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.

Photo Grab Bag: Ghost Sign Roundup

ghost sign with layered text, McKeesport, PA

(unknown), McKeesport

Longtime readers know The Orbit is in the business of making dreams come true–and business is good. It was pointed out by super fan/sometime contributor Lee that probably a lot of folks don’t see the loose photos that end up on The Orbit‘s artsy dark and/or snarky narc pages and maybe we should roll them up into an actual blog post once in a while.

So here you go. Like Cheech and/or Chong, we’ve pulled out the gatefold copy of Fragile and are rounding up and rolling out a first collection of non-specific pictures from the last year or so. Here, they’re grouped on the pseudo-theme of ghost signs. Don’t inhale too deeply.

ghost sign/advertisement for Hipco Batteries, Pittsburgh, PA

Hipco Batteries, Manchester

It’s a bold claim, but the Hipco Batteries ad has to be the city’s greatest ghost sign. The incredible painted image has some classic “vernacular typography”, one giant old school No. 6 dry cell battery, and a sadistic, grinning red devil, his tongue wagging like a pervert from his open, fanged mouth. He’s very excited, with one hand reaching out, palm up, and the other employing a Hipwell flashlight to no doubt look for trouble in the dark.

This begs the question: do devils really need flashlights? Well, we know this one does. Unlike the subjects of every other photo in this post, the Hipwell Manufacturing Company, founded in 1887, amazingly still exists and continues to manufacture a line of flashlights (but no longer batteries) right in this big old brick building on West North Avenue[1].

ghost sign for former La Salle Electric, Pittsburgh, PA

La Salle Electric, Manchester

The pair of conjoined industrial buildings that once housed La Salle Electric, just off Brighton Road in Manchester, were torn down earlier this year. Now there’s just a re-grassed vacant lot where they used to be. Whatever prompted that action, it’s sad for a lot of reasons–mainly that we’ve got a limited supply of this kind of late 19th century industrial buildings out there and it’s a bummer to lose two of them in one fell swoop.

Here, we can only focus on the relatively minor loss of this great ghost sign, painted across the point where the two buildings met. You can see the red brick side appears to have shifted ever so slightly, distorting the alignment of the white background and breaking the A in “Salle”. And what a great pair of arrows! The office is that way, you can pick up your stuff on the other side. Ugh. I mean, the office used to be that way…

ghost sign for former Regent Sportswear Shop, Pittsburgh, PA

Regent Sportswear (and Wig Shop?), East Liberty

The rear entrance to the former Regent Sportswear Shop doesn’t have what we usually consider “ghost signs”, but still seems like it ought to count. Regent’s 3-D sign, the typeface in Wigs, and the multi-color blue/gray/white brick treatment all suggest a 1960s/70s makeover to a building that probably goes back to the very early 1900s. Somewhere out there is a person who bought a terrycloth track suit or tried on someone else’s hair at Regent’s and we sure hope this last reminder in the Kirkwood Street alley makes him or her feel something. Hopefully that feeling is not, you know, “itchy”.

ghost sign reading "Sal's Meats Since 1921", Ambridge, PA

Sal’s Meats, Ambridge

Sadly, Sal’s Meats, like most of the businesses in Ambridge, ain’t there any more. But at least we’ve still got this great ghost sign. Painted signs don’t get any graphically stronger than bold red text on a white background, painted fifteen feet across on a deep red brick wall. Sal’s Meats, since 1921. ‘Nuf sed.

ghost sign for former Penn Bowling Lanes, Pittsburgh, PA

Penn Bowling Lanes, Downtown

What a time when the downtown worker could bowl ten frames over a lunch break! This literal back alley entrance on Exchange Way (between Liberty and Penn, downtown) suggests the bowling may have taken place in the basement, but who knows? Heck, maybe those wooden lanes, pin-setters, ball returns, and beer taps are all still down there, covered in forty years of dust. Either way, we’re glad no one felt the need to paint over this incredible patchwork wall with its reminder of old Pittsburgh.

ghost sign for Dr. D.E. Earley, Optometrist, New Martinsville, W. Va.

Dr. D.E. Earley, Optometrist, New Martinsville, W. Va.

