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:]

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).


Jerry’s Records and the $30 Instant Record Collection*

used record bins at Jerry's Records, Pittsburgh, PA

Jerry’s Records is a local institution and a national treasure. If it were up to The Orbit, a giant likeness of Jerry Weber’s head would be carved out of the steep Mount Washington hillside so he could keep his eyes on all of us. Believe this blogger: he’s spent [those “with lives” would say wasted] an inordinately large amount of his adult life and disposable income in and around the nation’s recorded music purveyors. A visit to Jerry’s, coupled with the obligatory post-hunt beer and pizza at Mineo’s and/or Aiello’s, is also a great way to deal with ugly February bluster.

If you’re a red-blooded music-loving (or, heck, just music-casually-enjoying) Pittsburgher, you owe it to yourself to pick up a turntable** and get thee down to Jerry’s. If you don’t, you’re really missing out on one of the great joys of living here–cheap records, as far as the eye can see, Jerry holding court from his junk-filled checkout perch, and the constant stream of Pittsburgh’s weirdo record fiends drifting in and around***. Oh, and you can walk out the door with some great music too.

Jerry's Records storefront, Pittsburgh, PA

The combined Jerry’s Records/Galaxie Electronics/Whistlin’ Willie’s 78 Shop storefront, 2136 Murray Ave., Squirrel Hill

This blogger loves records, but he’s also a career cheapskate and Jerry prices his merchandise to move. These are not marked-up collector’s-only stuff by a long shot (Jerry gets plenty of those items, but sells them in separate auctions). So we thought it would be a fun exercise to imagine the vinyl neophyte climbing up Jerry’s long entrance stairway with a $30 bill burning a hole in the pocket and the goal of walking out with an instant (if starter-sized) record collection. There are a ton of records that line Jerry’s sea of bins for three or four bucks each and are reliably available for your purchase any time you choose to stop in.

Here then is The Orbit‘s rough guide to making the most of previous generations’ recorded jetsam and a prescription for walking out Jerry’s door with what may not actually be a great “score” in record-hunting circles, but is at least a fine nuts-and-bolts starter kit.

Diva (motion picture soundtrack)

Vladimir Cosma’s soundtrack to Jean-Jacques Beineix’s 1981 French neon-lit art/cult thriller plays like an old-school mixtape put together by a new wave sorcerer. No two tracks sound at all alike (except the one that gets two versions), but they all play great together. There’s an aria from an opera, a robotic dance jam, some eerie mood pieces, something that sounds like modern harpsichord, etc. Those are all really good, but if you’ve seen the film, it’s the heartbreaking Satie-esque “Sentimental Walk” piano solo that sells this record. Diva must have had a good run at Filmmakers back in the day because Jerry ended up with a bunch of copies.

Duke Ellington The Uncollected, Vols. 1-5 (1946-1947)

Jerry has so many Duke Ellington records they’ve been separately binned by record label, taking up linear feet of browsing space. Ellington’s material between the earliest (pre-album era) stuff in the 1920s through at least the late ’40s is untouchable and was repackaged countless times later on–so there are a lot of options. Smithsonian’s complete year 2-LP sets for the late ’30s and ’40s are great (and also turn up frequently), as are these five “uncollected” volumes from Hindsight that seem to show up all the time. On this day, we picked up Vol. 5 from 1947 with “Swamp Fire,” “Jumpin’ Punkins,” and “Frustration.”

The Romantics The Romantics or In Heat

Used vinyl records by The Romantics at Jerry's Records, Pittsburgh, PA

“In Heat”: in stock

I know, I know, but hear me out! If The Romantics are known at all, it’s as one-hit-wonders for the sports-rock/dude comedy staple “What I Like About You.” Those of a certain age may be able to conjure up their couple other minor MTV-ready power-pop hits, preposterous top-heavy pompadours, and matching tight leather outfits. But these two albums (at least) are both exemplars of hopped-up three-chord songs with themes that run the gamut from chicks, to girls, to sexy ladies. Yes: The Romantics pretty much cover the full range of the human experience. Whatever. Either record is well worth the three clams.

