Easter Special: You Can’t Make an Omelet Without Finding Some Eggs

baby doll painted gold and hanging from telephone wires, Pittsburgh, PA

Golden baby, Lawrenceville

Matched ceramic salt and pepper shakers, ruby glass, bobbleheads, Hummel figurines, cookie jars–people collect all kinds of goofy stuff. Bakelite AM radios, Santas, and state plates, World’s Fair trinkets and glass insulators from telegraph lines. David from our West Coast rival Portland Orbit has some unique collections: cans of knock-off Dr. Pepper, eyeglass stems found on the street, other peoples’ grocery lists.

Easter may come only once a year, but every day can be the Orbiteer’s figurative egg hunt–which is really just the primordial collecting impulse–and it doesn’t cost a penny or take up any room on your shelves. Spotting is a lifelong and year-round habit: take the alley, poke behind the bushes, look down at the pavement and up in the telephone wires. [Oh, Golden Babies, how we pray we haven’t seen the last of you!]

Today, whether you’re a committed church-going, brunch-eating Easter reveler or full-on dance-naked-by-the-bonfire pagan, we celebrate some of the Orbit‘s favorite any-time/all-year-long city egg hunt targets.

protractor glued to metal driving barrier, Pittsburgh, PA

Pittsburgh protractor, Allegheny River Trail, Millvale

Pittsburgh Protractors are the easy money, chump change, fish-in-a-barrel of local urban collecting. In that way, though, they’re a great entry point–the gateway drug–to hardcore egg hunting. Either way, you have to respect the work of the protractor perpetrator(s) and we couldn’t not include the protractors in the list. There are just so damn many of the little plastic doo-dads glued all over the place that if you’re in bicycle-accessible city limits and keep your blinkers open, you’ll probably spot a few even if you’re not really trying.

ghost sign for "Arsenal Brand Meat Products" painted on side of brick building, Pittsburgh, PA

Ghost sign: Arsenal Brand Meat Products, Hill District

Sal’s MeatsHipCo BatteriesMother’s Best FlourOwl Cigar. Who are these vendors and what is the business arrangement that traded a (presumably) single payment into a long-after-life of marketing products that may no longer be purchased?

The hand-painted, brick wall advertising of yesteryear was all put out of business (we assume) by the arrival of big, purpose-built billboards with their larger display areas, darkness-defying flood lights, targeted sight lines, and monthly rates. That’s part of what makes so-called ghost signs so enjoyable for the egg hunter: it’s pretty obvious that there won’t be any more of them[1], and what’s left is often fading fast.

brass marker showing the 46.0 high water mark for the March 18, 1936 flood of downtown Pittsburgh, PA

1936 flood marker, Blvd. of the Allies, Downtown

Waaaay back when, the very first story committed to these virtual pages concerned a cryptic message painted around two faces of an old brick building in Manchester. That [SPOILER ALERT!] turned to be a marker for the most famous rising of the waters in Pittsburgh’s history–the 1936 St. Patrick’s Day flood.

We’ve found a handful more of them around downtown and on the North Side, but surprisingly few considering the immensity of the event and the age of our building stock. That just makes the hunt all that much sweeter when we zero in on previously unseen prey.

Mary statuette in homemade grotto, Pittsburgh, PA

Front yard Mary and grotto, Arlington

The blessed mother, hands spread with her palms open in a welcoming embrace or–far less often–the pietà image of Mary cradling the dead body of Jesus or holding the once-and-future as a baby [see above]. Whichever way we encounter the statuary, this is Front Yard Mary [even if she’s in the side or back yard] and we’ll take her any way we can get her.

There are so many Marys out there that we’ve got separate future features planned for South Oakland, Homestead, and the South Side Slopes (at least), which hardly makes Mary the most difficult egg to hunt. That said, this is ostensibly an Easter feature…

painting of woman with three eyes by Clohn Art, wheatpasted to wood, Pittsburgh, PA

Clohn Art, Downtown

Clohn Art is the nom de plume–or perhaps nom de paintbrush–of one John Lee, whose crude extra-eyed men, women, and animal paintings are executed on the placemats of Chinese restaurants and unfurled brown paper bags. They’re found wheatpasted at construction sites, alley walls, and, in at least one case, a rusty bus shelter in Homestead.

