The Over-the-Wall Club: A Winter Meeting

weathered brick and sheet metal factory wall, Etna, PA

factory, Etna

Every inch of the wall tells a story. Consider just the thick steel doors, rusted so far that a firey red is bleeding through the darker brown surface as if the earth’s crust was finally giving way to its molten core. Miscreants have scratched their tags and in-jokes into its surface and an off-the-shelf safety placard warns us about what we already know–DANGER lies on the other side.

Surrounding this lone entry point are a patchwork of industrial building materials: brick of a couple shades, cinderblock, concrete, sheet metal, corrugated fiberglass, PVC pipe, blue light bulbs suspended in a strand, and thick, high-voltage electrical wire.

There is but a single design detail committed for its aesthetics. Within one of the red brick surfaces, the mason has crafted an off-bias diamond that interrupts the stacked pattern in the gentlest of ways. Otherwise, this place is all business.

roofline with several commercial buildings, Charleroi, PA

roofline, Charleroi

If you’re tired of writing, the old wisdom goes, then you’re tired of living.

For The Over-the-Wall Club, there’s a similar mantra: if you’re tired of walls, then you’re really just tired of seeing. Put those eyes away–into a box in the bottom drawer, or send them off to the thrift shop so someone else can use them at a cut-rate price.

When last we met, the Over-the-Wall Club was pondering that old stand-by of the Dumpty clan, what’s on the other side? But let’s not ignore the trees for the forest. What’s right here in front of us may actually be the more interesting subject. Just because it’s blocking the view of those other things we think we’d rather be looking at doesn’t make it any less fascinating.

brick wall painted green and aqua with homemade address sign, Pittsburgh, PA

row house apartments, Oakland

Walls. America loves talking about them, and–gosh darn it–Mexico loves building them…at least, that’s what we’re told. But try to convince the federal government to put up a two-tone, aqua-on-lime green splotchy brick wall along the Rio Grande and see how far it gets you. In fairness, it’s a color scheme that maybe even Enrique Peña Nieto might get behind–but we still doubt he’s going to pull out the nation’s wallet any time soon.

alley wall with ghost signs and many materials, Butler, PA

ghost signs, ghost windows, ghost paint job, Butler

Another entry in the wall-as-modern art category. This geometric bricolage of styles and materials in a Butler alleyway competes with Etna’s factory row (above) in sheer density of visual stimuli. Two different mid-century Firestone Tires ads have ghosted themselves almost out of readability against a field of brick and stone, tin and particle board, paint and ash. If you can’t imagine a century’s worth of narratives playing out against this scenery, you’re not trying very hard.

tiled wall with cross and mountain, Pittsburgh, PA

ex-church, West End

If these walls could talk, they say–but some do! How does a former house of worship manage to preserve its midcentury terra cotta Jetsons cross and mount with but a few cracks and crumbles and still shed the loose bricks around it like tears at a funeral? I know, I know–it’s God’s way, or something like that, but there may be an equally fascinating or boringly prosaic reason. No matter how much church we go–or skip–we’ll probably never know.

facade of building with shadows of telephone pole and wires, Pittsburgh, PA

Industri l Engi & S p ly, Homewood

It’s the stories, man–the stories. The letters probably just fell off all on their own, but someone made a very conscious decision to block in those windows and repaint just one section in a warm, sun-baked yellow-orange that makes the whole mundane façade look like a poor man’s Mark Rothko. The criss-crossing shadows of a strong wooden utility pole and warped telephone lines decorate in the most abstract of ways.

interior of cinderblock warehouse with shadows of roof structure, Pittsburgh, PA

roofless warehouse, Strip District

Maybe there’s a set of parallel shadows that dance across the suddenly-exposed wall surfaces and make the whole scene light up like special effects at a discotheque or fancy lighting in a theatrical production. How many precious moments do we have before this old warehouse either gets a new roof or has the cinderblock walls felled to clear the lot? We can only wonder.

mural on outside retaining wall of fish and sunset, Penn Hills, PA

retaining wall mural, Penn Hills

…But that’s what The Over-the-Wall Club does best, wonderWhat’s on the other side? Sure. But also how did we get right where we are? And how can we stay just like this forever? If only it were that easy.

