Chief Guyasuta

Between these two figures is an enormous representation of an unfurled banner reading MCMXVII (1917) Manchester Bridge. Below it is a full-on 3-D version of the city crest and seal, complete with its checkerboard pattern (these are blue and white when they appear in color), “three bezants bearing eagles rising with wings displayed,” and “a triple-towered castle masoned Argent.” The seal is very much not the required black-and-gold[3]. Rather, the whole thing has turned the fabulous weird green of oxidized bronze, which looks pretty terrific.

Worth the trip? Certainly, at least if you’re already down on the North Shore walkway, at Heinz Field, or Stage AE for any reason. Or you can just pick up the twofer with the next Color Run cleanup, like we accidentally did. And if you see this wayward blogger gasping in the clouds of technicolor dust, maybe you can show him the way out, just like Gist and Guyasuta.

Manchester Bridge sculpture detail including a triple-towered castle masoned Argent from the seal of the City of Pittsburgh

Detail: the “triple-towered castle masoned Argent” of the seal of the City of Pittsburgh

Getting there: The newly-installed Manchester Bridge sculptures are indeed right by Heinz Field. They’re on North Shore Drive, just about where it meets Art Rooney Ave. (the little ring road around the stadium), in the small greenspace between the gates and Stage AE.


[1] The new installation only includes the sculptures from one end of the bridge. There is another set with different figures (including Joe Magarac!) that was also saved and is yet to be made public.
[2] Gist is presumably the namesake of the tiny cross street in Uptown. Guyasuta also has an un-remarkable eponymous residential road in suburban Fox Chapel. This seems like a bit of rip-off for both explorers when similar colonial-era players Forbes and Braddock got such prominent main drags.
[3] Between looking up Gist, Guyasuta, the Manchester Bridge, clarifying Led Zeppelin lyrics, the city flag and seal, and then definitions for “argent” and “bezant”, this post set some kind of Orbit record for its orgy of Googling obscure minutia[4].
[4] Note: no, we were not Googling “orgy”. That’s for later.

Catholic Math: Where do the “forty days” of Lent come from?

Crucifixion scene with Sunoco gas station in background

The Father, the Sunoco, the Holy Ghost, Carnegie

Ash Wednesday. For those of certain faiths, it is the start of the season of Lent.

Even this heathen knows that Lent is forty days. But then he actually counted it out on the calendar and it wasn’t quite so clear. Lent starts on Ash Wednesday and ends Easter Sunday, right? This year, those dates are Feb. 10 and March 27, respectively. That’s 46 days. What gives?

First, apparently I’m wrong about the end date. Lent actually concludes on Holy Thursday, which is March 24. This leads to a follow-up question on why people are still fasting on Good Friday if the season already over, but I’ll leave that for another discussion. In any case, this only gets us down to 44 days.

From the Wikipedia entry on Lent:

Some sources try to reconcile this with the phrase “forty days” by excluding Sundays and extending Lent through Holy Saturday. No official documents support this interpretation.

In the Ambrosian Rite, Lent begins on the Sunday that follows what is celebrated as Ash Wednesday in the rest of the Latin Catholic Church, and ends as in the Roman Rite, thus being of 40 days, counting the Sundays but not Holy Thursday. The day for beginning the Lenten fast is the following Monday, the first weekday in Lent. The special Ash Wednesday fast is transferred to the first Friday of the Ambrosian Lent.

One calculation has been that the season of Lent lasts from Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday. This calculation makes Lent last 46 days, if the 6 Sundays are included, but only 40, if they are excluded, because there is no obligation to fast on the six Sundays in Lent.

I hate to sound like Ross Perot here, but these explanations read the like tax code. How do you exclude Sundays from a season? Why are fast dates transferrable? Why not just rebrand it to “forty-four days” or “forty-six days” (take your pick) and have a straight(er) story?

Catholiceducation.org offers yet another explanation for the symbolic need to keep the number at 40, despite what a literal reading of the calendar may suggest:

The number “40” has always had special spiritual significance regarding preparation. On Mount Sinai, preparing to receive the Ten Commandments, “Moses stayed there with the Lord for 40 days and 40 nights, without eating any food or drinking any water” (Ex 34:28). Elijah walked “40 days and 40 nights” to the mountain of the Lord, Mount Horeb (another name for Sinai) (I Kgs 19:8). Most importantly, Jesus fasted and prayed for “40 days and 40 nights” in the desert before He began His public ministry (Mt 4:2).

So…42 days, 44 days…ah, hell, let’s just call it “forty days” and fry some fish.