Wherever we happen to see the artist’s distinctive little paintings, they always pop off the wall surface and bring a twisted smile to our merely two-eyed faces. Mr. Lee declined The Orbit‘s request for a feature interview [John: we’re still interested!] so we’re left to troll the back streets, hoping to grab another of those rarest of eggs: a fresh, new Clohn to nestle in the wicker basket.

teddy bear and plastic flowers left on curbside, Pittsburgh, PA

Reasonably happy-looking sad toy, Fairywood

Like some mangy old teddy bear, dropped casually from a toddler’s stroller and forced to spend purgatory face-down in the weedy berm, Al Hoff brought the concept of “sad toys” into this blogger’s life and then cruelly left us by the side of the road to fend for ourselves.

Stuffed animals with their fur matted, flattened, and filthy; a basketball, punctured and concave in an oily culvert; doll parts dismembered and jettisoned like the work of a Lilliputian serial killer. So much pathos in such tiny candy-colored doses! It’s almost too much to bear…almost. But when we find them–and these are truly both the most random and the most reliable, renewable resource of today’s eggs–we can’t help but bag them.

outline of previously-existing "ghost house" against larger brick building, Pittsburgh, PA

Ghost house, North Side

Ghost houses–the imprint of one, now-extinct building upon its still-extant neighbor–is hardly a concept unique to Pittsburgh, but we’ve got the perfect environmental conditions to produce them here. Older building stock constructed right up against each other in a previous era when the density supported a pedestrian-based workforce, coupled with decades of “benign neglect” that demolished many–some falling all on their own–and landlords caring little about fixing-up the weird negative spaces on their vacant lot-facing windowless walls.

Like many of the other ova that occupy our oculi, ghost houses are special because–like a petrified forest, or the career of Steve Guttenberg–they’re the result of such a peculiar series of historic events, circumstances, and (non-)actions over a great period of time that we’ll likely not encounter the same perfect storm here again.

Clarence the Bird artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Clarence the Bird pole art, Bloomfield

With Clarence the Bird, the egg hunt changes parameters. Like picking up pawpaws, where there’s one of his handmade, ink-on-cardboard Make the World Beautiful instances, there tend to be a lot. Find a Clarence and you can safely spread out–looking up and down at the adjacent-blocks’ neighboring telephone poles and bulletin boards–and you’ll likely spot more.

So far [to our knowledge], Clarence has stuck to the greater Lawrenceville-Bloomfield-Garfield-Friendship portion of the East End, but that may just be where we’ve crossed paths with his big wings and pointy beak. I’m sure if we do see his trail elsewhere, we’ll see it everywhere.

poems of The Dirty Poet taped to a lamp post, Pittsburgh, PA

Poems of The Dirty Poet, Oakland

To call locating the telephone pole and street lamp verse of The Dirty Poet “egg hunt” material is a little bit of a stretch. His Dirtiness (yes: the writer is a he) wants the short, dittoed poems he authors to be read, after all. They’ve been taped and stapled at eye level on prominent foot traffic corners for just that purpose.

Regardless, it’s still neat to run across the prickly prose and lurid lines of the Bard of the Backstreets, knowing that one is literally standing in the creator’s footprints, inhaling his boozy breath, and shimmering in what’s left of his groovy vibes. To you, Whitman of the walkways, Dickinson of the downtown, Angelou of the who are you? may we always encounter your offspring sunny side up.

Toynbee Tile reading "Toynbee Idea in movie '2001' resurrect dead on planet Jupiter"

Toynbee Tile (no longer present), Downtown

It almost feels like cheating to include the so-called Toynbee Tiles in the list–we ran a feature on the House of Hades tiles just last week. But when you get lucky enough to spot one of the remaining, legit, first-generation street pieces, well, it’s a good day indeed.

As we reported, it is The Orbit‘s conclusion that none of these still exist in metro Pittsburgh and we’re left with a pair of ersatz Hell-bound tributes. But you never know! What does Easter–and, by association, spring–offer but the arrival of new hope, possibility, and opportunity. It is a new season: the sun is shining, birds are chirping, and flowers are popping with their tiny blasts of color across late winter’s gray-brown backdrop. Go out there and get you some eggs!


[1] There are, however, several efforts out there to restore/repaint old ghost signs as new mural projects. There’s a big one on Penn Avenue in Garfield and several in Braddock that we know of.

Ghost House: East Liberty Farmers Market

Ghost house with giant pumpkin mural, Pittsburgh, PA

Under the pumpkin moon. The Sheridan Ave. ghost house.

If, nay, when Pittsburgh creates the Ghost House Hall-of-Fame, the imprint on the side of the East Liberty Farmers Market building will certainly be in the very first class of inductees.

It’s just got everything: the perfect lines, the front porch and rear addition details, the unpainted red brick as negative space against the larger building’s long pale yellow wall, luscious green wall-to-wall shag…grass–even an antenna (?) pointing up from the back porch.