Fleetwood Mac Bare Trees

Rumours and the self-titled/white album are not as common as you’d think given the bajillion copies they sold back in the day, but Jerry’s got the hell out of Mystery to MePenguinHeroes Are Hard To Find, and Bare Trees. All of these are from the pre-Buckingham/Nicks “classic lineup.” The latter comes from the transitional Danny Kirwan/Bob Welch regime where the ecstatic heavy psychedelic blues of Then Play On and Future Games [you’ll have to cross your fingers and go to the New Arrivals for these] gives way to grooving pop rock. Bare Trees is not The Mac’s best album [that distinction is an evergreen music geek bar room debate topic], but it’s totally solid with no clunkers and well worth picking-up.

Fats Waller

Fats Waller at piano

Fats Waller

No particular title here–whatever you get will be some kind of collection–but ideally any of the Bluebird Records Complete 2-LP sets (I think there were three volumes total). Recorded eighty years ago at this point and they still sound absolutely great. In our household, these records are always in heavy rotation and have achieved “desert island disc” status for Waller’s any-occasion/always-great combination of show-tune song-smithy and barrelhouse wink-and-nod boogie-woogie.

Blood, Sweat & Tears S/T

Yeah, it took some arm-twisting from Mike Shanley, but he finally sold me on B,S&T–and I’m glad he did. “Spinning Wheel” and “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy” have deservedly made their place in the radio canon, but the whole record is solid. With everything old becoming new again, it’s a little bit of a surprise that “horn rock” never got the full-on retro treatment…or maybe it isn’t. Either way, there’s a whole new generation yet to develop a gag reflex at the sound of David Clayton Thomas’ voice.

Buck Owens I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail/I Don’t Care/Roll Out the Red Carpet/etc.

Buck Owens "Roll out the red carpet for" LP cover

Pretty much anything from Buck Owens’ mid-60s Capitol Records peak period with gunslinger Don Rich on lead guitar is terrific. Jerry reliably has a wide cross-section of them in stock, in great shape, and ready to twang. If you see Buck’s grinning mug and slick Brill Creamed hair, it’s a safe bet. There was a time I picked one of these up with every trip to Jerry’s. That time is here for you right now, whenever you’re ready.

Popeye (motion picture soundtrack)

The soundtrack from Robert Altman’s legendary 1980 cocaine-fueled, Malta-filmed comic strip adaptation is as weird, wild, and wonderful as the film itself (amazingly) turned out to be. The thirteen Harry Nilsson-penned/Van Dyke Parks-arranged songs totally hold up to their great melodic pedigree and surprisingly lose nothing from Robin Williams’ and Shelley Duvall’s in-character performances. Worth it alone for the two great Olive Oyl (Duvall) numbers “He Needs Me” and “He’s Large”.

The Bee Gees (the pre-disco records)

The Bee Gees had at least three acts before the Rayon, jive-talkin’, and eights on the high-hat. There were the early Beatles-like pop harmony records (1st, Horizontal, and Idea), the pair of loose concept albums (Odessa and Trafalgar, about the Crimean War and the death of Lord Nelson, respectively), and the early ’70s breakup and transition period (Cucumber Castle, 2 Years On, To Whom it May Concern, Life in a Tin Can). Each era succeeds in some measure of rich pop production, warbling squabbling-brother harmonies, and hardcore creep rock. This junkie has them all, and so does Jerry. Take your pick: they’re all recommended.

checkout counter loaded with records, shot glasses, and junk, Jerry's Records, Pittsburgh, PA

All business: the checkout counter at Jerry’s

* Some of these records may run more like $4 or $5, so if you take The Orbit up on this challenge, it may actually cost you $35-$40. Relax: it’s still a bargain and a good time.

** Galaxie Electronics (same building/same entrance) will happily sell you a (reconditioned) turntable and/or service the one you’ve got.

*** Footnote: On our most recent visit, a regular named “Shoeless Bob” popped in to drop off some homemade mix CDs for Jerry. [Apparently even Jerry needs more music!] True to his sobriquet, Bob arrived in what was near zero-degree snow and ice outside with just some very wet, pallid bare feet projecting from his bluejeans.

