Dead Mall: Allegheny Center

Former office building in Allegheny Center, Pittsburgh, PA

Former office building, former Dollar Bank

It was a Saturday afternoon and this American was at the mall. Nothing strange about that, right? Where it gets weird is that he was the only one at the mall. And I mean literally the only living creature on this giant plot of city-center property*.

I wasn’t even there to buy anything! But that’s lucky, because believe me, there was nothing for sale–no novelty t-shirts, no shoes, no Spencer Gifts, no Licorice Pizza, and (sigh) no Orange Julius.

Empty common area of Allegheny Center Mall, Pittsburgh, PA

Main common area

Allegheny Center, one of Pittsburgh’s three ginormous, well-intentioned, but ultimately disastrous urban redevelopment projects of the 1960s, is today the most intact of that triumvirate. The Civic Arena was torn down several years ago and its massive site is currently in development for yet another makeover. East Liberty’s business district is more gradually having its wrongs…undone (I’m not sure “righted” is fair–certainly the displaced residents wouldn’t think so).

This isn’t your average dead mall. For one, it’s not way out in the suburbs–just one river crossing and a few blocks separate Allegheny Center from downtown Pittsburgh. For another, even though as a shopping mall it’s definitely long gone, some amount of the property is very much in use. Many of the former retail spaces are now occupied by an unlikely collection of anonymous back offices for banks, utilities, tech companies, etc. There’s even a working soup-and-sandwich restaurant to serve the captive clientele (but it’s not open over the weekend).

Things are going to change fast for Allegheny Center real soon. Announced last year, the complex is about to have a whole bunch of money dumped into it to convert the mall space to a incubator and campus for high tech companies with the new name Nova Place. Radiant Hall has moved into the ground floor of the office building and Quantum Theatre will stage its next production (Ibsen’s The Master Builder) upstairs in April. We thought The Orbit ought to get in there and take a look before everything changes once again.

Large hexagon-shaped planters filled with both dirt and styrofoam packing peanuts, Allegheny Center Mall, Pittsburgh, PA

Empty hex planters

Allegheny Center isn’t just a (former) shopping mall. It’s a small complex of buildings that includes an eight-story office building and a similarly-sized set of apartments (which may still be in use). There’s also a terrific freestanding bank branch that has the center’s very of-its-time midcentury modern curved boxes.

Much has been made about what The North Side lost when the Allegheny Center project came in–most notably its beautiful, central market house and sensible street grid. That was all before this blogger’s time, but the pictures are heartbreaking.

Entrance to parking garage and curved, projecting windows, Allegheny Center Mall, Pittsburgh, PA

Parking garage entrance and characteristic curved exterior features

That said, the fifty years that have passed since Allegheny Center was built in 1966 have largely been kind to what could have been a horrific featureless and windowless box like many of its enclosed mall peers. The overall design is an inventive mixture of interior and exterior space. Shoppers could get to destinations both within the enclosed mall area and also from a number of outside-facing storefronts. Allegheny Center’s original plan devoted much of its space to an open garden/park are on what is now just a bizarre gray plane. The center had mixed use as a central focus, accommodating retail, dining, office, and residential space. Parking is entirely hidden within underground garages. Maybe most surprising, given what we’ve seen of mall design since, nearly 100% of the exterior space contains big windows with views of downtown Pittsburgh (to the south) and up to the hills of Fineview (north).

Aerial photo showing Allegheny Center's original open space parklet and red polymer surface

Aerial photo of Allegheny Center’s original open space parklet with red polymer surface [photo: concretedecor.net]

It’s also in amazingly great condition. I was struck by how absolutely clean and immaculately cared-for the entire property seems to be. Inside the mall, the arched atrium windows still let in a great slanted light, the original tile may show its age in color selection, but not in cracks or wear. Windows–there are many–are clean and bright.

Outside we didn’t see any of the tell-tale signs of other dead malls–no rust or leaks, no cracked window panes or graffiti, no trash, cigarette butts, or weeds. The exterior retail spaces have all been boarded-over with plywood to protect them. We obviously don’t know what things look like underneath, but if they resemble the rest of property, restaurants and retail stores could move back in tomorrow. [Note to Lou Pappan’s heirs: please consider this!]

While it’s certainly dated, the architectural design has the remarkable quality of being both curved and boxy, regular and asymmetric, retro and modern. By today’s standards, it’s cool…or, at least, it could be. By any yardstick, it’s got a lot more potential than Century III. Let’s all cross our fingers for Nova Place.