Holy Spirit Byzantine Church with orthodox cross draped in yellow, Pittsburgh, PA

Holy Spirit Byzantine Church, Oakland, six days before Easter 2015 and the purple’s already down

Last year around this time we ran a story on why purple is the color of Lent. This pagan dumbly thought he’d caught the Byzantines in a whole different color scheme. They’re on their own trip all right, but it turns out it’s the calendar and not the palette. For Byzantine Catholics, Great Lent begins on “Clean Monday” (two days before Ash Wednesday) and extends to the Friday before “Lazarus Saturday.” They count all the Sundays, so it’s five full seven-day weeks plus five days = 40 days. Then there’s an eight-day Holy Week that doesn’t count as (Great) Lent leading up to Easter.

None of these explanations seem to either be conclusive or make much sense, but I guess that’s what faith is all about.

 

Osteo-Mysterioso: Carnegie’s Giant Mystery Bone

close-up of one end of the mystery bone spanning four shipping pallets, Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Pittsburgh, PA

Mystery bone, as close as we could get

Two immediate questions strike the nebby passer-by: What is it? and Why is it out here?

Around the back of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Oakland, between the entrance to the lecture hall and the pedestrian bridge-ramp to the parking deck behind the art museum, is a small, gated outdoor space that is clearly not meant for public inspection. The volume of people traffic on this walkway is light to begin with, and likely very few of them stop and check out the lifeless little negative space within. But that’s a shame, as it contains one very large, bone-shaped mystery object.

external gated area of the Carnegie Natural History Museum with mystery bone on shipping pallets, Pittsburgh, PA

In context: the Carnegie Museum’s mystery bone outdoors, around back.

What is it?

It is enormous–at least twenty feet long and a foot-and-a-half thick. It has the gentle curve of a rib, or a boat’s hull. I can only imagine how much it must weigh–certainly hundreds, possibly thousands of pounds. The big bone rests on four separate wooden shipping pallets (with space in-between) and vertical bookend-shaped supports.

The bone’s far end splays out as if it once joined to some greater structure, or guided supporting tissue. The near end tapers to a gentle point, again resembling an enormous mammalian chest bone. But if this is indeed a rib, the creature it came from would be the size of King Kong.

image of King Kong terrorizing actress Fay Wray in the 1933 movie still

One possible source of the Carnegie mystery bone

So, we set out to answer this mystery. Using only the most rigorous of modern identification techniques, we put together our years of hard journalistic acumen, consultation with the most brilliant minds in marine mammal science*, and, yes, “our gut.” Through this, we’re pretty sure we came up with a winner. The mystery bone appears to be one of a pair of lower jaw bones from a whale–likely a blue whale, the largest animal ever known to have lived on Earth. [Take that, Dippy!]

blue whale skeleton

That looks like a match to me! Blue whale skeleton [photo: Canadian Museum of Nature]

Why is it here?

Now, this blogger doesn’t have a lot of room to talk. His small back yard is a de facto dumping ground for household detritus he should be dealing with instead of reporting on stories of somebody else’s mystery bones. That said, Pittsburgh Orbit is not a 120-year-old giant regional cultural institution with a large number of paid staff (at least, not yet). Hell, we’d be ordering our interns to stow the mystery bone in the hall closet or sell it cheap on Craig’s List. Put that on your resume! [Note to self: get some Orbit interns and have them clean up the back yard.]

side view of mystery bone spanning four shipping pallets, Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Pittsburgh, PA

Mystery bone, side view [note second mystery bone peeking out from around the corner]

The most plausible answer is simply that there just isn’t any place to put the giant bone. It’s too damn big and heavy to move, and as a weird standalone–without the rest of its blue whale parts–it may not make a lot of sense to exhibit.

But this leads to a follow-up question: if The Carnegie values this asset enough to keep it around, why not protect it a little bit more? It seems like an easy enough task to at least send one of those interns out to wrap it in plastic [Laura Palmer got better treatment!] or throw a tarp over the whole thing–and maybe get some Fantastik® and clean that green algae off while you’re at it. I realize bones are pretty tough, but put one through enough Pittsburgh snow, ice, and rain**–not to mention radical temperature and humidity shifts–and it’s hard to imagine it preserving that well–it’s already splitting! Ah, hell–that’s why we’re bloggers and not mystery bone scientists.

top view of mystery bone spanning four shipping pallets, Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Pittsburgh, PA

Mystery bone, top view


* Google.com
** Not that it looks like we’ll get any this year

The Mystery of the Tip Top Chop Shop

Wooded hillside in early fall

There’s cars in them thar hills. Looking up at the former hillside chop shop location.

