Onion Dome Fever: St. Nicholas Orthodox, Donora

exterior view of onion-domed St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, Donora, PA

St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, Donora

The Orbit may be cheap, but at least we love a bargain.

Like a cat’s mad scramble at the first wafts of eau d’tuna fish floating up the stairwell, throw a couple of glorious onion domes in the sky and get out of the way. The Orbit will come a-runnin’, leaving scratches in the wood floor and taking out everything on the end table as collateral damage.

Pair the steeple spectating with a nice (if too short) city step climb–its attendant views of town and the curling Monongahela River no small bonuses–and you’ve just served up an all-you-can-blog super buffet in Orbitville. Like Roger Daltrey, this blogger would call that a bargain–one of the better ones he’s seen lately.

foreground sign with removable letters saying "Sunday service 10" with St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in background, Donora, PA

St. Nicholas Orthodox Church rises at the top of the short hill that bridges Donora’s McKean Ave. business district on the flats with the residential neighborhoods up above. It is fully accessible from numerous paved roads, but a short hike on the 8th Street city steps takes the visitor straight up the hillside to the base of ol’ St. Nick’s eponymous way. The calves aren’t quite done yet, as you’ve still got another solid block-length walk uphill to the reach the church itself. The South Side Slopes, this ain’t, but the six or eight vertical stories will do in a pinch.

view up city steps to St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, Donora, PA

On a typically gray mid-winter day–we weren’t encumbered by any of that bothersome sunlight–the otherworldly green shapes of the church’s oxidized copper spaceship ornaments are both the brightest thing you’ll see and the most distinct forms on the horizon. Visible from pretty much anywhere in town, the big emerald orbs poke out over commercial storefronts and through bare trees, as halos on wooden homes and antennae to the aether. Come to me they seem to whisper from afar, and heed their siren song we always do.

mosaic of St. Nicholas above entryway to St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, Donora, PA

St. Nicholas has such a traditional, classic look that it was a little surprising to find out it had been erected in the early 1950s, replacing a smaller, 1916 structure just down the hill*. This blogger takes his sight-seeing seriously and is currently working off the demerits for failure to scrutinize (let alone photograph) the symmetrical pair of cornerstones on either side of the building’s face.

Typically, such arrangements seem to contain the same information, inscribed in English on one stone and the congregation’s original language on the other. This seems like it would be Carpatho-Russian Cyrrilic, but we’ll have to wait for the inevitable return trip make-good to verify.

Oh…and there will be a return trip. We can hear St. Nicholas calling even now…

exterior view of onion-domed St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, Donora, PA


* http://stnicholasorthodoxdonora.org/history.html

An Orbit Obit: Holy Trinity Catholic Church, Duquesne

interior of former Holy Trinity Catholic church with spray paint graffiti and sky visible through the roof, Duquesne, PA

Before the fall. Holy Trinity’s chancel and still (barely) intact roof

The term ruin porn makes it sound so dirty. The Orbit likes to consider its mission[1] a noble one: peek into special, disappearing, fantastic places; record, document, and tell their tales–especially the ones that won’t be around that long.

But there’s a nebby, morbid, and yes, prurient curiosity too. How did things get this way? What’s going to happen next? Why isn’t anyone paying attention here? If I were a citizen of Duquesne, or any of its struggling sister boros, would I be resentful of some ne’er-do-well blogger poking his bicycle-riding picture-taking schnoz into my town’s business? I don’t know, but yeah…maybe.

interior of former Holy Trinity Catholic church with spray paint graffiti and sky visible through the roof, Duquesne, PA

Holy Trinity’s nave, viewed from the second floor alley window

The news came just this week that Monday’s huge thunderstorm had finally collapsed the roof and several wall sections of the century-old former Holy Trinity Roman Catholic Church in Duquesne. The church is so close to catastrophe that nearby residents have been relocated and the city is expediting plans to demolish what remains out of safety concerns.

The Orbit had the good fortune–or, at least, good timing–to stumble upon and check out Holy Trinity mere weeks before the walls literally came tumbling down. We captured a few final images of the church, its threadbare, about-to-drop ceiling, and the sad beauty of a kind of old world liturgical construction that we’ll surely never see created anew.

exterior of former Holy Trinity Catholic church, Duquesne, PA missing windows and trees growing over front steps

Exterior, from South 1st Street

Pittsburgh is littered with beautiful, old churches. Many of the ones that no longer function as houses of worship have been repurposed into any manner of creative second lives. Performance halls, community centers, art studios, living spaces, a hookah lounge, and even a brewery have been reborn from sacred bones. Last year we got all dewey-eyed drooling over the potential of the former St. George’s Syrian Orthodox Church in the lower Hill. This blogger’s co-worker is still trying to figure out what to do with the combined church and school he bought in Tarentum for the price of a suped-up SUV earlier this year.

