Onion Dome Fever: St. Nicholas Orthodox, Donora

exterior view of onion-domed St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, Donora, PA

St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, Donora

The Orbit may be cheap, but at least we love a bargain.

Like a cat’s mad scramble at the first wafts of eau d’tuna fish floating up the stairwell, throw a couple of glorious onion domes in the sky and get out of the way. The Orbit will come a-runnin’, leaving scratches in the wood floor and taking out everything on the end table as collateral damage.

Pair the steeple spectating with a nice (if too short) city step climb–its attendant views of town and the curling Monongahela River no small bonuses–and you’ve just served up an all-you-can-blog super buffet in Orbitville. Like Roger Daltrey, this blogger would call that a bargain–one of the better ones he’s seen lately.

foreground sign with removable letters saying "Sunday service 10" with St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in background, Donora, PA

St. Nicholas Orthodox Church rises at the top of the short hill that bridges Donora’s McKean Ave. business district on the flats with the residential neighborhoods up above. It is fully accessible from numerous paved roads, but a short hike on the 8th Street city steps takes the visitor straight up the hillside to the base of ol’ St. Nick’s eponymous way. The calves aren’t quite done yet, as you’ve still got another solid block-length walk uphill to the reach the church itself. The South Side Slopes, this ain’t, but the six or eight vertical stories will do in a pinch.

view up city steps to St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, Donora, PA

On a typically gray mid-winter day–we weren’t encumbered by any of that bothersome sunlight–the otherworldly green shapes of the church’s oxidized copper spaceship ornaments are both the brightest thing you’ll see and the most distinct forms on the horizon. Visible from pretty much anywhere in town, the big emerald orbs poke out over commercial storefronts and through bare trees, as halos on wooden homes and antennae to the aether. Come to me they seem to whisper from afar, and heed their siren song we always do.

mosaic of St. Nicholas above entryway to St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, Donora, PA

St. Nicholas has such a traditional, classic look that it was a little surprising to find out it had been erected in the early 1950s, replacing a smaller, 1916 structure just down the hill*. This blogger takes his sight-seeing seriously and is currently working off the demerits for failure to scrutinize (let alone photograph) the symmetrical pair of cornerstones on either side of the building’s face.

Typically, such arrangements seem to contain the same information, inscribed in English on one stone and the congregation’s original language on the other. This seems like it would be Carpatho-Russian Cyrrilic, but we’ll have to wait for the inevitable return trip make-good to verify.

Oh…and there will be a return trip. We can hear St. Nicholas calling even now…

exterior view of onion-domed St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, Donora, PA


* http://stnicholasorthodoxdonora.org/history.html

Rankin Amateurs

faded mural with a mixed group of people in front of elementary school, Rankin, PA

Rankin Elementary: home of tomorrow’s professionals and today’s friendly aliens

Two of the friendliest alien lifeforms one is likely to encounter wave hello from the distance. Welcome to Rankin! they seem to suggest. The creatures’ giant insectoid bodies are as large as the glass entry doors of an elementary school, comical color-coordinated antennae bob from their big-eyed heads.

In front are a panoply of the borough’s truly fine citizens: a physician, the mayor, 4-H club members, their advisor, and one sullen teenager*. In the background, Old Glory waves spectacularly as a perpetual rainbow gilds the perfectly blue sky.

fading mural with businessman and exterior of Dipcraft Mfg. Co., Rankin, PA

Businessman, Dipcraft Mfg. Co.

It’s one of the Images of Rankin, a series of four large murals** created by artist Connie Merriman along with a dozen Woodland Hills high school students. The paintings pay tribute to positive community members in Rankin through posed group portraits with backdrops of notable borough locations. The set turns twenty this year.

The images decorate an otherwise drab, high cement retaining wall half-way between, and parallel-to 2nd Ave. (aka Rankin Blvd., below) and 3rd Ave. (above). They form the backdrop to a small parklet with a wooden gazebo/bandstand at the north end.

fading mural with well-dressed ladies and gentlemen, Rankin, PA

The ladies and gentlemen of Rankin

Rankin Borough has had a rough few decades. The giant U.S. Steel mill along the river stopped producing in the late 1970s and it never had the business district that neighboring Swissvale (to the north) and Braddock (south) have. Today, its unruly collection of squat row houses, frame worker homes, and newer (but not new) apartment terraces have clearly had their share of wear and tear.

But there’s a lot of pride in these paintings that celebrate the people in the neighborhood that are (or, at least, were, in 1996) still fighting for it–a councilwoman, president of the CDC, members of the Rankin Christian Center, a businessman, a community organizer. Like Alfred Hitchcock before them, the 4-H Club members took the opportunity to paint themselves into Rankin’s history.

fading mural of kids hanging out, Rankin, PA

Youth of Rankin: watch out for that weed!

Back in March, we covered the tragic and beautiful deterioration of the murals of the Sewickley Speakeasy. Many of the thoughts from that post could be restated here, but there are some notable differences. Where the Speakeasy paintings suffered from paint flaking and water seepage, the Rankin murals are more intact, but have been substantially sun-bleached and overtaken by nature.

In both cases, the artists’ work is skilled and recognizable–I bet everyone in town could name the figures portrayed. That said, these ain’t Rembrandt. There’s a delightful amateur quality that’s somewhere between folk/outsider art and thrift store chic. The trees look like cartoon backdrops and perspectives are distorted; hands are formed like stiff mannequin parts and people tilt awkwardly as if magnetically drawn. And then there are those overly-excited bug-like aliens…

Retaining wall with murals, Rankin, PA

In context: retaining wall with the Rankin murals


* All mural subject identification comes from the very informative entry at pghmurals.com
** The paintings are actually on OSB mounted to the wall, so they probably aren’t technically “murals”.

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