Empty exterior common/garden area, Allegheny Center Mall, Pittsburgh, PA

Exterior common area with boarded-up former storefronts, former parklet


* This is only a slight exaggeration–during our half-hour visit we did see one dog-walker (outside) and one security officer (inside).

Sources:

The Frankenstein Hillside of Woods Run

Hillside with embedded bricks and cinderblocks, Pittsburgh, PA

The Frankenstein hillside of Woods Run (detail)

This is about as Pittsburgh as it gets. A steep, nearly vertical, hillside forms a natural boundary between two distinct neighborhoods–Brighton Heights up above and Woods Run down below. Hillside erosion (or the threat thereof) has forced the hand of…someone (the city? industry? private property owners?) to infill cracks and fissures in the bare rock, but they’ve done it in the cheapest, most ramshackle way possible. It’s kind of like creating the goofy colored belt system instead of actually building any new highways–but to solve erosion issues instead of…directional? [The belts certainly do nothing for traffic.] In both cases, The Orbit applauds this philosophy of low-tech, minimally-destructive, infrastructure recycling.

Hillside with embedded bricks and cinderblocks, Pittsburgh, PA

Even with the bright morning sun shining on them, it’s a little hard to see what’s going on in these photos. The hill probably reaches fifty or sixty feet above street level at its highest and there are at least a handful of houses that back right up near the top edge. At the base is vacant land (today), but likely held row houses, retail, or small industry buildings back in the day.

Irregularly set into the rock face are a mortared collection of various masonry materials–bricks of all shapes, sizes, and colors, as well as cinderblocks, paving stones, and poured concrete. The overall effect is as if some bygone cheapskate public works director gave the order to “just fill the cracks with whatever you have laying around.”

Hillside with embedded bricks and cinderblocks, Pittsburgh, PA

The combination is beautiful, weird, and, yes, looks like the work of a mad scientist, or maybe a mad civil engineer. There’s the very awkward collision of nature and technology–like a brick and stone cyborg, only this one wants to keep loose rock from falling on you instead of hunting you down for crimes you’ll inevitably commit in the future. The spare parts and junk shop chic is something any crazy inventor with a bricklaying hobby would be proud of. The hill’s vertical face is rendered in wonderful 3-D, at points both smooth and jagged, metric and chock-a-block–it gives the whole enterprise this incredible depth and texture. Seeing these on a clear day, in the A.M. (when the eastern sun lights them up), will match any gallery experience. We guarantee it, just like Dr. Frankenstein did.

Hillside with embedded bricks and cinderblocks, Pittsburgh, PA

Getting there: The Frankenstein hillside runs along the dog-legged stretch of Woods Run Ave. between Eckert St. and McClure, right across the street from Mr. Jack’s Neighborhood Bar (“No guns. No knives.”)–just look up. Cyclists will be well aware of this particular patch of road as it’s the primary route from the very end of the river bike trail by the old jail to points west and north.

Pop des Fleurs

Dippy the Dinosaur with a Pop des Fleurs necktie, Carnegie Museum, Pittsburgh, PA

Dippy le Dinosaur with a Popped des Fleured necktie, Oakland

A blast of lovely spring color in the darkest, coldest days of winter. At least, that’s the idea. This winter has basically been a no-show but rest assured that the eye-popping collision of vibrant fantasy flora still made a bold entrance and looks magnificent against the electric blue skies we’ve been seeing. Yes, we are officially neck deep into Pop des Fleurs* season.

Pop des Fleurs art project, Carnegie Library, Pittsburgh, PA

Pot d’Pop des Fleurs, Carnegie Library, Oakland

If you’ve been to the library in the last couple weeks–any library in the Carnegie system–you’ve seen the flowers. You can’t miss them. They’re planted in huge pots; they cover giant wall panels and adorn railings; they decorate nearby structures. Each installation site has a different arrangement, media, and theme so it’s rewarding to make your way around to as many as you can. There’s a Google map pin-pointing a couple dozen locations in the county.

Pop des Fleurs art project, Pittsburgh, PA

Carnegie Library, Central North Side

Pop des Fleurs is a project of the Fiberarts Guild of Pittsburgh and anyone who’s seen one of their shows or is familiar with their work knows that the “fiberarts” extend to cover a pretty wide range of materials, styles, and techniques–it ain’t just knitting and quilting. You get a pretty great cross-section look at those in the various installations: knit and crocheted yarn, recycled shopping bags and product containers, plastic stretched over wire forms.

