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.

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

Former House of the Hebrew Book, now Blakey Program Center, Pittsburgh, Pa.

Former Hebrew Institute, now Blakey Program Center, Hill District

Before Squirrel Hill was the center of Jewish life in Pittsburgh, that designation went to the Hill District, specifically the lower Hill a.k.a. “the big empty lot where the Civic Arena used to be.” Not a ton remains, but then again, maybe more than we expected. There are a couple really spectacular examples that we visited in our Memorial Day weekend travels.

First up is the former Hebrew Institute, now the Blakey Program Center, on Wylie Avenue. A beautiful (exactly) one hundred-year-old red brick building with an ornate front portico that’s been kept in terrific condition. It spent nearly sixty years as the Kay Boys Club/Kay Program Center and is now a community center that is part of the Hill House Association.

Cornerstone from way back in 5675, Blakey Program Center, Hill District

Cornerstone from way back in 5675

I love that the cornerstone was set with both Hebrew and Gregorian calendar years. The original institutional name has been updated to its current purpose, but executed nicely–I imagine this is no small feat in a set block of stone.

Former synagogue, now Zion Hill Full Gospel Baptist Chuch, Pittsburgh, Pa.

Former Congregation Kaisor Torah Synagogue, now Zion Hill Full Gospel Baptist Chuch, Hill District

On the corner of Webster and Erin Streets sits the large cube of a building that used to be the Congregation Kaisor Torah Synagogue (although you wouldn’t know it from the defaced cornerstone) and is now Zion Hill Full Gospel Baptist Church. A hand-painted alternate cornerstone also shows evidence that the building served as an A.M.E. church somewhere in the between time.

The big building has clearly seen better days as many of the windows are knocked-out, others replaced by plywood including the huge Star of David-shaped circular windows on the third floor of both the east and west sides. On its Erin Street face, the building shows evidence of removed staircases and stair rooflines (a mirrored set still stands on the other side). But the trees and sidewalks are looking good, and this heathen can testify that he heard a Zion Hill preacher doing the same to a rapt congregation inside last Sunday morning.

Cornerstone for former synagogue, Pittsburgh, Pa.

Kaisor Torah Synagogue: a less artful updating of the original cornerstone

Large Star of David synagogue window, Pittsburgh, Pa.

Kaisor Torah Synagogue (window detail)

These first two buildings were all The Orbit was aware of going into this piece, but combing through some old maps of the Hill District turned up a bunch of other things that we’ll be back to check out. So, you know, don’t touch that browser–stay tuned for the exciting sequel.