Row House Romance: Double the Fun OR Twins Gone Wild!

identical brick row houses, one with elaborate mural across the entire front, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

Identical twins, born of the same womb. The exact face, height, and profile. Some are from the side-streets–tough, working-class, gritty, without pretension. Others, their high-brow peers; raised mere blocks away, but praised for their natural beauty, elegant stature, and enviable position in life. To the former, these may as well have been from the moon.

No matter how much each pair of siblings may appear as perfect duplicates at birth, time has a way of imprinting itself on every living creature in radically different ways: an unwise tattoo or regrettable fashion choice, the scar from a near-death collision or the catastrophe of an ugly divorce. Given a hundred and twenty years or so, a lot can happen.

pair of brick row houses painted aqua blue and olive green, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

matched pair of row houses painted red and pink, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

pair of matching row houses with many exterior alterations, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

Consider the humble row house. Two up, two down; squat stoop; a single shared chimney stack; window-window, window-door. Some are boxy and flat-topped, but most have clean, peaked roofs–almost always with a dormer inserted right in the middle.

For the most part, Pittsburgh wasn’t built with the kind of block-long identical row houses you see filling entire neighborhoods of Baltimore or Philadelphia. More often, we ended up with pairs–mirror-image houses sharing a common wall. So much so, Pittsburgh has its own term for duplex: double house. Sometimes these twins are built into long blocks of other row houses in various designs; often, thin walkways separate the next-door neighbors.

exterior of brick row houses, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

side-by-side brick row houses, Pittsburgh, PA

Bloomfield

pair of row houses with very different exteriors, Pittsburgh, PA

Bloomfield

What’s so interesting about these–and perhaps all–twins is the divergent paths their lives inevitably take. Different paint jobs, added siding, fake stone and tile. Historical markers: windows cut down during the energy crisis, consolidated into one central pane, or removed completely. Entire doorways bricked-over or made unusable by nonexistent steps.

In one house, a third-floor addition with an out-of-place mansard roof; another, a post-op porch rebuild–but only across half the façade. A set of tin-slatted awnings here, window boxes and gingerbread paint details there. An extant old-school TV aerial, never bothered to remove after cable was introduced in the ’80s.

side-by-side brick row houses, Pittsburgh, PA

Bloomfield

exterior of mirror-image row houses with many cosmetic differences, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

side-by-side brick row houses, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

side-by-side brick row houses, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

Imagined as life-long companions–and also inevitable rivals–the pairs take on their own personalities. These two dress alike–only he prefers hot red, she a cool aqua green. That one’s in the process of some cosmetic surgery; this one just broke his leg–that big cast will be on for a while. Another always has to outdo her sister–fancier clothes, more refined tastes, newer technology.

brick row houses in Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

side-by-side brick row houses, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

pair of brick row houses, both with many obvious alterations to brickwork and detail, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

… and then there are those that just kept doing their thing. Maybe she got some window awnings back in the ’60s and he added an air conditioner to cool the front bedroom; she enlarged the stoop, he stopped using the front door. But they basically stayed together, no one putting on any fancy airs, as one family unit.

These aren’t rare, but they’re more exception than rule. The ability to get along with one’s neighbors is crucial in a tight, city neighborhood–even more so in one of these conjoined, paired double houses. But if you do it right, you end up with a better price on a re-roof, full house paint job, or new aluminum siding.

side-by-side row houses with dingy aluminum siding, Pittsburgh, PA

Bloomfield

matched pair of row houses with fake brick siding, Pittsburgh, PA

Bloomfield

exterior of dilapidated row houses in Sharpsburg, PA

Sharpsburg

In these polarized times, a picture of neighbor-working-with-neighbor cooperation feels like the kind of rosy-eyed, optimism that’s been banished from the earth–but it hasn’t. It’s still here in the compressed side streets and awkward alley houses all over the city. All it takes to find it is a little row house romance.


A note to the Orbit’s readers in the Mexican War Streets, Spring Garden, Southside flats, Hill District, and all the other row house neighborhoods and boroughs: we’ve neither forgotten nor forsaken thou. This topic deep and wide and we intend to explore it over time. We’ll get to you.