Until next time, we’ll see you over-, under-, roundabout-, and upside-the-wall.


See also:“The Over-the-Wall Club” (Pittsburgh Orbit, April 12, 2015)

On Making America Great … Again

President John F. Kennedy addresses a large outdoor crowd in Monessen, PA, Oct. 13, 1962

President John F. Kennedy speaking in Monessen, Oct. 13, 1962 [photo: Cecil W. Stoughton/John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum]

The scene is likely one of–if not the–most remembered days in Monessen history. The President of the United States, John F. Kennedy, stands at a lectern on a stage erected in the parking lot of an A&P supermarket. There, he addresses a sea of faces as far as the camera can trace them in the distance. Dressed in business suits and Sunday best, the crowds peer from windows and crane from behind the stage and up the adjoining streets. The Post-Gazette reports there were an estimated 25,000 people–more than the entire population of the small city[1]–crowding in to be a part of it.[2]

Attendees carry signs of support: Hail to the Chief! and Monessen Welcomes Our President and Hello Hello JFK. Tri-color bunting hangs from buildings and lamp posts. Behind the president are billboard-sized welcome signs from the Croatian Hall, Italian Society of Mutual Aid, Ukrainian Club, and others. A banner fifty feet long stretches under the third floor windows of the Duquesne Hotel: Thank you Mr. President for signing our pay bill – postal workers of Monessen, PA.

parking lot of Foodland grocery store, Monessen, PA

The same scene today, 6th and Donner Ave.

A lot has changed in the last fifty-five years. For one, it’s hard to imagine a crowd today dressing up to thank a politician two years into his or her term. More than that, though, Monessen and the rest of the Mon Valley have suffered as much as anywhere in the country during this time. As a result, the city looks radically different today.

There’s still a grocery store at the same Donner Ave. location [it’s a Foodland now] but gone is pretty much everything else in this scene. The collection of three-story turn-of-the-century buildings between 6th and 7th Streets has been replaced by a couple of nondescript commercial storefronts, plus one small parking lot.

3-story brick former EIS Manufacturing building with broken windows and roof caved-in, Monessen, PA

Former EIS Manufacturing plant, Schoonmaker Ave.

What’s changed more, though, are the opportunities for finding anyone to fill these spaces.[3] Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel employed thousands of people at solid, union wages until it ultimately shut its Monessen operation in the 1980s. A raft of other, smaller industries were based on the same giant swath of curling riverfront and thrived through most of the last century. Today, the city’s population of 7,500 is around a third of its 1930s peak.[1]

For the first two-thirds of the twentieth century, the small city boomed in all possible ways. Monessen steel built the Golden Gate Bridge and helped defeat the Nazis in World War II. Cassandra Vivian’s Monessen: A Typical Steel Country Town describes a rich cultural environment where immigrants from dozens of countries (mostly eastern and southern Europe) both blended with each other and held onto the food and language, music and dance of the old world. I’m sure it was rough, but it must have been a fascinating place to grow up.

late Victorian wood frame 4-square house, vacant and dilapidated, Monessen, PA

When you lose two-thirds of your population, you end up with a lot of these. Vacant home on Reed Ave.

The slogan Make America Great Again is an easy one to write off cynically as reactionary, nationalistic, resentful, even hate-filled–it’s that appended again that really twists the knife. When, exactly, was America “great” the first time? Was it back before we could conceive of a black president? When a woman’s place was safely in the kitchen? When we pretended that gay people don’t exist? Or was it just when white men were reliably in charge of everything?

The industrial towns and small cities of the Mon Valley suggest such a different reading of this phrase that it’s important to try to see the appeal not on social or cultural terms, but as pure economics. Towns like Charleroi, Donora, Monogahela, and Monessen are achingly beautiful and heartbreakingly vacant. The valley’s need for something better is palpable.

three-story late Victorian retail/apartment building, vacant and dilapidated, Monessen, PA

A picture of Health, Donner Ave.

The commercial districts of these towns share a common general design: compact, late 19th/early 20th century two-, three- and four-story brick façades built to support a workforce of thousands who commuted on foot to the local mills and small factories just blocks away.