It’s a truth among bloggers that if you haven’t had your “Geraldo moment” then, you know, welcome to amateur hour: you’re not really blogging, dude. This citizen-journalist/new media shaman (err…shamed man) is here to say he’s been through the eye of the needle and is back to tell the tale.

We certainly didn’t expect our Waterloo to arrive on a glorious sunny fall morning, the echoes of a classic Casey Kasem American Top 40 from ’72 still ringing in the ears. [What a great era when “Popcorn” by Hot Butter could chart! You try catching Moog-based instrumental proto-disco on “terrestrial radio” nowadays.] But there we were, on a pristine wooded hillside, high above Turtle Creek (the actual creek, not its namesake town). This post, its lack of sound and/or fury, may forever mark The Orbit’s Little Big Horn, our little corner of the blogosphere’s Mystery of Al Capone’s Vaults.

white wall tire in wooded area

The first evidence: that looks like a whitewall to me!

The promise was spectacular and had Orbit written all over it: an untouched fifty-year-old automobile graveyard in about as improbably inaccessible a location as one could imagine–a thick wood up a steep hillside outside Monroeville. The junkyard had been abandoned for half a century leaving a rusting collection of stray Hudsons and Studebakers, Packards and DeSotos as far as the eye could see. Trees had grown up, over, and through the spent carcasses. Pickers and plunderers had pulled everything of value. Nature had reclaimed what she could.

rusted leaf spring from an old car among fallen leaves

Model T-era leaf spring among fallen leaves

WOW! Sounds incredible, right? I know! So naturally The Orbit‘s dawn patrol caught the first suitable morning light to high tail it out The Parkway East  to meet our native guides, Moskal & Son. I’d been told that “We’ll have to take you there–you won’t be able to find this place yourself.” Truer words were never spoken. The journey involved one twisty-turny car ride, some combination of bridges, train tunnels, and one climb up a still-soaking-from-rain-the-night-before hillside.

The story goes that in the 1950s and ’60s an underworld operation existed that stole automobiles off the streets of Pittsburgh, drove them way out here to (pre-Squirrel Hill Tunnel/pre-suburbia) Monroeville/Wilkins Township, and somehow hoisted them all the way up the hill to this secluded location. There, this crew ran a woodland chop shop for the cars’ re-salable parts. At some point in the 1960s the location was discovered and the whole ring busted, crooks were sent to the big house, and their spoils were just left in the woods to rot. Pa Moskal had been to the site several times since the ’60s, but as a pair, father and son hadn’t been up the hill in twenty years–the younger but a wee Moskal at the time–so we’d have to do some tromping around to find the right spot.

window handle crank and rusted metal in fallen leaves

Window crank and door panel

Let me tell you something: if you want to see two grown Moskals and one still-figuring-things-out blogger brought to tears, just put them this deep in unspoiled nature. The three of us climbed, hiked, and trudged–hell, we located walking sticks and were on verge of singing mountain songs! How is one supposed to remember his or her troubles in this degree of mid-autumn pleasantness? The dappled sun streaming through the still-changing leaves; the only sounds, the chirping of birds and babbling of brooks. Very disheartening.

rusted automobile metal in wooded area

One big rusted carcass

Well, we know it is darkest before the dawn and even at this moment of greatest despair, like Geraldo unearthing that alleged bathtub gin bottle, we tripped across our first evidence. It’s certainly not unusual to find discarded tires in the woods, but the whitewall that popped out was something that looked older than your garden-variety illegal dump site. It was followed by a distinct leaf spring–the kind found on the suspension of very early automobiles–protruding from a pile of downed foliage. Next: an unmistakable door panel with its window crank still attached. Just one giant rusted steel carcass appeared: itself so twisted, decomposed, and enwrapped in thick vine that its original shape was completely lost.

We never found the hundreds of car bodies we were hoping to see–they’re long gone–but at least we knew we had the right place.

Bob and Mike Moskal in Monroeville woods

Our intrepid guides Moskal & Son

So what happened to the acres of autos? Pa Moskal’s theory is that the railroad owns the land and cleaned it out when they put in the (newish) gravel access road we came across. I looked for a news story on a Monroeville-area illegal junkyard clean out some time in the last couple decades, but came up with nothing.

In the end, maybe it doesn’t matter. Geraldo never found any buried bodies in Chicago and he ended up O.K. At least we got a little rust.