Pop des Fleurs art project, Pittsburgh, PA

Carnegie Library, Lawrenceville

Around this time last year, The Orbit ran a story on Pop des Fleurs trial run for the project in Arsenal Park. The experience, in winter 2015’s unrelenting snow and brutal cold, was a revelation. If we have one regret, one minor quibble with the terrific Pop des Fleurs project, it is that by attaching the arrangements to institutions (sometimes literally) they lose some of their terrific namesake “pop” we experienced at the test installation last winter. Brilliant flowers against white snow and gray skies just look terrific.

I’m sure there are very practical reasons for this approach–legal, financial, grant-obligated, etc.–and the association with the Carnegie Library system is great–but these flowers would bring so much desperately-needed life to barren parks and desolate public spaces that it feels like a missed opportunity.

Close-up of Pop des Fleurs art project, Pittsburgh, PA

This is, to be clear, the most minor of criticisms. The Orbit is officially on its feet, clapping earnestly, and yelling Bravo between wolf-whistles. To the visionaries and craftspeople of the Fiberarts Guild and Pop des Fleurs project, we thank you for bringing Pittsburgh such a fantastic piece of technicolor fantasy into the cruelest of month of the year. Hat’s off.

Detail of giant purple and yellow knitted flower as part of Pop des Fleurs, Pittsburgh, PA


* That’s French for “Pop the Fleurs” [Note to self: look up “fleurs”]

 

The Wood Demon of Woods Run

Sculpture carved from tree trunk, Pittsburgh, PA

The Wood Demon of Woods Run

This blogger wasn’t looking for trouble, but trouble sure found him. Everyone knows blogging is dangerous work–just look at the language: deadlines, obitsgraveyards, “kill it.” Was it Ben Franklin or Jim Morrison who said “No one here gets out alive–so pay your taxes!”? Does it really matter? Whoever uttered those prescient words was talking about The Art of the Blog™…and it is a dark art indeed. We know all this going in, but rarely does the ne’er-do-well blogger literally come face-to-face with his demon(s).

Cloudless deep blues skies, sixty-ish degrees, a gorgeous Sunday with no obligations. Yes: God was telling us to go “reporting.” And so, on trusty steed to the North Side we did ride to follow-up on yet another golden baby tip [keep them coming!] and then on to check out the various Pop des Fleurs locations nearby [more about that soon…probably]. We continued–through the Mexican Wars Streets, Manchester, and then up Woods Run Avenue. It was a chance turn of the head–a mere tourner of the tête, a giro of the cabeza, if you will–that sealed our fate. Out of nowhere, a startled bewilderment that the scrubby, gnarled leaf-bare hillside revealed a face in the wood, staring back.

Sculpture carved from tree trunk, Pittsburgh, PA

It is a curious spirit, to be sure. Hewn from the remaining trunk of a felled medium-size tree, the figure rests maybe ten or fifteen feet back from the road and stands roughly five feet tall. It’s canted at an awkward angle. The Wood Demon’s face has the gouged triangular eyes and orthodontists’ paradise gap-toothed sadistic grin of a Hallowe’en jack-o-lantern. The nostrils appear to be sculpted by the not-too-delicate incision of a chainsaw. Eyes have been formed with a pair of rubber balls, hammered in place with what look like knitting needles. [Don’t mess with those crafters!] On his head is a jagged crown.

Whether The Wood Demon is watching over sacred land, is out guarding the fine citizens of Woods Run, or just wants to haunt wayward bloggers is unclear. Perhaps he’s just here to reinforce the late fees at the nearby Carnegie Library branch, a hundred yards down the road. [Music is just a one-week checkout! The Wood Demon grants no grace period!] Whatever he’s doing, we’re glad The Wood Demon is here, watching.

Sculpture carved from tree trunk, Pittsburgh, PA

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

Christmas Under the Bridge

Allegheny River trail Christmas tree #2 (under 31st Street Bridge)

Allegheny River trail Christmas tree #2 (under 31st Street Bridge)

We are, if the clever Orbit reader has not already divined, kerchief deep into Christmas season. It’s the all-consuming megalopolis of a holiday whose red and green, pine cone-encrusted, jingle-bell-adorned, egg nog-slurping tentacles reach so deeply that even Casey Kasem is banished from the airwaves until after the new year rolls around. Sigh. What to do when a blogger can’t even get any Hot Chocolate with his hot chocolate?