Those big commercial stretches obviously once thrived with green grocers and dry goods, butchers, bakers, theaters, and hardware–you can still see some of it in the ghost signs fading on brick walls. Today, though, the ghosts are often all that’s left on blocks and blocks of vacant storefronts, empty lots strewn with debris, cracked windows, and caved-in roofs.

ghost sign for Brooks Department Store, with text "Everything for Everybody, chinaware, oil cloth, millinery, cloaks & suits", Monessen, PA

“Everything For Everybody” sounds pretty appealing, almost like a campaign promise…hey, wait! Ghost sign, Donner Ave.

Like Kennedy, Donald Trump (and, notably, not Hillary Clinton[5]) also visited Monessen during his presidential campaign last year. It was for an invite-only crowd of just 200, where he was photographed in front of a bunch of crushed aluminum[4]. Whatever. Eighty percent of life is showing up, right?

Those of us who inhabit the “liberal bubble” may cringe at the pandering macro-jingoism of Make America Great Again and the pathological lies and hate-filled rhetoric it came with. But to look closely at the desperate mill towns upriver from Pittsburgh, it’s not hard to hope Monessen has a brighter future than its fading present. Whether honest or not [we’ll go with not], in that way Trump was ultimately selling the same thing as Barack Obama eight years earlier, Hope.

Old drug store window with word "Prescriptions" painted on glass, Monessen, PA

We’re going to need a bigger pill. Former drug store, Donner Ave.


See also:
* “24 Hours with JFK and Teenie Harris”, Kerin Shellenbarger, Carnegie Museum of Art blog, Nov. 22, 2013. A great account of JFK’s full two-day, five-stop campaign swing through the area in 1962 with terrific photos from Teenie Harris.


Notes:
[1] Wikipedia lists Monessen’s population at 18,424 for the 1960 census.
[2] “In Monessen, in 1962, JFK was one of the people”Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Nov. 16, 2013.
[3] In fairness, both replacement buildings appear to be currently-occupied (by a daycare center and pair of professional offices), but there are many more in downtown Monessen that are not.
[4] “Trump campaign rolls through Monessen”, TribLive.com, June 28, 2016.
[5] That Hillary Clinton didn’t campaign in Monessen–or any individual town–is no crime, but it’s pretty clear that ignoring much of the industrial North hurt her vote significantly in states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin.

Art/Work: Big Industry Art

mural of abstract steel mills on brick wall, Hill District, Pittsburgh, PA

Mural, Hill District

They’re striking images. Tall stacks belching a blanket of smoke that blacks out the sky. Grim men with lunch pails and work shirts. A cauldron of molten metal is poured against a skyline of towering steel vessels. The tools and symbols of power generation: hydroelectric, relay tower, a key struck by lightening. Three ironworkers team up to hammer a bar of hot steel on an anvil as beams of radiant energy stream out, ostensibly the only light source in an otherwise unlit workshop.

tile mosaic depicting various industry and innovation from commercial building in Bloomfield, Pittsburgh, PA

Mosaic, Bloomfield

Mural of steelworker, downtown Pittsburgh, PA

(light-up) Mural, Downtown

Somewhere between social realism and folk art lies the realm of steel town tributes to the workers and industries that built them. The mills are (almost) all gone–as are the coke plants, glass and aluminum producers, bridge builders and pipe rollers. But you wouldn’t know it from the public art that still exists–and continues to get created anew–all over the place.

The depictions are of landscapes and people that many Americans wouldn’t choose to decorate with: rusting blast furnaces, smoke-spewing chimney stacks, utility infrastructure, big men–and they are almost always men–working hard.

Mural depicting workers with lunch pails emerging through the pedestrian tunnel to PPG's Ford City, PA plant

Mural, Pittsburgh Plate Glass workers, Ford City

Painting of steel mill and workers with metal and neon lights mounted to brick wall, Braddock, PA

Mixed (mural with neon lights and metal sign), Braddock

Much of “new” Pittsburgh would rather not talk about the steel industry. The air has been cleaned-up (sort of*), there’s a workforce teeming in eds, meds, and….TEDs (?) over yesteryears’ union laborers, and–amazingly–we’re getting some amount of national attention on things like quality of life, affordability, and fancy food. Famously down-on-itself Pittsburgh is even starting to believe some of the hype. Civic boosters and young urbanites want to put those big smokestacks and ginormous rolling mills as far as they can in the rearview mirror.