Last winter, we made a special stop for the mind-boggling buffet at Quinets Court in the fine little West Virginia town of New Martinsville (about 90 minutes from Pittsburgh–and well worth the trip)[2]. The inevitable post-gorge belt-loosening constitutional yielded some fine views of the Ohio River and a bunch of great little oddities in the four-block downtown stretch. This ghost sign for Dr. D.E. Earley, Optometrist looks like it could go back a hundred years. That’s a long time to wait to get your eyes examined and glasses fitted, but then again, you’ve got a steam tray full of Quinets cobbler two blocks away. I can think of worse ways to spend a century.

Former storefront for G's Restaurant and Pizzeria, Pittsburgh, PA

G’s Restaurant and Pizzeria, Downtown

Bathed in low winter sunlight, made awkwardly diffuse by scaffolding and construction fence, this photo of the former G’s Restaurant and Pizzeria on Forbes Ave. got shoehorned into an update story on the last remaining Toynbee Tile on Smithfield Street and the face of a rapidly changing downtown Pittsburgh. But we felt like there was a little more to say here.

G’s Restaurant, along with the former Honus Wagner Sports building next door, were razed earlier this year. Point Park University is building a big new performance arts building/theater on the property. This will no doubt be a great cultural asset, but The Orbit‘s going to miss this pair of early 1900s terra cotta storefronts, each with their own goofy mid-century add-ons.


[1] See article: In The Spotlight: Hipwell Manufacturing (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Nov. 10, 2002) for the full story.
[2] The Orbit actually needs to make the trip to Quinets again for a full review–or even if just for that eggplant parm, and the kielbasa and kraut, and the fried chicken, and the haluski, and the brown sugar sweet potatoes, and the butterscotch pie, and the…

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

A Toast to the Host of a Double-Ghost in Glassport

ghost sign of hand with extended index finger and shirt cuff painted on brick wall, Glassport, PA

These don’t come along every day. Oh sure, The Orbit has covered its share of ghost signs–we see them all over the place. But this long brick wall along the side of a retail space facing a vacant lot in Glassport is something special.

First, it’s got this absolutely terrific disembodied left hand. Its index finger is fully pointing that way. The fingernails are in need of a trim, but still well-groomed–this is not the hand of a working (wo)man. The pointer’s shirt cuffs are linked under the arm of a what must be one spectacular red suit jacket–this blogger imagines it’s crushed velvet (but he would). The painting has to be six or seven feet wide.

That’s great, but what makes this ghost sign really unique among its faded brethren is the weird multi-layered levels of advertising that have survived and outlasted their respective backgrounds. The effect is one that makes the wall look like a giant test sheet for a print run, or of a very Radar magazine/Photoshop-era layer-through-layer effect, because we can.

layers of ghost signs on brick wall, Glassport, PA

Mother’s Bread 100% Pure / Ward’s Bread

Back then–whenever then was–the sign painters couldn’t (or wouldn’t) have executed anything like this on purpose. But with the hindsight of a couple dozen decades of modern art and graphic design, we can’t help but think how incredibly “of today” these just happened to end up looking.

The fantastic way the layered letters blur and melt into one another, the ghost-within-ghost mutations of form, the collision of type faces, the barely readable text–it all looks like a grand version of something you’d see silk-screened and framed on an Unblurred Friday night. Hell, you could turn these into t-shirts and sell them for twenty bucks to the indie craft crowd–nobody would bat an eye.

And thus, Little Orbit Kitty Fashion Productions was born.

layers of ghost signs on brick wall, Glassport, PA

The Real Kind! / Made for Practical People!

Un-Graffiti: No Parking! (Part 1)

white brick wall with "NO PARKING" painted in red, Pittsburgh, PA

NO PARKING, Oakland

Parking, man. People get so damn worked-up about it.