There’s not a lot left to the imagination here. Look around town and you can still see standing houses just like this one all over the place. The two-up/two-down design is a pretty standard Pittsburgh row house shape. This one clearly had the very common early flat roof additions off the back, usually to bring the kitchen indoors and provide a bath and extra bedroom upstairs.

ghost garage, Pittsburgh, PA

Ghost garage

Was it Bob Vila or The Torch Marauder who said: have you seen the back? If the main house wasn’t enough to talk you into this beauty, let me remind you it comes with a fully-dysfunctional two-car ghost garage. It’s nothing fancy–one story tall with a flat roof–but the depth (basically equal to the entire house!) suggests you could park a couple LeSabres, LeBarons, LeMans, or LeCars in there and still have room for le beer fridge, le wood shop, le ping pong table, and some extra le storage for your Hallowe’en decorations.

I can see what you’re thinking–this a little too much of a “fixer-upper” for me–am I right? Granted, the house needs some work–like, pretty much everything–but just imagine the possibilities! That, and it couldn’t be more conveniently located for a rehab job. This ghost property is literally right across the street from Home Depot. You can be in and out in the blink of an eye…just like a ghost.

ghost house and garage, Pittsburgh, PA

Ghost house and garage

 

An Orbit Obit: Squirrel Hill’s Double Ghost

Ghost building with a ghost sign for Approved Lubrication, Pittsburgh, PA

Before: the Approved Lubrication ghost building/ghost sign where Poli used to be, Squirrel Hill (October, 2015)

What a bummer! Whatabummer, (and even) WHAT. A. BUMMER. Squirrel Hill: you really let this one get away–and don’t tell us The Orbit wasn’t there to warn you! In less time than Cop Rock was on the air, we managed to both take flight and burn our wings on the heat of the sun.

As detailed in an Orbit story from October, the tragic fire that destroyed the former Poli restaurant, as well as the building next door, had the miraculous silver lining of exposing not one, but two pretty terrific visual artifacts of previous times, one right on top of the other.

First, there was as crisp and clean an outline of a one-story ghost house (possibly ghost kitchen or ghost retail?) as we’ve ever seen. Then, under that, was a faint, but still appreciable ghost sign that some sleuthing revealed as an advertisement for Approved Lubrication, likely from the 1930s or ’40s.

blank wall painted over to cover former ghost house and ghost sign at the site of the former Poli Restaurant, Pittsburgh, PA

After: well done, guys (January, 2016)

Sigh. It was, of course, too good to last. By December, whoever owns this lot–or maybe the owner of the big former factory building behind it–decided to send the painting squad out to make sure the entire surface would be devoid of any soul and this cultural history banished from the earth. Mission accomplished.

The genius that picked the Home Depot mens room taupe for the paint color should be given some kind of award. Not only did you rip all the character and history off the wall with a couple cans of exterior enamel, you erased the whole thing with the visual shorthand for bland. Maybe you can get Dockers or Applebee’s to build a franchise on the lot. Well done.

former Poli Restaurant parking sign, Pittsburgh, PA

The (other) last sign of Poli

Now, this blogger has never advocated illegal activity–certainly not vandalism or destruction of private property. But if ever there was a blank surface that was calling–nay, crying–out for some spray paint-wielding bomb squad to enrich the local cultural landscape, this is it. There are forty or fifty feet of clean, unobstructed wall, the prime Murray-meets-Forward five-way intersection, where captive audiences have nothing better to do than check out your work, and an aesthetic and history-erasing wrong to right. The Orbit is, in the parlance of the times, “just sayin'”.

Lot where Poli Restaurant used to be, Pittsburgh, PA

In context: the former Poli lot, all cleaned-up, Squirrel Hill

Ghost House: Nabbing a Strip District Two-fer!

outline of 2-story "ghost house", Pittsburgh, PA

Ghost house (East), Strip District

We’d been after this pair for a while and yeah, we bagged them. It was a ghost house hunter’s ultimate score–side-by-side impressions of the same disappeared structure left right (and left/right) next to each other. With a little imagination even a dime store gum shoe could put the pieces together. The whole picture is right there in front of you, guilty as the day is long.

Cruise down Penn Ave. from the Strip to town and you can’t miss the western-facing member of this pair. She’s a platinum figure built like a brick (row)house, answering to this mathematician’s favorite dimensions: 24′ x 24′ x 36′. The dirty gray, ruffled skirt told us everything we needed to know about how the last century had treated her. Centered in what must have been one lovely attic space is an intriguing 1936, tattooed in red and beginning to flake away.