A Fine Time for the Skyline

Mural painted on garage door of man on motorcycle with the Pittsburgh skyline behind him and a banner reading "Gone but not Forgotten"

Gone but not forgotten, Homewood

Is the Pittsburgh skyline that distinct? This blogger wouldn’t have thought so, but it kept turning up, rendered by hand, in a variety of locales. The image is an interesting choice, especially for some obvious small time players. It’s there on a shuttered candy shop, a no-longer-serving Chinese restaurant, and a tribute to a fallen motorcyclist. [Note to self: cancel appointment to have Pittsburgh skyline tattooed across midriff.]

The iconography seems well established. Each representation features PPG’s signature spiked towers, the giant hypodermic needle that locates Fifth Avenue Place, and the taller-than-them-all monolith of the USX (née U.S. Steel) tower. Optional other inclusions are the fountain at Point State Park, the Fort Pitt and Fort Duquesne bridges, Oxford Centre’s very ’80s lopped cube, and the Kopper’s/Gulf Tower art deco two-fer.

Mural of a spirit blowing glass above the Pittsburgh skyline at Gallery G Glass, Pittsburgh, PA

Gallery G Glass, Bloomfield

The loose outline of a great glass-blowing water spirit floats weightlessly in front of a rough depiction of downtown’s tall buildings. It looks like Matisse, as rendered by a precocious fifth-grader. This lanky figure seems to spring from a Smurfs-like version of the Point State Park fountain. Earth, air, fire, and water: all the elements are there. The mural pictured here is actually just one half of a set–its nearly-identical twin faces the other direction and sits just on the other side of Gallery G’s front entryway on Liberty Ave.

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

Cutty’s Candy Store, Homewood

We loved this combination Pittsburgh portrait/ornate Steelers tribute/Candy Store business sign so much we ganked it for the Orbit masthead. The skyline has all the usual players, but here they’re rendered in a really effective semi-detailed black & white, resting on a set of rococo brass work, and reading brilliantly against the pitch black background. Maybe if Cutty had made the text as easy to read the candy store would still be in business and we could have popped in for some licorice on the ride. That was not to be.

mural of the East Liberty neighborhood of Pittsburgh painted on brick wall of former Yen's Gourmet restaurant, Pittsburgh, PA

Yen’s Gourmet (detail), East Liberty

We’re gathering the materials on the inevitable Orbit obit to Yen’s Gourmet (R.I.P.) on Penn Avenue and this one popped-out. The long brick wall that makes up the east-facing side of the building has one continuous mural of a congenial, multicultural East Liberty. Bathed in sunshine, people of all stripes walk the streets, curb their pets, shop, and frolic. There is at least one incongruous wolf (maybe it’s just a husky) with its eyes trained on you, the viewer and its tongue salivating. It is both painful and totally fitting that this portrait will never include the greatest elements of change in a rapidly-gentrifying neighborhood that would ultimately send Yen and his $6.95 all-you-can-eat buffet packing*.  Likely the new Ace Hotel does not have such a deal.

Chromos Eyewear sign of a large pair of glasses, with the Pittsburgh skyline in each lens

Chromos Eyewear, Lawrenceville

This is almost certainly the newest skyline around as Chromos only took up shop in Lawrenceville’s tenth ward fairly recently–but how great to keep up the tradition and what an effective use of the idiom! One giant pair of glasses serving as this eyewear shop’s name-free shingle, each with a silhouetted downtown Pittsburgh skyline clearly in view. Real glass allows daylight through the rest of the lenses just like, you know, real glasses. Well done, Chromos.

* Just guessing here: we have no idea why Yen’s Gourmet closed their doors.


Reflections On A Hundred

St. Paul's Cathedral in Pittsburgh reflected in mirrored glass

St. Paul’s Cathedral, Oakland

A hundred! One whole century! What a very round integer!

Yes, today Pittsburgh Orbit trips the old blogometer into three digit land. It all happened in just under one calendar year. We promise to not make a big deal about that date too, but in lieu of any real story today, we’ll take this rare opportunity to reflect on a year in the blogosphere and The Orbit‘s one hundred tiny episodes so far.

reflection of small shops on Craig Street in large glass windows, Pittsburgh, PA

Craig Street, Oakland

Why blog? Frankly, it’s not something this majority introvert ever really considered. The “me me me“-ness of so much blogging is nauseating at best and just plain pathetic (much of) the rest of the time. And what hasn’t already been covered? The answer, it turns out, is a lot. But, you know, a suggestion here, an idea there–next thing we know, we’re up and blogging.