We expect this–and certainly know it’s coming–but had no idea that Ol’ St. Nick’s lords-a-leaping, geese-a-laying influence would extend all the way down under the bridges of the North Side, and yet it does. But we’re here to say that, just like Scrooge, even this bah-humbugging blogger can turn around to The Christmas SpiritTM when and where he never expected he would.

Allegheny River trail Christmas tree #1 (under 33rd Street railroad bridge)

Allegheny River trail Christmas tree #1 (under 33rd Street railroad bridge)

Yet another lovely sun-drenched December weekend day and another healthy afternoon two-wheeled constitutional. [Weather gods: why hath thou forsaken this blogger? How long must he wait for 45 degrees and drizzling?] This time the ride took us across the 40th Street Bridge and down to the Allegheny River trail.

It was a most curious surprise to come across. Against the tremendous concrete support for the railroad bridge that spans the Allegheny near Millvale Riverfront Park, rests a spindly, homemade Christmas tree-like sculpture, made of thick wound black wire, a discarded metal stake, and plastic holly. The tree is sparsely decorated with a handful of traditional ornaments, something that looks like a space invader, and one full set of refrigerator poetry. The current offering reads cadaver angels put wealth in the river. We poked around, snapped a few pics, went right down to the water’s edge. It was a fun little surprise, but then we were back on our way.

Refrigerator poetry from trail Christmas tree #1 reading "Cadaver angels put wealth in the river."

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. Refrigerator poetry, Allegheny River trail Christmas tree #1

So yet another trailside Christmas tree popping out at us just another minute or two further down the trail was starting to feel like a legitimate yuletide miracle. Here, under the 31st Street Bridge, is a medium-size Douglas fir, decked out in red, green, and silver garland, with giant candy cane ornaments, and one drug store Santa hat for a topper. A simple unfurled piece of cardboard includes the cursive Sharpie message Merry Christmas, Thank you.

Allegheny River trail Christmas tree #2 (under 31st Street Bridge)

Allegheny River trail Christmas tree #2, detail

Here I met M.J., one of a number of people who camp under the on-ramp to the 31st Street Bridge. We talked for a while and I got some of the story on the tree and the group that lives here. The tree was brought in, along with a full Thanksgiving dinner spread, the week prior.

I saw a bag of apples and was heading to The Strip anyway, so I asked if I could pick up some food for the group. Surprisingly, M.J. explained that they were actually doing O.K. with food thanks to regular deliveries from the same organization that provided the tree and turkey dinner. [M.J. didn’t have a name.] I asked what the group’s other greatest needs are and he told me that he wished he could get battery-operated lanterns for everyone. He also mentioned bedding and tarps. So far, this blogger has struck out locating the kind of lanterns M.J. described, [and believe you me, he has tried] but it isn’t Christmas yet!

Allegheny River trail Christmas tree #1 (under 33rd Street railroad bridge)

Allegheny River trail Christmas tree #1, detail


Related: Bridgette Wright’s blog post for Bike Pittsburgh details a couple of coordinated efforts to bring “care packs” to Pittsburgh’s homeless communities over the Christmas holiday. They’ll be using bicycles to deliver the packages to locations like this one under the 31st Street Bridge that are inaccessible by automobile.

Two Great Tastes: Get Write with God

wall painted with "Jesus is the answer", Pittsburgh, PA

Watch that first step: it’s a doozy. “Jesus is the answer,” Homewood

He measured it on the four sides; it had a wall all around, the length five hundred and the width five hundred, to divide between the holy and the profane. (Ezekiel 42:20)

Back in the early Spring, we inaugurated the Two Great Tastes series with a piece on how snow and trains just naturally look (and photograph) great together. We also included a bunch of other pithy two-fers involving things like French cop movies, Zubaz, and fried fish sandwiches. This blogger certainly can’t predict when another one of these terrific combos will come along, but believe you me: The Orbit knows it when we see it.

And see it we did! Or do. Or keep on seeing as we come across the seemingly incongruous one-two of (Christian) religion and street graffiti. It might seem weird to take up both scripture and Rust-Oleum, but, you know, it’s the greatest story ever told and these colors, like true faith and decent exterior enamel, definitely won’t run.

Abandoned storefront with graffiti reading "Rap music suck. Go to church."