Thankfully, though, there’s a great reverence for the people and industries that built the region. In fairness, there’s also just a lot more visual power and romance to it. It’s hard to imagine similar wall-sized tributes to tech workers, robot engineers, bankers, heart surgeons, or academics. That said, The Orbit has long considered itself the Joe Magarac of blogs**–so if you’ve got some bare bricks, give us a call. Like Norma Desmond, we’re ready for our close-up.

Mural painted on cinderblock wall of iron workers hammering hot steel on an anvil, Red Star Iron Works, Millvale, PA

Mural, Red Star Iron Works, Millvale


* The actual quality of the air is still a mess–you just can’t see the problem quite so obviously any more.
** Or at least the Joe Pesci of blogs. You think this blogger is a clown?

(No Longer) In The Mood

Pressure Chemical, Pittsburgh, PA

Mood Indigo: Pressure Chemical’s Lawrenceville plant

The story was a little too good: little Pressure Chemical was the home of the mood ring–and they had a wall of the objects as mementos in the offices of their Lawrenceville plant. But, as sophisticated Orbit readers know, don’t believe everything you hear.

It turns out, though, that the story is half true–or, at least, partially true. Pressure Chemical was indeed integral in the production of the mood ring, that most iconic groovy fashion fad/accessory of the 1970s–and it’s one that’s still available today, unlike the pet rock.

close-up of green mood ring

Mood ring. Green is alternately “normal,” “active,” “romantic,” or “jealous,” depending on the chart. [photo: the Internet]

When we want answers, you can bet we get them. The Orbit staked-out Pressure Chemical’s Smallman Street building and weren’t leaving until we could go all the way to the top. O.K., we actually just got really lucky and CEO Larry Rosen happened to walk out the front door before we could even get to the buzzer. Even on his way to a meeting, Rosen was friendly and took the time to answer all of this blogger’s questions about Pressure Chemical’s involvement with the 1970s fad, the legend of the wall of mood rings, and the building’s most recognizable feature, its multicolor flowing stripe.

detail of stripes painted on Pressure Chemical's building, Pittsburgh, PA

You’d be happy too. Pressure Chemical’s smiling stripes.

Rosen confirmed that yes indeed, back in the 1970s heyday of the fad, Pressure Chemical brewed the liquid crystal component that actually makes the rings’ color change. No mood rings were manufactured in the facility, nor is Pressure Chemical currently involved in producing material for the still-available accessories. And no: Rosen tells us there is no such thing as a wall of mood rings in the office. Sigh.

As for the Pressure Chemical building’s most recognizable decorative flourish, Rosen told us that a few years back the Lawrenceville Corporation was helping out with facade beautification grants and the company took the opportunity to paint the exterior of the building its present deep blue with the tri-color wave/stripe that wraps around the entire facility. He’d like to repaint the front, but the proximity of power lines make it an OSHA violation to paint while the electricity is live. The rest of the building has since been repainted.

detail of Pressure Chemical plant with American flag, Pittsburgh, PA

Ain’t that America: stars and stripes and stripes

So, in the end maybe we didn’t get to bag the great photo of a spread of mood rings mounted to Pressure Chemical’s waiting room wall. But we can still dream of a place where such a thing exists, each of their liquid crystal bits glowing in slightly different temperatures as if ghostly disembodied fingers fill them all at a grand family reunion. We’ll always be in the mood for that.

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 !!!!

Smoky City: Six Looks at the Heinz Plant Smokestacks

Heinz factory smokestacks with red brick factory buildings

Why do we love smokestacks? [Ladies: don’t answer that! We also love water towers, and rivers, and, uh…doughnuts.] They just look so great! Especially when we no longer have to suffer the consequences of blackened skies and filthy garments and routine emphysema*. It’s like the hollow promise of light beer: all the taste without those pesky calories.

When we started thinking about a series on Pittsburgh smokestacks, there were really just three obvious first world properties to kick off with: the old U.S. Steel stacks in Homestead, Michael Chabon’s “Cloud Factory” in Oakland, and the Heinz plant. Only one of these is on the bicycle ride that separates this blogger from the cheap blueberries and hard Italian cheese in the Strip District, so the choice was made for us.

