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.

Signs of New Kensington

Painted wall advertisement for Owl Cigar

“Sign, sign, everywhere a sign,” goes the old Freedom Rock classic.  I don’t know if the Five Man Electrical Band ever made it to New Kensington, but they’d likely be dismayed that said signs are still “blockin’ out the scenery (and) breakin’ (their) mind.”  These signs, in fact, have managed to outlive many of the people, businesses–entire industries–that once surrounded them.

New Kensington.  The town Alcoa built.  An obviously once-thriving, larger-than-average industry town that lies up the Allegheny River from metro Pittsburgh.  Like many of its sister communities, the industry is now long gone and the overwhelming experience of visiting is both vacancy and beauty.

I’ve been to New Ken maybe a dozen times for a variety of reasons, but usually just to poke around. I’m always struck by how incredible much of the architecture/building stock still is. Gorgeous late Victorian/pre-war grand homes and ornate apartments, great industrial spaces, lean art deco retail storefronts in terra cotta and stone.  It kills me that businesses will continue to locate their expansions to desert office parks when there are fully intact towns like New Kensington just dying for that Amazon distribution point, a call center or manufacturer to come in.  Sigh.

Anyway, there are a bunch of great things to see in New Kensington.  I visited on a cold, but beautifully sunny day (no filters needed!) last weekend.  This trip I chose to just focus on the (painted wall) signs downtown in the flats, but the Orbit will be back–we didn’t even make it to Parnassus or Arnold!

Parking lot kiosk, New Kensington

You Park It and Lock It

Old sign for Abraham's missing letters

Abraham’s

Painted wall advertisement for Pillsbury's Best flour

Pillsbury’s Best

Painted wall advertisement for Coca-Cola

Drink Coca-Cola

Painted wall sign for Sons of Italy No. 881, New Kensington

Sons of Italy No. 881

Painted wall advertisements, New Kensington

Bull Durham Tobacco / Gold Medal Flour