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.

Good Friday Special: The Father, The Sunoco, The Holy Ghost

Crucifixion scene with Sunoco gas station in background

Jesus/Sunoco, Carnegie

Sometimes these things just fall into your lap.  That is, if your lap happens to be hanging out around the Russian Orthodox church in Carnegie.  Or maybe it’s more like discovering an Easter egg: we came looking up toward the roofline from the street, but found this little gem around the corner in the side yard.

Either way, there it was: the photo-blogger’s cheap, visual joke laid out on a platter like an Easter ham with all the fixins.  Jesus crucified twice: once on the old-school cross, and then again bisected by the Sunoco station roof, just in time for Easter.  We threw in a shot from Holy Ghost Byzantine just to, you know, complete the trifecta.

I wonder if the site planners for Sunoco even considered their neighbors when locating this mega-station on Mansfield Blvd. next to Holy Virgin Church.  I’m a so-so photographer, but I always pay attention to what’s in the background of the shot.  Maybe they considered all that and just wanted to make the gas station look better.

Holy Ghost Byzantine Catholic Church, McKees Rocks, PA

Holy Ghost, McKees Rocks

P.A.P.A. Was A Rolling Stone

Unique head-to-head pinball action

These guys: The first “A” in PAPA stands for Amateur

Spoiler Alert: competitive pinball is not a great spectator sport.

It’s not that The Professional & Amateur Pinball Association (“PAPA”) didn’t try.  There were cameras trained on each of the Division A tables which simultaneously broadcast to big screen TVs right above the play and live to the Internet on the organization’s streaming site.  A set of low bleacher seats was set up with a view of everything and it was consistently stocked with lounging competitors. Occasionally, one of them would even look up to check out the action. But let’s face it, watching some dude (and it is almost always a dude) play pinball is just not that exciting, no matter how good he is.

PAPA Championship Group A competition

Not the Super Bowl: PAPA Championship Group A competition

PAPA, based in a big warehouse in the industrial section of Carnegie, has put on eighteen World Championships of pinball, the most recent having just wrapped-up last weekend. When we hear the words “world championship pinball” followed by “free” and “pancake breakfast” (O.K. that last one wasn’t an official part of the event), you know we’ll be there.

Golden Chainsaw Split Flipper Trophy

As close as this blogger will ever get to the Golden Chainsaw Split Flipper Trophy

Though it’s exciting to walk into what is essentially the Olympics of pinball, the Orbit staff, much like Bob Costas and Mary Carillo in Sochi, quickly lost focus and wandered off to look at shiny things.

And there were many shiny things to distract even the most hardened get-the-story-right blogger: blinking lights, ringing bells, zapping buzzers, bumping bumpers, crazy mechanical contraptions, perverse teenage fantasies, (outdated) pop culture knock-offs, blast-from-the-past zig-zagging lasers. Some 450+ pinball machines alone (we’re taking the PAPA’s word on this, but that seems totally believable) plus old-school video games, mechanical arcade games, novelties, and one “yarn-bombed” art machine.

Centigrade 37

Centigrade 37: it’s getting hot in here

I love pinball art in all its glowing comic book teenage (male) fantasy over-the-topness. Busty science-fiction vixens, stoned aviator sunglasses-wearing protagonists with unfortunate haircuts and “shaggin’ wagons” (Greg’s term), popcorn movie tie-ins (official), and knock-offs (not so).  No genre or theme seems to have been left unexplored: from the old West to outer space, from secret agents to cartoons, surfing to disco dancing, Guns and Roses to ladies formal wear (yes: the Dress Up pinball game seems to be the one machine 100% targeted to women and/or budding fashion designers).

Bally Embryon pinball machine

Embryon: time to make a baby

Gottlieb Roller Disco pinball machine

Roller Disco: let’s boogie

Bally Wizard! game

Wizard!: such a supple wrist

As great and ridiculous as the actual glowing machine graphics are, I find that what appeals to me most are the simple 3- and 4-color spray-painted cabinet stencils that decorate the sides of the machines.  Their placement makes a lot of them difficult to see (and impossible to photograph) except when the right machine ended up on the end of a row where you could really get a good look at it. This is totally understandable, of course, but still a shame as the simple designs and fuzzy not-quite-registered paint jobs are particularly terrific.

pinball cabinet stencil of woman's face

cabinet stencil

disco-themed pinball cabinet stencil

cabinet stencil

pinball cabinet stencil of surfer

cabinet stencil

The variety of license plates told us that attendees came from all over the country (at least) and the banners that immortalized past champions (and their home towns) hanging from the ceiling had a similar distribution. Keep your eyes peeled for a second big event in August at the convention center where a pay-one-price scheme gets you open play at the full collection of PAPA’s pinball games and supposedly another hundred or so they’re bringing in on top.

Michigan license plate PINWZRD

Michigan PINWZRD spotted in the parking lot

pinball machine bumpers

“Howdy, bumper!”

pinball game artwork

Sometimes a giant vase is just a giant vase, and then other times …