Heinz factory smokestacks, Pittsburgh, PA

It’s unclear how much of Heinz’ near North Side plant is still an ongoing ketchup-making operation vs. condiment-associated loft housing. At least a part of the facility is security fenced from blogging yabbos like myself and the plant continues to spout a white particulate that suggests vinegar may still be combined with tomato paste on the premises. It’s the kind of place where workers (at least, a few workers) in hard hats still exit at quittin’ time with a cold beer on the noggin. There ain’t no Hunt’s on the table where they’re headed.

Heinz factory smokestacks with new glass and aluminum buildings, Pittsburgh, PA

Like the Washington Monument or St. Paul’s Cathedral, the smokestacks are visible from all over–the Heinz and 57 brick inlays readable from some distance. Almost everywhere on the Allegheny River side of town gets some sort of vantage point.

The Heinz stacks are so omnipresent that most people likely don’t even pay attention to them anymore. On bicycle rides down the river trail I kept noticing how you’d see the stacks from far off up the trail, glimpsed between the newer buildings along the river, from up above on Troy Hill, and down below near town. This was an Orbit story begging to happen.

Heinz factory smokestacks close-up, Pittsburgh, PA

Oh, and happen it will…er, did. In fact, happening it is, right now. I’m typing–I should know! It’s one of those freaky kind of ketchup happenings you read about in the condiment blogs. Dudes in fry outfits; ladies going “hash brownie”; little tykes experiencing colors we never dreamed of. It’s so beautiful! There’s no casting aspersions; just reporting the facts. Lay down thy preconceptions and pick up your spatula: it’s an old-school fry-up and we’re tending the griddle, jack.

Heinz plant smokestacks seen over a mound of gravel in the Strip District, Pittsburgh, PA

Heinz factory smokestacks silhouette with blue sky and white clouds, Pittsburgh, PA

* Pittsburgh’s air quality is still a mess, but, you know, it ain’t like it used to be.

 

New Kensington Bauhaus: Aluminum City Terrace

Aluminum City Terrace block of two-story units, each with different front yard changes

Lived-in: Aluminum City Terrace today

Our story begins with a breakfast dish that goes by the auspicious name Never Again. Two eggs scrambled, bacon, home fries, and “S.O.S.” (Shit On Shingle). This is then topped with cheese and gravy, all in a fabulous pile-up that makes lunch at Primanti’s look like high tea. Needless to say, David’s Diner in Springdale is Orbit-approved.

We’d booked our resident architecture consultants Charles & Susan for a gorgeous bright Sunday morning poke-see at a site just across the river in New Kensington and David’s friendly staff made sure all aboard were well provisioned for the hard journalism work ahead.

The crew was on its way to Aluminum City Terrace, a historically-significant housing complex that touched the interconnected spheres of World War II, big industry, and mid-century rock star architects. We wanted to see what the place looks like today, who lives there, and how it’s fared in the seventy-some years since it was hastily built back in the day.

Original drawings for Aluminum City Terrace, 1942

[image: Library of Congress]

Nineteen forty-two. America had just joined World War II and the nation needed aluminum (along with lots of other raw materials) for the effort. That meant lots of work for New Kensington-based Alcoa and a whole slew of new factory jobs for the town.

In what was reportedly a lightning development process, ex-Bauhaus  founder/instructors/architects and design world big-wigs Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer drew up a 250-unit campus of cheap, simple, efficient worker apartments specifically geared to Alcoa (and New Kensington’s) immediate need to house the ramped-up workforce. The location was a beautifully hilly section just outside of town. It was a mere two miles as the crow flies from Alcoa’s plants along the Allegheny River, but must have felt like another world compared to the belching industry and urban grid of the New Ken/Arnold flats.

Aluminum City Terrace two-story units

Have you seen the back? The very utilitarian rear of the two-story units

Seeing the apartment buildings in person, the immediate effect is, frankly, underwhelming. Aluminum City Terrace may have a great history and rich architectural pedigree, but the two-story units basically look somewhere between the kind of no-frills “garden” apartments that sit at the perimeter of many American towns and the independent no-tell motels just a little further out. This is especially true of the buildings’ featureless back sides.