The door’s open but the ride ain’t free. “Rap music suck. Go to church.” Clairton

Generalizations about entire musical genres aside, it’s hard to understand the connection between the relative quality of rap music and the commandment to attend church. We know correlation is not causation as one might just as inaccurately assume spray paint-wielding taggers would be unlikely in a house of the lord on Sunday.

Church stair rail with graffiti reading "God is dead, Devil is everywhere"

Crossed the deserts bare, man. “God is dead, Devil is everywhere.” Millvale

Is God dead? Is The Devil really everywhere? At least one troubled soul sure felt strongly enough about it to render this haunting message in black Sharpie on the stair rail of the great Holy Spirit Parish Catholic church in Millvale. We have to assume that, like the song says, “people are cracking up all over.” And when reaching out to the mental health system involves vandalizing church property, well…we’ve still got a ways to go.

Tell him what you want. “Jesus rides freight trains.” Strip District

Another questionable assertion, this one on a boxcar in the Strip District. I don’t know if Jesus rides freight trains, but they’re probably more reliable than AmTrak. That said, if Jesus really wants to commune with the in-transit laity there are going to be a lot more of them on the Greyhound or MegaBus (not to mention the DMV). And let me tell you something: some of those bus riders could learn something from a good ol’ monastic vow of silence!

Graffiti on tile wall reading "The Devil made me do it the first time ...", Pittsburgh, PA

Out on the tiles. “The Devil made me do it the first time …” Lawrenceville

So many questions: What is it? Who made you do it the next time? How many times did you do it? Did you ever get tired of it? Why do I need to hear about it? We’ll likely never know what TSU was going on about here, but hopefully admitting it was a least a first step to reaching a better place.

Brick wall with graffiti reading "What if the only things God blesses you with tommrow is what u r thankful for today"

He would / Die 4 / U. “What if the only things God blesses you with tommrow is what u r thankful for today,” (sic.) Manchester

The Orbit‘s copy-editing team is having a fit with this one, but relax, guys: everything’s cool. The suggestion (we can’t actually locate a Biblical reference for this one) that the salvation we’re waiting for in the future is here right now strikes this frequent grass-is-greener blogger as actually quite profound. The statement speaks to both live for today and be grateful for what you have sentiments, and also that the (presumably) afterlife-believing perpetrator wants us to be happy, right here in this world. Amen.

The D.I.Y. Graves of Highwood Cemetery, Part 2

handmade grave made from cement block, Highwood Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

“Bucky” Bailey

In our previous post, we got all philosophical on the nature of a cemetery’s role in eternity. But coming across the D.I.Y. graves in Highwood Cemetery made us think about a lot more than the future of the mortuary industry or how long the living realistically need graves to visit. So in this follow-up we think about the possible reasons that moved these families to create their own grave markers. And, of course, there’s a bunch more pictures.

diy-grave-adelle-wright

Adelle Wright

This blogger won’t pretend to know why or how these folks ended up with a homemade cross or a cement building block for their grave marker–there may well be as many different reasons as there are plots. The most obvious though, is that it can be really expensive to purchase and install a custom-made granite stone. From the high hundreds to thousands of dollars it takes to have a stone cut, inscribed, and installed is likely way out of the budget for many people, especially immediately following a death, funeral, and burial.

At Highwood Cemetery, the D.I.Y. graves are all clustered in the same general vicinity, all the way at the back in a section bordering fence and the grounds crew sheds on spot of scrub grass that lacks all of the natural beauty and tall trees of the older sections. I don’t know what the pricing or politics of D.I.Y. graves is, but I’d guess these are the cheap seats.

handmade grave with rough poured concrete, flowers, and spinner, Highwood Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Unknown

It begs a follow-up question, though, which is that if money were the main object, why have a burial at all? Cremation is absolutely the most cost-efficient way to deal with a death and I’m sure there are a lot of people who would suggest that if you don’t have a “real” gravestone, then what’s the point?