Black-and-Gold: To the House! Steelers Structures

brick building with trophies in the window painted gold with black trim, Pittsburgh, PA

Steelers dojo: Martial Arts Against Street Violence, Homewood

To paraphrase a well-trod cliché, if you build it, they will paint it black and gold.

What’s the point of owning your own diner, butcher shop, or martial arts studio if you can’t serve up those eggs and home fries or break lumber with your bare feet in a building faithfully decked-out in the home team colors? Firing the boss and doing what you want is the American dream! And just like those other local goals–one for the thumb, cracking open a six-pack, and, yes, stairway to seven–dreams really do come true*.

Today, for the start of the 2018 campaign, The Orbit salutes the über-fans who’ve gathered up brushes and tarps to decorate the façades of storefronts and residential exteriors in tribute to their favorite professional football team. Collectively, we’re calling these Steelers structures.

retail storefront painted black and gold, Pittsburgh, PA

Steelers storefront: Lawrenceville

empty retail storefront with cutout of Pittsburgh Steelers football player, McKeesport, PA

Steelers storefront: McKeesport

diner storefront painted black and gold, Pittsburgh, PA

Steelers diner: O’Leary’s, Southside

Sign for Cutty's Candy Store that includes the Pittsburgh skyline and a version of the Steelers logo with the word "Cutty" added

Steelers sweet shop: Cutty’s Candy Store, Homewood

retail storefront painted black and gold, Homestead, PA

Steelers snack shop: S&S Food Mart, Homestead

exterior of Ray's Barber Shop, Pittsburgh, with two homemade Steelers emblems

Steelers barber shop: Ray’s, Shadeland

storefront painted black and gold, Pittsburgh, PA

Steelers dojo: Three Rivers Martial Arts, Brookline

There are plenty of Steelers bars out there–pretty much every decent-sized American city has one (or more). Why, from Mugs ‘n Jugs in Clearwater, Florida to The Peanut Farm in Anchorage, Alaska, there will be no problem with Pittsburgh ex-pats catching the exploits of Antonio, Juju, and the gang any time soon. [There’s a semi-complete list up at SteerersBars.com.]

But if your local tavern runs the Steelers games on flat screen and imports a case of Iron City Beer for homesick fans, know they’re just doing the bare minimum. Real Steelers bars call to you from the street, wearing their own form of black-and-gold uniform or come bemuraled in crude renderings of trademark-safe generic football players frolicking on the gridiron.

brick building with first floor bar exterior painted black and gold, Brownsville, PA

Steelers bar: Brownsville

black tavern door with gold trim, Pittsburgh, PA

Steelers bar: Gametime Tavern, Spring Garden

exterior of roadhouse bar painted black and gold, McKeesport, PA

Steelers roadhouse: Mellon’s Pub, McKeesport

The fully-committed football fan doesn’t just enjoy a couple dozen games a year. No no no. He or she wants to live football–through the long, cold off season, the extended draft weekend, mini-camp, and boring preseason exhibitions.

One can literally inhabit the football lifestyle in a full-on Steelers house. Why fool around? Let’s go foundation-to-roofline in black-and-gold! The house will pop from the snow and bare trees in winter; in the fall, you’ll be conveniently camouflaged in your game-day jersey.

house painted black and gold, Pittsburgh, PA

Steelers house: South Side Slopes

row house painted black and gold, Pittsburgh, PA

Steelers row house: Lawrenceville

Not every homeowner is willing to go all-in on the black-and-gold, which leads to phenomena of the Steelers porch. This very much feels like a keep-the-peace compromise between one super fan and the rest of his or her (but who are we kidding? it’s probably his) family. That, or said supporter just didn’t want to do the hazardous second- and third-floor work on the extension ladder.