Plus, it’s fun! Roll together a bunch of things we already loved to do (bicycle, hike, explore, take photographs, drink beer, find out about other people, write) and wrap those experiences up in little easy-to-chew bite-sized chunks. It’s a tremendous regular creative prompt and get-out-the-door keister-kicker. We recommend it!

Reflection of the former Mellon National Bank, Downtown Pittsburgh in mirrored glass windows

Former Mellon National Bank, Downtown

Who reads this stuff? A good question! The stats tell us there are site visitors from all around the world, but mainly from the U.S. and Canada (and we imagine most of those are current or former Pittsburghers). Apparently they get here from umpteen different means–social media, Reddit discussions, search engines, email lists, etc.

We’ve gotten a lot of really nice feedback from friends and site visitors, but it’s been most rewarding to connect with the various outside groups, each scratching their own funny itches. Pittsburgh’s bike and pedestrian community seems to check in on the city steps stories, there’s a devoted crew of ghost sign hunters over in the U.K., the street art folks are kept in ready supply, everybody likes to read about their friends, and just about anyone who came across them seems to love the Antignanis. Oh, and every single day someone comes in looking for Jaws.

Reflection of Market Square, Downtown Pittsburgh in glass windows

Market Square, Downtown

Regrets? Yeah, this blogger has a few! For a fellow as music-obsessed as this one, we’ve barely touched the category. We’re also starving for some more food and drink stories (the weird pizza series, notwithstanding). We’ve barely touched the South Hills, the hilltops, and still haven’t made it to Duck Hollow or Fairywood. And gosh darnit, if we’re left without being able to interview Bill Bored about the Cardboards, then this whole thing has been a waste of everybody’s time. (I suppose it won’t have been a waste of Bill Bored’s time.)

University of Pittsburgh building reflected in glass windows

University of Pittsburgh, Oakland

There are also a ton of things that would have made great Orbit obits but either disappeared before we started writing, or we were in the wrong place at the right time, or just couldn’t have done them justice: the old Nickel Bingo Parlor, Chiodo’s–its decades of dangling undergarments and its “mystery sandwich”–(former) White Towers, The Suburban Lounge and their house band The Casual Approach, St. Nicholas Church grotto–ah, hell, the list goes on and on. In any case: forgive us–we’re doing our best. Sigh.

Mellon Institute in Pittsburgh reflected in glass windows

Mellon Institute, Oakland

What’s next? Honestly, the eternal tap of great ideas has run from a gushing main to more of a babbling brook–but it’s still flowing! Maybe this blogger just needs to get up off the thinkin’ chair and put his nose to the grindstone. That said, we’ve got some fun stuff planned around Lent, springtime, weird sports, fried fish, wacky artists, a hunt for the elusive paw-paw, and of course, Cemetober. Keep that Internet web browser dialed-in right here, folks.


Oliver Ave., Downtown

An Orbit Obit: The Myrtle Booth Tanning Salon (Storefront)

Window for former Myrtle Booth Tanning Salon, Pittsburgh, PA

Myrtle Booth Tanning Salon (storefront), R.I.P.

Very recently, the long-vacant storefront at 4116 Main Street in Lawrenceville/Bloomfield finally turned over. By chance, I was lucky enough to have ganked this photo of the most recent business a few months before it disappeared.

Why do I care about an ex-tanning salon? I don’t even like real sun that much! Well, there were just so many little things to love about the Myrtle Booth windows.

I’ve been to Myrtle Beach

Myrtle Booth is clearly a riff on Myrtle Beach, the popular South Carolina beach/party town where many pasty northerners prefer to vacation this time of year. This blogger-to-be used to live just up the coast in Wilmington, NC. In the couple years I lived there, I made the hour-long drive down to Myrtle Beach a number of times, seemingly all for some goofy reason.

I remember driving down with my friends Detlef and David on the former’s quest for plastic pants, a necessary adjunct to the aspirationally-epic rock and roll he was performing at the time. No memory of whether he located them or not. I also remember making the trip with musical pen pal Marion, visiting the southern United States from Great Britain, along with Portland Orbit‘s own David. The parade of signs advertising “shag dancing,” “shag contest,” “shag music,” and just plain “shagging” turned her porcelain English sun-starved cheeks blood red. In the lowlands of the South, nothing could be tamer than shagging, but we understand it means something entirely different across the lake.