When first The Orbit introduced the notion of “un-graffiti” some most-of-a-year-ago, it wasn’t clear there’d be much more to that particular story. How wrong we were! As it turned out, over and over again we were seeing not just more examples of the form, but the very particular one of business owners taking the law into their own hands with D.I.Y. graffiti-style No Parking signs. We have so many of these that our hard drive overfloweth with this particular bounty. Here we bring you just the cream of this particular crop…so far.

brick wall with message "Theatre. Quiet please. No parking." painted, Downtown Pittsburgh

THEATRE QUIET PLEASE *NO PARKING*, Downtown

In our digital-age interpretation of ALL CAPS as text-based shouting, the QUIET PLEASE portion of this particular message comes as a humorous incongruity. I believe the “theatre” location is actually still valid (either Harris or Arcade Comedy? It’s somewhere near the back/alley side of those two) though I imagine this sign predates the modern use of the space. The different color paint, elongated verticals, and general sloppiness of the NO PARKING half of the message suggest it was appended at some point after the initial job.

corrugated metal doors with hand-painted no parking message

DOORWAY DON’T BLOCK! No parking, Strip District

This blogger is sitting on a ton of pictures taken around the set of corrugated metal warehouses in the 3100 block of Penn and Liberty in The Strip. They just always look great and get such terrific weird light sneaking in over The Hill and down through the canyon between the tight buildings on either side of the Spring Way alley. What we’ll do with those, who knows? But there happens to be one qualifying no parking entry here, this with the re-phrase DOORWAY DON’T BLOCK–the no parking a mere afterthought.

no-parking-arrow

NO PARKING, Lawrenceville

Why is the NO only one brick high, but PARKING gets two? The directness (literally) of the arrow is so great…and specific. “Is it just right here? Is it OK if I park over there?” Whatever the explanation, it’s clear the owner of this property on Cabinet Way in Lawrenceville (a church school, rather than a home, if memory serves) doesn’t want to ask too much. Give the lord this one spot; do what you want anywhere else.

garage door spray painted with "Please. No parking in front of garage. Thank you."

Please. No parking in front of garage. Thank you. Lawrenceville

The most courteous no parking sign you’ll likely find. The message is written in a friendly cursive, includes an abstracted flower (?) decoration, and is bookended with both “Please” and “Thank you.” It makes this blogger almost want to abandon a car here, just to meet these nice folks.

brick walk with no parking message painted

NO PARKING ON SIDEWALK, North Side

Found on an alley in central North Side, this example is so perfect it looks like a film set. The worn red brick wall, the steel bars on the blocked-out windows, and the perfectly-painted (stenciled?) NO PARKING ON SIDEWALK that’s likely fifty or sixty years old (?) are all…just so. You could line up the Sharks and Jets or Pink Ladies and greasers in front of this backdrop and have a right proper switchblade-slinging bubblegum-popping sing-and-dance off. Cue: Vinnie Barbarino–this time we’re racing for pinks. Wop-de-wop, shoo-bop de-doobie-do.

faded painting on brick wall reading "No Parking at any time", Glassport, PA

*NO* PARKING at any time, Glassport

Another old sign so quaintly precious it’s hard to believe. This one has the bonus keystone-shaped Official [unreadable] ghost sign above it (probably a former Pennsylvania state inspection station?). The no-nonsense *NO PARKING* followed by the sweet lower-case at any time have a nice good cop/bad cop duality that seems to come from another time–don’t park here, but we still like you. Come back for an inspection and maybe an oil change…at any time.

Painting on brick wall of pizza restaurant reading "NO Parking Pizza Only ... -- or Towed at your own risk!", Homestead, PA

NO PARKING PIZZA ONLY … — OR TOWED at your own risk! Homestead

An embarrassment of riches…or at least messages. Is it “no parking” or “parking pizza only”? Why is there both an ellipsis and an m-dash? How can you be “towed at your own risk!”?Regardless of any lapses in pre-paint proof-reading (err…proof-thinking-through), it’s pretty obvious Di Sallas Pizza in Homestead would like you to pick up your pie and get the hell out–you can leave the motor running. The glowing online testimonials suggest the Di Sallas spent more time in the kitchen than either art or English class and we should come back to cover this place for The Pizza Chase–we’ll just watch where we park.

hand-painted sign on cement wall reading "Parking only Dollar Store and More"

PARKING ONLY DOLLAR STORE AND MORE, Forest Hills

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.