The road that snakes through the complex and swells into various parking areas dominates its midsection with a regrettable amount of pavement. There are many opportunities to include a shade tree, flower bed, or line of shrubs, but the groundskeepers of the Terrace have chosen to keep its midway decidedly foliage-free.

It’s not a great first impression–especially because you’re likely only going to arrive here by car, and that will land you on pavement. Look a little deeper, though, and the Terrace tells a really interesting story, both past and present.

I’ll add that Aluminum City Terrace is no Dwell set piece, either. People live here, and the sense of life is apparent everywhere. In the drying beach towels hanging off the back porches, the kids trampoline and sports equipment strewn about the yard, the incongruous white plastic picket fence added to a single unit. Architects must flip a gripper when they see what real people do to “their” spaces, but this neutral observer found the collision to be most enjoyable.

Aluminum City Terrace plan and elevation drawings, 1942

Good on paper: Aluminum City Terrace plan and elevation, 1942 [image: Library of Congress]

The irony of the complex that Alcoa built (not literally–the federal government actually sponsored the project–but you know what I mean) is that there wasn’t a square inch of aluminum in Gropius and Breuer’s design. That is, of course, because America needed all of it to fight the bad guys. What are now the long louvered aluminum sun shades were originally made from wood. The elevations tell us the odd jutting-out second-floor bedrooms/back porch roofs were first clad in vertical cedar siding (since replaced) and back entrances shielded by sleek flat asbestos board canopies (ditto).

Aluminum City Terrace single-story one-bedroom block

One-bedroom units, each with an integrated back porch and shed

Aluminum City Terrace Activities Center

Aluminum City Terrace Activities Center

Walking through the complex, I was repeatedly struck by the cattywumpus arrangement of buildings. Each individual set of apartments is one of two designs (single floor one-bedrooms and two-story combined two-/three-bedrooms). The only real exception being the unique yard spaces and controlled additions the current co-op owners have created. But with none of the units lining up in any form of metered placement, it gives the place the overall feeling of a child’s building blocks dropped indiscriminately on a (very well-groomed) lawn, or train cars gently derailed, but untoppled.

I’m sure the primary reason for this was to follow the natural contours of the land. This part of New Kensington is quite hilly, surrounded by trees, and the plan takes advantage of the location in many ways. But even with that in mind, the site plan suggests there was a conscious effort to break evenly lining up any two buildings–either in parallel or perpendicular–on the grounds.

Aluminum City Terrace site plan, 1942

Cattywumpus layout: site plan, 1942 [image: Library of Congress]

We were fortunate to run across a very friendly family, one of whom happened to be on the board of Aluminum City Terrace. They invited the group into their apartment and showed us before and after photos from a large scale remodeling job they’d done. We also got some background on how the co-op system works there.

Residents must apply, pass a background check, and pay a one-time expense to get into the co-op. They then pay monthly upkeep fees for the maintenance of the exteriors of the buildings and grounds. Compared to more strict co-ops (ex: Pittsburgh’s Chatham Village), the residents seem to have a good amount of leniency in the treatment of their yard spaces, adding trees, fences, all manner of shrubs, flowers, vegetable gardens, etc. According to our hosts, all 250 units are occupied and there’s a waiting list to get in.

And it’s easy to see why. The buildings, sidewalks, its one road, and the grounds are in immaculate condition. This is in stark contrast to seen-better-days New Kensington proper. Our hosts told us their daughter is living in a one-bedroom nearby with other relatives also in the complex and there seems to be a strong community throughout. The Terrace is surrounded by trees and was built in maybe the last age before developers routinely flattened the landscape prior to development, leaving it with terrific rolling ups and downs.

Aluminum City Terrace unit with heavily-manicured front yard/garden

There’s a lot going on here: one of the busier/more heavily-maintained front yards

So…what’s the takeaway? Well, this is the first Bauhaus-related project this architecture-curious (but just a casual fan) blogger has experienced up close and personal. As such, it’s cool to find out it’s here, and it’s so loved, lived-in, and accessible in a very real world way. I don’t know much about Gropius and Breuer, but I hope they’d like most of what they’d see seventy years on. I do.

Oh, and that breakfast? On that, David is wrong: you can bet I’ll be having it again.