Holy Trinity - mural Moses

Chancel mural

So it’s worth remembering that despite metro Pittsburgh’s relative urban health–verging on full-on priced-out gentrification in some necks of the wood–places like Duquesne exist just a couple miles down the river…any of the rivers. They’re dying (quite literally) for any investment.

In Duquesne, according to the WTAE report, city managers can’t even find the owner of the old church. Twenty years ago–maybe not even that long–the former Holy Trinity, abandoned by its congregation in 1970, was probably still in a state where it could have been saved, loved, and re-used. Now, we’ve not just lost the potential of preserving something unique and beautiful, but that very thing has become a safety hazard to even leave around as standing ruins. Sigh.

Holy Trinity - mural lamb

Chancel mural

Mrs. The Orbit and I sometimes squabble about what the changes to Pittsburgh’s fortunes will really amount to. Will the Lawrencevillianization of the East End spill across the rivers and turn the city into another place where, you know, “real people” can’t afford to live any more? Or do we just have way too much available space[2] and cheap housing with nowhere near the curb appeal of a New York or a San Francisco?[3]

This optimist tends to believe the latter. But if, by some crazy twist of socio-economic happenstance, every looking-for-a-change young person really does decide to turn Pittsburgh into the “next Portland”, hopefully it will mean a breath of life to the immediate industry towns just outside city limits which will inevitably absorb some of the overflow. If we could see good things come to Ambridge, New Kensington, McKeesport, and, yes, Duquesne, well, that might make it all worthwhile. Let’s just hope it happens before all the roofs collapse.

view through broken glass block window in shape of a cross to dark interior of former Holy Trinity Catholic church, Duquesne, PA

View through (replacement) second floor rear window (from Oak Alley)

All photos taken July 25, 2016 just a month prior to the roof and wall collapse on August 29.

Also: Lost Monongahela has a nice write-up with some great photos on the history of Holy Trinity and the congregation’s decision to build a brand new church in nearby West Mifflin and abandon their original home in Duquesne.


[1] At least, one of its missions.
[2] Pittsburgh’s current city population is around 325,000–just about half of what it was in the 1960 census–there is a lot of vacant land here.
[3] Not to mention the sunshine and no-snow climate of a Charlotte, Miami, or Los Angeles.

Onion Dome Fever: St. Michael’s Orthodox

St. Michael's Orthodox Church, Rankin, PA

St. Michael’s Orthodox Church, Rankin

If you want to give The Orbit‘s brakes a thorough wringing-out, just throw a new set of onion domes up in sky and listen for the screech of rubber on pavement.

That’s just what happened as we found ourselves off track and reconnoitering back down 3rd Avenue in Rankin. There, gleaming in the bright sunlight against a backdrop of pillow-perfect wispy cumulous formations, rose the three perfect golden domes of St. Michael’s Orthodox Church.

St. Michael's Orthodox church, Rankin, PA from over a bank of weeds

In the weeds: St. Michael’s onion domes viewed from the pass-through to Rankin Blvd.

It should come as no surprise that Rankin hosts a traditional Eastern Orthodox church. Pretty much every old steel town has at least one–it speaks to who was immigrating over here to work the jobs in the mills. We’ve already run scene reports on churches in McKeesport, Marshall-Shadeland, Steubenville, and McKees Rocks.

Just like those places, the church stands as the tallest structure in town. While that’s not a huge feat in a borough as small as Rankin, it’s always a great payoff as the giant golden ornaments reach out and above from any vantage point: as a beacon from the local through-street (Braddock Ave.), above the rows of peaked-roof frame homes and squat brick row houses, and apparently right out of the weeds from the hillside below.

St. Michael's Orthodox Church, Rankin, PA

St. Michael’s Orthodox Church, Rankin

Matching cornerstones in both English and Cyrillic date St. Michael’s to 1907, which seems just about right for the peak of Russian/Ukrainian immigration to work in the mills. Rankin reached its greatest population a couple decades later in the 1930 census with around 8,000 people. Today, with only a quarter of that–the vast majority African-American–it’s hard to imagine a lot of local Russian Orthodox parishioners for St. Michael’s*.