Handmade sign advertising shag dancing classes

Shag classes in Myrtle Beach: come join in or watch! [photo: the Internet]

You know what? I was there at least one more time. David (again, Orbit David) (what a prince!) helped me pack up a U-Haul and move from Wilmington to Pittsburgh. My repayment was to take him to Medieval Times wherein we ate giant turkey drumsticks, drank Pepsi products, and watched the pageantry of real humans and horses parading and jousting on the dirt floor of suburban Myrtle Beach sprawl. [Note to those relocating cross-country: an evening for two at Medieval Times is a lot cheaper than professional movers and pretty solid entertainment. Go Green Knight!]

Medieval Times theater/restaurant

Medieval Times: Where you’re the king and the Pepsi products are all-you-can-drink [photo: the Internet]

All this is to say Myrtle Beach is fine, but it’s not the destination I’d name my business after. But then, I probably won’t ever open a tanning salon. As my mother is wont to say, “maybe in my next life…”

Every square inch of their big front windows was painted over

I don’t know that I can name any other business that so successfully blocked out the light as Myrtle Booth. The irony that a tanning salon–in legendarily bleak Pittsburgh, no less–would attempt to thwart real sunlight from breaching its interior is just too great. Maybe people walk around naked in tanning salons? [Note to self: investigate!] I feel like that’s the only plausible explanation for this particular design decision.

The way the window was fallING apart

I can’t remember a time Myrtle Booth was actually open for business and we’ve been in the neighborhood for fifteen years now. You can see that aged wear it the way the white background paint has flaked off and has an amazing art-imitates-life look of loose sand on a wooden surface. I also love the single aborted attempt at graffiti in the pair of small black spray paint runs in the bottom right corner. What happened? Did the assailant just run out of paint at the wrong time? S/he never felt the need to come back and finish the job? Kids these days! No commitment!

Windows for Overcast Skate Shop retail store, Pittsburgh, PA

Overcast Skate Shop, the new occupants of 4116 Main Street

Back in May, we eulogized the relocation of Goeller Generator, a decades-old non-sexy business that cashed-in on rapidly-gentrifying Lawrenceville to make way for new upscale eats and digs in the Sixth Ward. The change from Myrtle Booth to its new life as Overcast Skate Shop is happening in the same general part of town, but with a very different set of circumstances. It’s hard to feel anything negative about a new business moving into to a storefront that’s been empty for so long and we wish them well, but I’ll still miss those big front windows.

An Orbit Obit: Goeller Generator, R.I.P.

faded sign for Goeller Generator, Pittsburgh, Pa.

Goeller Generator in Lawrenceville, 1946-2015

It was mere weeks ago that I finally took note (and, thankfully, took photo) of the beautifully faded Goeller Generator sign against the equally-transfixing rough weathered multi-color wall of the retail space next door (current home of gift shop Divertido).

Imagine my surprise, then, to pass this week by a pile of rubble and big hole in the ground where Goeller used to be.  The squat, one-story pair of cinder-block structures were no architectural marvel, and I can’t say that I’ve ever required the offerings of a generator sales and service shop (so maybe I’m part of the problem!) but I liked the fact that it was there–a constant among all the change that’s happened around it on Butler Street in Lawrenceville.

construction site with a large hole dug in the ground

A big hole in the ground

The move is so recent that there’s no mention of it on Goeller’s website, which still states proudly “We have been in the same location since 1946,” and had only in the last year or two gotten a new lit-up painted sign/mural on the wall facing 36th Street.

I e-asked around, my neighbors delivered, and the story is predictable. Zoned-retail real estate on Butler Avenue is worth a pretty penny right now and Goeller cashed-in to make way for a new development featuring a hamburger restaurant called Burgh’ers on the first floor and apartments upstairs. One report mentioned that Goeller will continue operating in a new location.

cinder-block wall of partially demolished Goeller Generator, Pittsburgh, Pa.