Her old man didn’t have the same distinction but the outlines were all there. The bruises across his midsection told us the block had been around him more than a few times and he could give as good as he got. On top of his pointy head sat a bonus ghost sign so far gone it’s now just a blur.

outline of 2-story "ghost house", Pittsburgh, PA

Ghost house (West), Strip District

Even though we’ve been down this particular stretch of road a zillion times, it was never quite the right time to make the grab. Some bozo would leave a car right in my shot [“Get out of the way, you bozo!”] or some dude would be parallel-parked on Penn Ave. and throw off the foto shui (look it up) of the bigger scene [“Beat it, pal!”].

But who’s this blogger kidding? These pictures ain’t for the museum, and they’re not getting pinned up in some teenage hair-farmer’s gym locker. No: we’re here to put this couple up on the blog wall faster than you can say “son now here’s some little something”.

Catching ghosts turns about to be a lot like nabbing bad guys. You order up some take-out coffees [“Black for me; two creams for my partner.”], get giant sandwiches from a place called Sal’s [“That bastard owes me!”], and then you wait [“I’ll take first watch. You get some shuteye.”].

And wait we did. Days, weeks–hell, it was months sitting on these perps. Just biding our time until they made a move. Oh, and what move they made. Another perfect, glorious, unseasonably warm November day; the sky so deep and blue it looked like the water from the prow of a skipjack off Dewey Beach. Me: all the time in the world to set ’em up and knock ’em down. Yeah, The Orbit got the collar. Put it in the books, Jack.

4-story brick building with outline of 2-story "ghost house", Pittsburgh, PA

Bonus (unreadable) ghost sign above the ghost house!

Poli-Science: A Double Ghost Exposed in Squirrel Hill!

Ghost building with a ghost sign for Approved Lubrication, Pittsburgh, PA

The recently-uncovered rare “double ghost” in Squirrel Hill

Everyone said that great treasures would inevitably appear. When we were in the process of buying an old house, friends told stories of finding wavy glass apothecary bottles lost behind walls, secret messages under wallpaper, amateur paintings behind basement pegboard, pornography stowed and forgotten in loosened ceiling tiles.

A house built in the 1880s should have had ample time to accrue all this and more, but fifteen years later, the sum total this home-renovating blogger unearthed was one skeleton key and a set of Pittsburgh Press pages from the 1950s, laid below the linoleum on the third floor as, it seems, everybody used to do. I kept those papers for half-dozen years and then sent them out with the recycling one day. Sigh.

Poli restaurant in Pittsburgh, PA before the fire that destroyed it

Before the fall: Poli, pre-fire/demolition [photo: SquirellHill.com]

The news that the former Poli restaurant and its neighbor building had burned was big local news–and not without its share of suspicion and intrigue. The whole block at the corner of Murray and Forward (including the former Squirrel Hill Theater) had basically been shuttered and was slated for a massive redevelopment project that seems to have been postponed.

Whatever the reason, this sad event has a curious and surprising double twist for the ghost hunters of Pittsburgh Orbit. Now exposed, behind Poli’s former rear wall, we can see both a very clear building outline against the dense retaining wall behind (this seems to be the ghost of an addition to the original Poli) and a ghost sign that must have predated that section of the structure.

The building outline is nothing special–a straight rectangular box with one angled extension that looks like a slanted entrance to cellar stairs. The sign, on the other hand, begged for some looking into.

detail of faded ghost sign for Approved Lubrication, Pittsburgh, PA

Approved Lubrication ghost sign (detail)

The paint is almost completely worn away at this point. But with a little imagination and a little investigation, it turns out the sign was a large-form rendition of Amoco’s corporate identity and its Permalube Service used in the 1930s and ’40s. The tag line  Approved Lubrication is the most recognizable part of what remains. Knowing the original building dates to 1921, it’s probably safe to assume this painted advertisement was added before Poli’s misguided facelift and expansion onto the right/south side of the old building.

Amoco sign, 1930s-40s

Amoco sign, 1930s-40s [image: the Internet]

Poli would probably have made a great Orbit obit, but we just weren’t the right people to do it. [anyone? anyone?] The restaurant had existed at the same Murray Ave. location since 1921 and this blogger had at least fifteen years of ample opportunity to give it a try. What can I say? I was busy that night! No: it just didn’t happen.

I’m glad I made it to The Suburban Lounge and Moré and Chiodo’s Tavern before each of those storied haunts ended their respective run, but I’m afraid Poli is one that got away. Let it serve as a lesson that these places that seem like they’ll exist forever will not. [Note to self: get to Minutello’s ASAP!]