Despite all this, though, the church–at least on the outside (it was locked tight when we visited)–is in terrific shape. The masonry work is solid, the stained-glass windows aglow, and the little front garden well-tended and in lovely full spring bloom. Oh, and you won’t miss those big golden onion domes–they’re still up there and they look spectacular.

Detail of cross on St. Michael's Orthodox Church entrance gate, Rankin, PA

Cross here. St. Michael’s front gate (detail)


* Source: Wikipedia entry for Rankin demographics.

L’chaim on a Hilltop: Jewish Holy Houses in the Hill District (Part 2)

Miller Street Baptist Church formerly Shaaray Teffilah Synagogue/Beth David Congregation, Pittsburgh, PA

Miller Street Baptist Church (former Shaaray Teffilah Synagogue/Beth David Congregation), Miller Street

Back in May, The Orbit ran a story on a couple of really spectacular former Jewish holy houses in the lower Hill District and their new lives today. As we were cruising the old maps looking for info on these places, we kept realizing there were more former synagogues–plus one celebrated settlement house–that survived in the same general area (just outside of the old Civic Arena footprint). This begged for a sequel to the original post, and here we are.

Enon Baptist Church formerly Lebovitch Synagogue, Pittsburgh, PA

Enon Baptist Church (former Lebovitch Synagogue), Erin Street

It’s nothing like it was. Look at platte maps of the lower Hill from the ’20s or ’30s and the density of Jewish life in the area is made incredibly obvious–“Pittsburgh’s Lower East Side,” it’s sometimes referred as. The Jewish population seems to have largely migrated out (to Highland Park, and then Squirrel Hill) by the 1940s, but it was the colossal Civic Arena project that took out the vast majority of its remaining physical structures.

On streets that no longer exist, where City View apartments and the giant, empty former arena parking lot now stand, the maps show block after block containing tiny, often only house-sized synagogues–Bani Israel (sic.), Beth Jacob, Sharey Zadek, Gates of Wisdom, etc.

Hill House Association Kaufmann Center formerly the Irene Kaufmann Settlement, Pittsburgh, PA

Hill House Association – Kaufmann Center (former Irene Kaufmann Settlement), Centre Ave.

Those are all gone–along with (almost) everything else below Crawford and above Fifth Ave. But for a handful of former houses of worship outside of the arena project’s gluttonous reach, life has carried on in new and different incarnations.

The three former synagogues we located–Shaaray Teffilah/Beth David and Kanascis Israel on Miller Street and Lebovitch on Erin Street–have all become Baptist churches. The former Irene Kaufmann Settlement on Centre Ave. now serves as one of the non-profit Hill House Association‘s main locations.

New Pilgrim Baptist Church formerly Kanascis Israel Synagogue, Pittsburgh, PA

New Pilgrim Baptist Church (former Kanascis Israel Synagogue), Miller Street

This loitering blogger met a very welcoming member of the Miller Street Baptist congregation when curbing his bicycle to take a photo of the church. She told me she’d been a member for 23 years and encouraged me to attend a service some time. Despite her very warm invitation, I wasn’t sure I could accept in good (err…bad) faith. That said, I would love to see inside the place. Had I been wearing something closer to Sundaygotomeetin’ duds and not running late to scour the woods for evidence of insurance fraud, I might have asked for a poke-see around. But it wasn’t going to happen this day.

Miller Street Baptist Church formerly Shaaray Teffilah Synagogue/Beth David Congregation, Pittsburgh, PA

Miller Street Baptist Church

Reflections On A Hundred

St. Paul's Cathedral in Pittsburgh reflected in mirrored glass

St. Paul’s Cathedral, Oakland

A hundred! One whole century! What a very round integer!

Yes, today Pittsburgh Orbit trips the old blogometer into three digit land. It all happened in just under one calendar year. We promise to not make a big deal about that date too, but in lieu of any real story today, we’ll take this rare opportunity to reflect on a year in the blogosphere and The Orbit‘s one hundred tiny episodes so far.

reflection of small shops on Craig Street in large glass windows, Pittsburgh, PA

Craig Street, Oakland

Why blog? Frankly, it’s not something this majority introvert ever really considered. The “me me me“-ness of so much blogging is nauseating at best and just plain pathetic (much of) the rest of the time. And what hasn’t already been covered? The answer, it turns out, is a lot. But, you know, a suggestion here, an idea there–next thing we know, we’re up and blogging.

Plus, it’s fun! Roll together a bunch of things we already loved to do (bicycle, hike, explore, take photographs, drink beer, find out about other people, write) and wrap those experiences up in little easy-to-chew bite-sized chunks. It’s a tremendous regular creative prompt and get-out-the-door keister-kicker. We recommend it!