Over-the-Wall Club bonus: Goeller’s last wall standing with Our Lady of the Angels

Now, this blogger can eat the hell out of a fancy hamburger, even if he’s disgusted with himself for doing so. I’m also glad the neighborhood’s empty storefronts have mostly filled up and I like having more than Hambone’s and Barb’s Country Kitchen as walkable dining options. [No disrespect: I still patronize both!] But the whiplash rate of development/gentrification in Lawrenceville is pretty scary. Forever we’ve heard about this stuff happening in other cities, but I naively imagined it would never be so in Pittsburgh, let alone right in my neighborhood. Sigh.

If Frankie’s closes, it’s time to move to Rankin.

The Ultimate Pittsburgh Greenhouse Experience

worn painted wooden sign reading "Greenhouse"

Here’s how you get there: Go out Penn Avenue all way through Wilkinsburg and Forest Hills. Pass Vincent’s Pizza Park. [Pro tip: keep Vincent’s in mind–time things right and you can stop there for lunch on the way back.] Take the turn onto Electric Avenue to get you down into Turtle Creek. When you’re stopped, staring straight up at the giant old Westinghouse plant, make that left. You’ll slide onto the Tri-Boro Expressway, but you won’t be there long.

As soon as you see a handmade sign reading Greenhouse stuck into the grass, take that left, and then a quick right where the road forks and leads you straight up the hillside. Follow it around until you get to Henkel’s Greenhouse.

temporary roadsign for Henkel's Greenhouse

Directions to Henkel’s: it’s somewhere up the hill

Why go all the way out to Turtle Creek when there are so many places that will sell you plantlings between here and there? I’ll tell you why: Henkel’s is the ultimate Pittsburgh greenhouse experience. Thanks to my buddy Bill for the tip on this one, it’s become an annual tradition ever since.

This weekend is a couple of things: today is Mother’s Day. Nothing says “thank you for bringing me into the world” like a drug store greeting card and brunch at King’s, but this blogger really does love his momma, and momma is a terrific gardener. It also happens to be exactly the right time to get your vegetables in the ground, and this turned out to be a perfect sunshiny hot weekend to get on it (but don’t worry if you didn’t, there’s still time).

So we’re going to honor mothers, gardeners, thumbs (green and otherwise), and terrific old-school family businesses with this little Orbit tribute to Henkel’s Greenhouse via three great reasons to get your keister out to Turtle Creek.

Henkel's Greenhouse, Turtle Creek

Henkel’s Greenhouse, Turtle Creek

Reason #1: Four generations of Henkels growing your plants

I’m not going to pretend that I know the Henkel’s whole family tree and The Orbit isn’t the kind of shady “journalism” that “asks hard questions” and “gets answers.” No, we go with our gut and just hope we’re right. But here’s what our gut has witnessed over the years: a relationship of what appears to be great-grandpa, grandpa, father, and son (yes: all Henkel growers seem to be male), ages roughly eight to eighty, sowin’ and growin’ together. It’s beautiful. (But guys: maybe let the ladies get in the dirt too.)

Henkel's Greenhouse with tomato varieties

Tomato/pepper greenhouse, Henkel’s

Reason #2: The trip to the greenhouse

It’s a little bit of an adventure just getting up there.  The signage is minimal, you’re very far off any commercial drag, and the single-lane road that takes you there could well be on a mountain in West Virginia. Home Depot, this ain’t. Once you’re there, Henkel’s occupies the large yard of a humble two-story frame house, built up a steep hillside, cobbled together over likely decades with jerry-rigged kits and recycled shipping pallets.

cardboard box containing vegetable plants for replanting

What twelve bucks gets you

Reason #3: It’s cheap*

Here’s what twelve bucks buys you at Henkel’s**:

  • 9 tomato (3 each: Golden Boy, Potato Leaf, Viva Italia)
  • 15 pepper (6 Sweet Banana, 3 Early Sensation, 6 Inferno)
  • 4 zucchini
  • 3 sweet Italian basil

* Realistically, travel time and expense to Turtle Creek likely erases any monetary savings, but it’s still cheap.

** This blogger is obviously interested in vegetables, but Henkel’s has a full compliment of flowers, shrubs, ground cover, etc.–which we’ve purchased in the past. I just didn’t pick any of those up this year. They also have lots of other vegetables, but I just stuck with the basics this year.

stacked planting containers

view of greenhouse through ventilation slats


Lackzoom Acidophilus

Terra cotta facade storefront in Pittsburgh with the engraved names Lackzoom and Acidophilus

5438 Penn Ave: Lackzoom Acidophilus

I must have passed it a thousand times or more.  Certainly I’d noticed the white terra cotta facade and its odd trapezoidal shape, canted in such a way that it doesn’t quite align with the street, like a mis-set bone.