Either way, these awkward “business inside, party on the porch” houses get much respect…but probably not from the home decorati.

frame house with black-and-gold porch, Beaver Falls, PA

Steelers porch: Beaver Falls

house with brick porch painted black and gold, Pittsburgh, PA

Steelers porch: East Liberty

house front painted Steelers gold with black trim, Sharpsburg, PA

Steelers porch: Sharpsburg

Ma won’t even let you paint the porch? Well, there’s still an opportunity for a Steelers garage out back or around the side. The industrious football fan  can decorate a two-car shed in a bye-week afternoon. (Or even more time if his buddies “help”.) There’s no ladder work involved and they’ll look great housing your Steelermobile.

older 2-car garage with doors painted black and gold, Pittsburgh, PA

Steelers garage: Spring Hill

2-car garage painted black and gold, Pittsburgh, PA

Steelers garage: South Side Slopes

At this point, the casual Orbit reader may justifiably assume Steelers structures exist only in the spheres of retail storefronts, watering holes, and home improvement.

And you’d be wrong again! Make no mistake: you’ll have no problem locating the region’s favorite color scheme on factory buildings, car lots, and at least one (former) secret society.

ornamental dome painted black and gold on Dipcraft Manufacturing Company building, Rankin, PA

Steelers dome: Dipcraft Mfg. Co., Rankin

small masonry building painted black and gold, Pittsburgh, PA

Steelers used car lot: Lawrenceville

brick building with cinderblock doorway painted black and gold, Pittsburgh, PA

Steelers ex-secret society: Pythian Temple, Hill District

For those wishing to further pursue additional Orbit coverage of Steelers fandom, see also:


* No, a seventh Super Bowl win has not come to Pittsburgh…yet.

Jesus Houses

Run down brick house with large white cross above entryway, Steubenville, Ohio

Steubenville, Ohio

This blogger does not know his scripture, but he’s pretty sure that somewhere in Revelations there must be a passage like “If thou believeth in me, maketh sure everyone in the county is awareth of it.” (I’m paraphrasing, of course.)

Whether or not that’s true, there sure are a lot of Christians that want you to know it. You can see it just by looking over their front doors. Big white crosses hanging under the eaves, lashed to the split rail fence, or in one case, the name JESUS in thick garland where a leaded glass pane must have been.

Church built into home, Hill District, Pittsburgh, PA

Hill District

While we at The Orbit subscribe to a “live and let live” approach to life (and letting life), it’s sad that it’s so hard to imagine similar displays of the crescent moon or stars of David being as benignly accepted. Why, Regent Square has its bizarre tribute to Bacchus on that apartment building right across from the movie theater [note to self: get on that!], but I don’t know if they’d get away with a similarly prominent Buddha. [Realistically, Buddha probably gets a pass, but you know what I mean.]

Home with plastic cross tied to split-rail fence, Rochester, PA

Rochester, PA

We love human creation. Sometimes that most obviously comes in a physical statement of faith, or hand painting a Steelers party wagon (although those are increasingly hard to find). A power so great that it compels someone to create who may not otherwise have done so is an amazing thing, whether you believe in it or not. This non-flag-waving heathen has a hard time relating to the specific motivation here, but not to the greater one of exploration, expression, and release. Maybe that’s what these folks would tell me the whole thing is about, anyway.

Large house with "Jesus" written in large letters over the front door, Pittsburgh, PA

Central North Side

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

You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yetta: The Mosaic Houses of Spring Hill

A row of frame houses with mosaics covering the basement/foundation walls, Pittsburgh, Pa.

The mosaic houses of Spring Hill

It’s been said that Pittsburgh is place where you can have a basement apartment with a view. In Spring Hill, you have to actually take some steps up to reach the basement–and what a view!

By the time I got up there, it had been a workout. First, up and down, back and forth through the aptly-named Hill District looking for remaining traces of the Jewish Hill District. But the Hill was only the appetizer–scaling the steep Itin Street incline to Spring Hill proved to be the main course.

Stairway between houses with mosaics, Pittsburgh, Pa.

This panting blogger’s wiener was apparently too appealing a target for one four-year-old with a brand new water cannon. As his parents sorted through the poison ivy looking for a rose bush, their youth made it rain–on my short trousers. And let me tell you, he may be a little guy, but Max’s aim is true, his judgement unsparing, and he yields no mercy to the winded cyclist.