Reflection of the former Mellon National Bank, Downtown Pittsburgh in mirrored glass windows

Former Mellon National Bank, Downtown

Who reads this stuff? A good question! The stats tell us there are site visitors from all around the world, but mainly from the U.S. and Canada (and we imagine most of those are current or former Pittsburghers). Apparently they get here from umpteen different means–social media, Reddit discussions, search engines, email lists, etc.

We’ve gotten a lot of really nice feedback from friends and site visitors, but it’s been most rewarding to connect with the various outside groups, each scratching their own funny itches. Pittsburgh’s bike and pedestrian community seems to check in on the city steps stories, there’s a devoted crew of ghost sign hunters over in the U.K., the street art folks are kept in ready supply, everybody likes to read about their friends, and just about anyone who came across them seems to love the Antignanis. Oh, and every single day someone comes in looking for Jaws.

Reflection of Market Square, Downtown Pittsburgh in glass windows

Market Square, Downtown

Regrets? Yeah, this blogger has a few! For a fellow as music-obsessed as this one, we’ve barely touched the category. We’re also starving for some more food and drink stories (the weird pizza series, notwithstanding). We’ve barely touched the South Hills, the hilltops, and still haven’t made it to Duck Hollow or Fairywood. And gosh darnit, if we’re left without being able to interview Bill Bored about the Cardboards, then this whole thing has been a waste of everybody’s time. (I suppose it won’t have been a waste of Bill Bored’s time.)

University of Pittsburgh building reflected in glass windows

University of Pittsburgh, Oakland

There are also a ton of things that would have made great Orbit obits but either disappeared before we started writing, or we were in the wrong place at the right time, or just couldn’t have done them justice: the old Nickel Bingo Parlor, Chiodo’s–its decades of dangling undergarments and its “mystery sandwich”–(former) White Towers, The Suburban Lounge and their house band The Casual Approach, St. Nicholas Church grotto–ah, hell, the list goes on and on. In any case: forgive us–we’re doing our best. Sigh.

Mellon Institute in Pittsburgh reflected in glass windows

Mellon Institute, Oakland

What’s next? Honestly, the eternal tap of great ideas has run from a gushing main to more of a babbling brook–but it’s still flowing! Maybe this blogger just needs to get up off the thinkin’ chair and put his nose to the grindstone. That said, we’ve got some fun stuff planned around Lent, springtime, weird sports, fried fish, wacky artists, a hunt for the elusive paw-paw, and of course, Cemetober. Keep that Internet web browser dialed-in right here, folks.

reflection-oliver-way

Oliver Ave., Downtown

Onion Dome Fever: St. George’s Syrian Orthodox Church

former St. George’s Syrian Orthodox Church, Pittsburgh, PA

(Former) St. George’s Syrian Orthodox Church, Hill District

Like the ripe tomato hanging on the vine, seductively whispering “take me, I’m yours.” This fantastic little old-world church, complete with big stained glass windows and its Byzantine onion dome. Sitting empty, literally right in the center of Pittsburgh, up on The Hill. An inevitable fantastic view across the Allegheny River from the rear and an easy walk downtown, mere blocks (O.K., maybe a half mile) away.

As this blogger kickstanded his hog and pulled out the camera-phone, a fellow at the bus stop across the street asked if I was going to buy the place. I told him I wasn’t, but wished I could. What would you do with it? he said. Me: I’d live there.

And wow: wouldn’t that be a peach? I haven’t been inside and can only imagine what it would take to resuscitate a heap like this, but you know it would be incredible. What a terrific little place! We’d be living the dream in Orbit World Headquarters! Ha! Instead, it’s sitting idle and, if not shuffling off this mortal coil, it’s at least finished dessert and asked for the check. Sigh. Maybe we need to make a few calls…

former St. George’s Syrian Orthodox Church, Pittsburgh, PA

It comes in color, too!

A side note: One Christmas, we attended midnight mass at the new(er) St. George’s in Oakland with the Syrian family I was tutoring in E.S.L. at the time. [St. George’s moved from The Hill District to Oakland in 1954.] I can tell you that experience was intense. This ceremony actually started at midnight (not one of those middle-of-the-mall midnight masses), went on for two-and-a-half hours, and was all in Latin. Much chanting, swinging the burning herbs, robes, beads; the whole bit. I’m pretty sure those spirits are all still at it in the old place and I’d love to fall asleep to their ghostly modal Acapulco hymns.