I think the answer to that is pretty obvious. For a whole lot of people, it’s still very important to have a physical place to commune with their loved-one and for a totem of that person’s life to exist. Despite all the practicality of cremation, this is really the primary reason why cemeteries exist.

handmade grave with wooden cross and flowers, Highwood Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Leroy Jacks

One thing that struck me about the D.I.Y. graves is that, for the most part, they seem to be visited much more recently than their more permanent neighbors. I’m purely basing that on the volume of flowers, wreaths, personal belongings, etc. that have been applied to them. These items don’t last at cemeteries–they’re routinely cleaned-up in seasonal purges by the grounds crew. With nearly every single one of the D.I.Y. graves having some form of recent offering, it’s a remarkable correlation to the type of grave.

handmade grave with photograph, flowers, and stones in shape of a heart, Highwood Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Unknown

We couldn’t help but think of the study showing an inverse correlation between the amount of money spent on the wedding and the length of the marriage. Maybe in today’s world, purchasing a raised lawn-level plaque is the post-mortal coil equivalent of just buying a Hallmark card and writing a check. How fast can I get out of here?

handmade grave with wooden post, white dove, and memory book, Highwood Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Unknown


 

Final note: We’re hooked! If you’ve got a tip on some D.I.Y. graves in the general Pittsburgh area, please let us know.

See also: The D.I.Y Graves of Highwood Cemetery, Part 1

The D.I.Y. Graves of Highwood Cemetery, Part 1

handmade grave made of 2x4s with photograph and Hennessy bottles, Highwood Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Unknown

The cemetery, perhaps more than any other civic institution, implies permanence–or maybe eternity. Headstones are carved from granite or cast in bronze. The deceased are entombed in a manicured landscape that we optimistically imagine will appear with the same tranquility forever. Rest in Peace is both believable fantasy and contractual expectation for those laid out under its well-groomed acres.

handmade grave made from 2x4s, Highwood Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Donald Lowry

So The Orbit‘s purely accidental arrival on a section of homemade or “do-it-yourself” grave markers at the far back of Highwood Cemetery was both a complete surprise and a total revelation. From a single PVC pipe with a child’s art class cement step stone to a pair of two-by-fours crudely nailed together, the departed’s name applied with a Sharpie to the bare wood, these memorials are already sun-bleached, rain-soaked, and definitely won’t make it through that many Pittsburgh winters.

diy-grave-brub-efb

Brub E.F.B.

This blogger will be the first to admit his general good fortune, both in life, and yes, in death. He’s still breathing, for one, and has never had to bury anyone, never had make funeral arrangements or pick out a casket, never had to select a grave plot or deal with a funeral home, never even had to make awkward conversation with distant relatives at the wake of a close loved one.

And so, of course, I’ve also never been in the position to select a headstone. Nor had I ever even considered that one might be able (err…allowed within the cemetery’s rules) to do this for oneself.

handmade grave with wooden cross and paving stones, Highwood Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Bruce A. Jones

This whole month, Pittsburgh Orbit has been visiting local cemeteries. You start to see some interesting patterns when you spend enough time in a place. One of those is that in terms of visitation, our cemeteries may be roughly divided into three general sections. There’s the older parts, full of dramatic high-gothic mausoleums, giant focus cenotaphs, stained glass, and ornate statuary, often accompanied by a (locally) famous name. Jennie Benford gives a great tour of such monuments in Homewood Cemetery. Then there are the newer sections of (generally) more humble graves for the recently-departed. These collect nearly 100% of the flowers and teddy bears. And then there’s everybody else.

handmade grave with wooden cross, bandana, and Steelers hat, Highwood Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

R.W.G. Bang

If your name isn’t H.J. Heinz or Lillian Russell or Stephen Foster and if you didn’t choose a gravestone tribute to Jaws, well, your monument may be available–and it’s probably still in good shape and totally legible–but realistically, probably no one cares that much. I’m not trying to harsh the mellow of someone who’s, you know, already dead, but it’s the truth. Even etched in stone, we’ve got a limited shelf life.

handmade grave with wooden cross, blue bow, and flowers, Highwood Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Keith

I think this is ultimately what gives Highwood’s D.I.Y. graves such emotional power. These aren’t cold stones that will dramatically outlive the families that planted them. They’re very much living tributes for the people who are still in their lives and they will exist for exactly the time they’re most in need–while their loved-ones are still grieving.

I don’t know if it will ever happen, but you could imagine this as a really beautiful, sustainable model for the future. Allow the family to have the closure of a funeral, burial, and a completely home-made memorial that they can visit for five or ten or twenty years–whatever makes sense. But ultimately return the earth to a general pool for another generation to use.

That may or may not be something that would sell to the general cemetery customer but I’d be willing to–let’s abuse our metaphors here–put it in the ground and see who eulogizes it.

Homemade grave with PVC pipe and cast concrete medallion, Highwood Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Dad


Orbit note: There are so many of these D.I.Y. graves in Highwood and they raised so many interesting questions that we decided to break this into two posts. Here’s part 2.

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