So when Kate gave me the tip to continue on even further up the hill (OK, just one short block) to Yetta Street for the checking out of a set of mosaics, it was time to go.

Yetta Street mosaic detail

And rewarded we were! There aren’t quite enough of them to justify this as a “neighborhood thing,” but with three clearly-related mosaic-bedecked houses in a row, plus one more down the block, it’s at least some inclination of a movement that will hopefully grow into said thing.

The styles and subjects range from groovy blasts of abstract color and shape to more recognizable scenes of gardens, flowers, and undersea life. One section may or may not be a loose impressionistic map of downtown Pittsburgh and its surrounding rivers. The Basilica of San Vitale this is not, but they’re quite nice.

Yetta Street mosaic detail

The mosaics are all set into the basement walls added under the front porches of the houses on the north (up hill) side of Yetta. The prim Victorian frame houses above with the scattershot artwork below give a terrific kind of business upstairs/party in the basement effect. This kind of decorative anachronism probably drives the historical crowd to hysteria, but, you know, live a little.

Victorian house in Pittsburgh, Pa. with mosaic on basement walls

Business upstairs/party in the basement

Yetta Street mosaic detail

I’d guess they all came from the same set of hands, but there wasn’t anyone around when we visited to ask. I’d love to know how recently these were added, if more neighbors are signing on, how the whole thing got started, etc. So we’ll have to wait for a subsequent trip up to Spring Hill to try again. I’m sure young Max is reloading as I type.

boy holding a super-soaker squirt gun

Watch your trousers: Max and his super-soaker

UPDATE (6/3/2015): The eagle-eyed and impressively-associated readers of The Pittsburgh Orbit quickly alerted us that the Spring Hill mosaics are both the work of Linda Wallen and that there are more of them in the neighborhood that we missed. Hopefully we’ll get a chance to talk with Linda and get the full story.

Say Hello to the Heidi Houses of Highland Park

house in Pittsburgh, Pa.

Heidi house #1, Highland Park

The Orbit is generally not big on cute, or quaint, or anything too goo-goo ga-ga–that is, unless you get all doe-eyed for fading paint or crazy person graffiti. But if these elfin charmers don’t warm your heart, well, then you have no heart to warm. Tucked away in the back corner of the one-way-in/one-way-out Cordova Road circle in Highland Park sit two lovely little fantasy cottage-houses straight out of Hans Christian Andersen, or maybe The Sound of Music.

With its peaked Alpine roof, pointed turret entrance, Tolkien door, and cattywumpus brickwork, the first of these is really the picture perfect Heidi house. As we visited, its front garden was in full bloom, a hodge-podge of unmatched flora that echoed the irregular, asymmetric design of the house.

The impossibly narrow dormers must provide absurdly little daylight to the second floor, but they sure look great on the outside! In fact, I expect this house is probably a lot better fantasy than practicality–but we’d rather spend our time in the astral plane.

house in Pittsburgh, Pa.

Heidi house #1 in full Spring bloom

Right next door, there’s a slightly more conventional, but equally magical home. Its front dormers cut into the porch roof with gentle curves that suggest excited brows to the windows’ ogling eyes; the porch below a grinning gap-toothed smile. And what’s not to smile about? The thick piled stone supports and wood railing look equal parts Bavarian der kutenhaussenmaken (look it up) and woodsy Adirondack lodge.

Both properties have an idyllic setting up against the thick wood of Heths Run Greenspace that extends as far as one can see and must make the perfect silent shady backdrop to their inevitable side decks.

house in Pittsburgh, Pa.

Heidi house #2, Highland Park

Bonus! Just around the corner on King Avenue sits what can only be described as a set of Heidi row houses, for, you know, when Heidi comes into the city. One solid block of five adjoined residences in a similar (if less dramatic) Teutonic style to the two houses on Cordova. The roofline cuts at an unusual angle allowing dormers on both the second and third floors, casement windows, and deep, pre-A/C porches, guaranteed to keep herself cool even in the worst summer humidity.

connected three-story rowhouses in Pittsburgh, Pa.

Heidi row houses