If you have any information on either the history of the Monroeville Tip Top Chop Shop or its cleanout, please get in touch. We’d love to hear about it.

 

Ex-Atom Smasher

Westinghouse atom smasher laying on its side at the site of former Westinghouse research facility, Forest Hills, PA

Westinghouse atom smasher, Forest Hills

This blogger knows what you’re thinking: That would look great in my apartment! Am I right? Well, bad news: The Orbit’s got dibs. [Note to self: get apartment with sixty foot ceilings.]

That is the Westinghouse atom smasher. According to the historical marker on the site (see below) it’s the “world’s first industrial Van de Graaff generator, created by Westinghouse Research Labs in 1937.”

The Orbit pretends to be many things–substantive, humorous, newsworthy–but it won’t pretend to know science (at least, not in a post that “real scientists” might actually read). The atom smasher has been well-documented with its own Wikipedia page and Roadside America entry, not to mention countless news stories and physics lessons, so we’ll leave the facts to the pros.

Remains of Westinghouse building in Forest Hills, PA

Former Westinghouse Research Labs building

But to not cover the ex-atom smasher, currently laying on its side as the only remaining piece of the former Westinghouse Research Labs in Forest Hills, would be an oversight we’re not prepared to live with. We never ate dinner at Poli’s, never caught rays at Myrtle Booth, and never got a generator re-jiggered at Goeller. We’ll not make that same mistake with the only Van de Graaff generator we’re likely to encounter in this lifetime.

Westinghouse atom smasher on pile of rubble, Forest Hills, PA

It’s a strange sight today. The same historical marker describes the ex-atom smasher as a “pear-shaped structure,” but in its present form, it looks more like a great rusting lightbulb, laying in a pile of debris on a giant’s basement floor. Or maybe a Bladerunner-era war balloon, made of some future lighter-than-air material, downed tragically in an electrical storm.

Atom smasher on its side at the former Westinghouse research facility, Forest Hills, PA

Ex-atom smasher with Paul Rand’s great Westinghouse logo still clearly visible

It’s also beautiful. Especially the day we visited, under thick cloud cover with perfect mid-autumn leaf-changing adding an incongruous warmth to an otherwise cold, gray scene. The ex-atom smasher even looks comfortably nestled on the chock-a-block pile of bricks, broken concrete, and cinderblocks that have been swept together to (presumably) keep it from rolling away. Even faded, scored, and turned on its side, Paul Rand‘s great 1960 Westinghouse logo still looks fantastic.

Historical marker for Westinghouse atom smasher: the world's first Van de Graaff generator, 1937

Historical marker at the corner of F Ave. and Service Road No. 1 in Forest Hills

But this is maybe the most perfect way to see the ex-atom smasher today. The former site of the Westinghouse lab sits among a neighborhood of detached middle-class houses in the appropriately-named Pittsburgh suburb of Forest Hills. Its medium-large poured concrete footprint is surrounded on three sides not by industry, but thick foliage. The whole scene has a feeling of nature reclaiming this land, the ex-atom smasher the lone survivor as the earth’s wolves salivate at the chain-linked perimeter. Each of them thinking that would look great in my apartment.

Westinghouse atom smasher and giant pile of bricks from former research facility, Forest Hills, PA

Forest Hills: lunar landscape


Orbit bonus! The original atom smasher influenced some musical collisions as well, including a second-tier British prog band that took their name (with a slight spelling difference) from the technology. Here’s them, a couple dozen candelabras, and a whole lot of organ live in 1972:

As Robert Mueller mentions in the comments:

…WATCH the right hand of the keyboard player (from 3:36 to 3:42) and PAUSE at 3:39 !!! ASTONISHING !! His fingers are like LIQUID plastic !! HIS FINGERS ARE SHAPESHIFTING !!!! A REPTILIAN SHAPESHIFTER !!!!! These beings come from SIRIUS !!!!

Jennie Benford: Concierge to the Dead

Jennie Benford, Homewood Cemetery archivist, in front of Brown mausoleum

Jennie Benford at the Brown mausoleum, Homewood Cemetery

If you got rich in Pittsburgh’s first great golden age, chances are you wound up here. Walking through Homewood Cemetery‘s beautiful large-plot section 14, the names pop right out at you: Frick, Mellon, Heinz, Straub, Baum, Benedum, et cetera, et cetera. These may not be household names to the rest of the world, but in Pittsburgh they’ve all got streets and buildings and foundations and corporations named after them. And they all ended up in the same big section of the same cemetery*.