But it wasn’t until very recently that I happened to actually look up and take in the detail above the doorway/windows.  Two names (?) permanently formed into the ceramic tile that read like ancient runes, some hep jazzcat jive, or a preposterous stage name: Lackzoom Acidophilus.

The small, two-story building at 5438 Penn Avenue turns out to have been the one-time laboratory and corporate headquarters for the lineal parent of the General Nutrition Corporation (or GNC), the Pittsburgh-based retail giant that made a fortune over the last half century urging America to “Live Well” vis-a-vis shopping and popping (malls and pills, respectively).

Terra cotta tile reading "Lackzoom"

It’s no surprise that I’m not the only one to ever spot this curious storefront, but there’s remarkably little information out there on it.  The definitive piece seems to be a short Western Pennsylvania History Magazine article written in 2003 by Chris Potter.

Potter’s story details David Shakarian, founder of GNC, whose:

… Armenian parents ran a business called “Lackzoom” which sold yogurt, buttermilk, and Bulgarian acidophilus–milk fortified with the bacteria lactobacillus acidophilus to intestinal bacteria that make digesting milk difficult for some.

Apparently the original Lackzoom never survived The Great Depression, but Shakarian would go on to found his own health food store, and eventually the GNC chain. In 1983, the year before his death, Shakarian was named by Forbes magazine as the wealthiest Pittsburgher on their annual list. Live well, indeed.

Pittsburgh ghost sign reading "Lackzoom and Acidophilus"

Ghost sign, obscured by flora: “Lackzoom and Acidophilus”

Dead Mall: Century III

Century III shopping mall common area with empty kiosk and candy machines

Century III Mall: from dust to dust

The “dead mall” phenomenon is certainly not anything unique to Pittsburgh.  It’s been documented in sites like and articles like a recent New York Times piece on “the economics and nostalgia of dead malls.”  For those of us old enough to remember when the local shopping mall was the predator, not the prey, it’s almost inconceivable that these retail-draining, downtown-killing behemoths could ever be ousted, but whether it be the Internet or competition cannibalizing their own, it’s for real, and it’s happening everywhere.

The Century III Mall, located in the borough of West Mifflin, in the southeast suburbs of Pittsburgh, is not technically dead.  It is, in fact, still open for business, with anchor tenants and a relatively clean and cared-for interior.  It maintains three anchor tenants (with Sears having recently pulled-out), a two-restaurant food court, and just enough open businesses to think they may draw a crowd on weekends and the run-up to Christmas.

That said, it’s probably only a matter of time.  The mall is supposedly only 40% occupied, down from 80% ten years ago, and walking through on a recent Friday afternoon there were next to no customers in any of the remaining stores.  The clerk at the jewelry kiosk was clearly asleep.

Century III Mall empty storefront detail

Century III: empty storefront detail

Century III Mall empty storefront detail

Century III: empty storefront detail

Century III does have a uniquely Pittsburgh backstory, though, connected to the steel industry right at the end of its reign on the region’s economy.  The Wikipedia article on the mall summarizes well:

The name Century III was conceived at the time of the nation’s Bicentennial, making light of the time at hand – the advent of America’s third century. When the mall opened in 1979, it was the third largest enclosed shopping center in the world. The site is a recycled former U.S. Steel industrial area, a huge slag pile once known as Brown’s Dump. Slag, a waste product of steel making, had for years been transported by rail cars from the mills of Pittsburgh to this once remote valley.

Aerial photo of former slag heap "Brown's Dump"

“Brown’s Dump” (no snickering), pre-mall

This transformation of the ultimate brownfield–a steel industry slag heap–into a bright and shiny shopping mecca must have made business section headlines all over the place.  But its (seemingly inevitable) demise at this point is now a sad ashes-to-ashes, dust-to-dust, slag-to-slag parable of retail in the twenty-first century.  It’s unlikely this particular heap will last the sixty-some years it would take for it to reach Century IV.

Blog author reflected in empty mall mirrors

Century Selfiii: the author, fractured and alone at the mall