Ghost building/sign at the location of the former Poli restaurant, Pittsburgh, PA

In context: the double ghost at the former Poli site, Squirrel Hill

All that remains now is a re-seeded empty lot, an incongruous out-of-work smokestack, the nested pair of ghosts, and, across Murray Ave. from the site, the (literal) sign of Poli’s mid-life crisis. This c. 1970s triangular sign sits high up on its tall pedestal and shares a pie-shaped section of the five-points corner with a sidewalk no one will ever use, a parking lot with no apparent sponsor, and a set of out-of-place fruiting apple trees. In generally healthy, pedestrian-friendly Squirrel Hill, this is one dead space.

What will become of the sign? Who owns it now? It would be great if it could gradually morph into a legitimate “Thomasson” or be repurposed into a Welcome to Squirrel Hill beacon–its placement right at one entrance to the neighborhood would be perfect for that. Or, maybe, it will just become another ghost.

Sign reading "Poli Since 1921", Pittsburgh, PA

All that remains: Poli’s triangular sign across Murray Ave.

Ghost House: Wearing a Hearth on the Eaves

Brick house with exposed fireplace, Pittsburgh, Pa.

Central North Side

Home is where the heart is–at least if Granny’s framed needlepoint aphorism is to be believed. For buildings of a certain age, we may cheekily adjust this to say that home is where the hearth is (or hearths are)–every pre-steam heat building having requisite fireplaces in each and every living space throughout the house. This blogger’s little row house had eight of them.

Sometimes, though, the old saw gets flipped on its head. Quite often the old fireplaces end up outliving their host homes. Keith Richard-like hard-smoking, hard-living grizzled bears that manage to defy odds and stay alive while marathon-running vegetarians a generation younger fall in their trail.

Brick house with exposed fireplace, Pittsburgh, Pa.

Central North Side

When we started our series on ghost houses, the very first post was on a pair of houses in East Liberty. The second of these profiled had the curious arrangement that two fireplaces from the former home were left intact and hanging from the now-exposed common wall. We remarked at how extraordinary this was. [That post is still worth a look as the combined brick-faced (upper) and fake stone (lower) hearths still paint a strange portrait.]

Well, it sure seemed like that at the time. But as with so many of life’s mysteries, once the eyes were properly trained, it became a thing we started seeing everywhere–like faces in plumbing arrangements, or constellations in sidewalk chewing gum, or evil elves.

Brick house with two exposed fireplaces, Pittsburgh, Pa.

East Deutschtown

This is surely not a Pittsburgh phenomena, but the city is uniquely suited for it. Almost all of the oldest parts of town were built in dense neighborhoods of brick row houses, their adjoining walls sharing common, integral chimney stacks. As time and tide (and the death of the local steel industry) did their thing, lots of these houses were demolished–or just plain collapsed from neglect. So when the situation resulted in a kept-up house abutting a felled one, you get fireplaces dangling from external walls. It’s weird. And it’s kind of cool.

Brick house with two exposed fireplaces, Millvale, Pa.

Millvale

It turns out that there are so many of these out there, in fact, that we may end up needing to run a sequel (or two). There are even some interesting related-but-different sub-categories: exterior bath and kitchen tile, stair framing, exposed plaster walls that somehow survive winter after winter. So much to get to!

Brick house with two exposed fireplaces, Pittsburgh, Pa.

Hill District

Ghost House: Brighton Heights II, The Redemption

ghost house in Pittsburgh, PA

Ghost house: Antrim Street, Brighton Heights

According to one old saw, it takes a lot to laugh, and it takes a train to cry. And let me tell you something: it takes missing a broad-daylight ghost house to bring this blogger to his knees; begging forgiveness from you, dear reader. Mom: you deserve better.

Back in April, we ran our first ghost house story on a particular gem we found climbing the steep McClure Avenue hill from the Woods Run neighborhood to Brighton Heights. Maybe if we’d stopped whining about having to bicycle uphill long enough to look around, we’d have seen the yin to that house’s yang literally right around the corner.

Returning to that same beat this summer we were greeted by this visage on Antrim Street. The outline a classic Pittsburgh two-story, four-room frame with an almost-exact match rear porch/addition glommed onto the back. This one features the added mystery of a second-floor section above the back porch that appears in white paint. What is that? It looks like an addition on top of the sloped porch roof, but that seems nutty. You got me.

Fitzgerald famously said that there are no second acts in American lives, but he had less to say about make-goods from unreliable bloggers. Let’s make this thing right. We got back there; we realized the error in our ways; now let the record be set. I know we can never hope to fully repair the trust we’ve lost in this failure of reporting, but we can try. To you, Antrim Street ghost house, hopefully we’re square.

ghost house in Pittsburgh, PA