Mausoleum for Benedum family, Homewood Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

From black gold to pink granite: the art deco Benedum mausoleum

Jennie Benford has been leading visitors through Homewood Cemetery for nearly twenty years, and let this amateur crypt fancier tell you: she gives good tour. As an archivist, historian, and major league taphophile (she was also married at Homewood Cemetery), Benford landed her dream job as Director of Programming for The Homewood Cemetery Historical Fund not too long ago.

Benford currently offers three different tours of Homewood: Taking It With You, the one we took concentrating on Section 14’s robber baron excesses; Angels and Obelisks, highlighting particular grave styles and details; and the newest tour, In The Beginning, which focuses on the first three sections of the cemetery that were open for business in 1878.

Bronze angel statuary at Homewood Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Aura the explorer: bronze statuary

Benford’s deep knowledge and communication of not just Homewood’s long-term residents, but American (cemetery) history is incredible. To this blogging layman, our older bone yards tend to look a lot alike. But we started with a great overview of American cemetery history and a terrific comparison between the tenor of the “rural cemetery” movement (ala Allegheny Cemetery, opened 1844) and how it compared to Homewood’s “lawn-park” model (1878).

Cenotaph for E.K. Bennett, Homewood Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Dressed and recessed for success: the E.K. Bennett plot

Benford’s greatest gifts, though, are an encyclopedic knowledge of her subject and the deft craft of relating historical detail with the skill of a great storyteller. Architectural nuance, names and dates, period styles, and a rich volume of tales (some of them with appropriate verbal grain-of-salt asterisks) put the context with the casket, the undertone with the eulogy, and the diary on top of the dirt.

Theo F. Straub mausoleum, Homewood Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

There stands the ‘taph: Theodore Straub, King of Beers

Benford’s tours of Homewood Cemetery are available by appointment and may be scheduled for “just about any day or time.” Those interested can call 412-260-6305 or message Benford through the Homewood Cemetery Historical Fund FaceBook page to set up a tour.


* They didn’t all end up in Homewood. Allegheny Cemetery in Lawrenceville (for instance) also contains many prominent Pittsburgh figures, but Homewood definitely has the most marquee names, and they’re all clustered in one defined section.

Downtown Flood Markers

Close-up of a marker for the St. Patrick's Day flood of 1936 on the former Joseph Horne department store, downtown Pittsburgh, PA

Waaaaaaay back (O.K., it was just at the beginning of the year) this only notional blog kicked itself off with a story on one set of cryptic runes reading H.W. 46 ft. 3-18-1936. That (Spoiler alert!) ended up being about the St. Patrick’s Day Flood of 1936 and a couple extant markers we had located in the industrial section of Manchester/Chateau on the North Side.

This blogger wondered aloud (in print) that there must be more where this came from, but that we weren’t actually aware of any. Informed readers responded (thanks Pauline!) to tip us off and we finally followed-up over Labor Day weekend with a cruise downtown to spot a couple more flood markers.

The first of these sits high on a wall (maybe twelve or so feet above street level) at the corner of Penn Ave. and Stanwix Street, on the old Horne’s department store. [The current tenant is the appropriately-named Highmark Insurance company.] It’s a simple brass marker, and like the others, it’s got the date of the flood (actually the day after St. Patrick’s Day, when the water crested) and height (46 ft.).

Marker for the St. Patrick's Day flood of 1936 on the former Joseph Horne department store, downtown Pittsburgh, PA

In context: flood marker on the former Horne’s, Penn & Stanwix, Downtown

We let our fingers do the walking and came up with a tip for one more downtown marker. This one on the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette building on The Boulevard of the Allies. Then, of course, we let our legs do the bicycling, our pores do the sweating (it was really hot that day!), and our fingers do the shutter-clicking to snap this pic.

I realized that I’d never actually walked right up to the Post-Gazette building before, although I’d ridden/driven by plenty of times. I was first impressed by their nice row of thriving potted plants, but then even more so by the big windows that let you look right into the giant rows of printing equipment that fill the first floor. Those huge, old machines are now idle as the paper has recently moved all its printing operations to a brand new facility somewhere outside of town. Sigh. I cursed myself for never stopping to see them all spinning and cranking when they were still in use. That must have been quite a sight. Just like the flood.

Marker for the St. Patrick's Day flood of 1936 on the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette building, Downtown Pittsburgh, PA

Flood marker on the Post-Gazette building, Boulevard of the Allies, Downtown

Any more flood marker tips for The Orbit? Please let us know.