Tin Can Pole Art, Part 2: A Date with Some Little Devils

tin can lid painted with sad devil and the words "She's gone", Pittsburgh, PA

Hell & Oates[1]: “She’s Gone”, Bloomfield

Farewell to all these smiling angels….I’ve got a date with some little devils.

That auspicious message, artfully paint-penned to the cut lid of a large-size steel can, is nailed to a wooden utility pole on South Aiken Ave. in Friendship. Immediately above it appears one half of another can lid, cocked upright, suggesting a single bunny ear–its mate either removed after-the-fact or just never made it to the pole the first time.

However nutty this inscription might seem, little devils are absolutely on the loose in the greater East End. And while pious Christians worry about getting right with God or facing Lucifer’s pitchfork in the keister for all eternity, the city’s devils clearly have their own concerns to stress over. Indeed, the red one appears on a couple different poles both broken-hearted and teary-eyed.

steel can metal painted and nailed to utility pole, Pittsburgh, PA

“Farewell to all these smiling angels….I’ve got a date with some little devils,” Friendship

She’s gone were the only two words Messrs. Oates and Hall really needed as shorthand to heartbreak–that, and close falsetto harmony over a slinky Fender Rhodes groove. Here, the simple message is a clue to the devil’s distress (above).

A cat-like devil has an inverted pink heart for a nose and a topsy-turvy screwed-up mouth (below, top). Those sad eyes may say just as much with no words at all. There’s one more teary-eyed devil, this time with cupid’s arrows literally piercing his visible heart (below, middle).

steel can painted with sad devil and nailed to utility pole, Pittsburgh, PA

sad devil, Friendship

painting of devil with arrows piercing his chest, nailed to utility pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship [photo: Susan Peake]

steel can metal painted and nailed to utility pole, Pittsburgh, PA

“I try momma…”, Friendship

I try momma… implores a blue devil, rendered in stark silhouette and levitating an electric martini with one hand, the other raised in salutation (above). A different pole devil clutches the circle-A anarchy flag while waving to friends (below)–no doubt shopping for bargain Clancy’s chips at the nearby Aldi.

This same common imagery of devils, hearts, anarchy, and martini glasses showed up a couple times in our first story on tin can pole art earlier this year. These were clearly no coincidence as the themes get even more of a workout this time around.

metal can lid painted with devil holding anarchy flag nailed to utility pole, Pittsburgh, PA

anarchy devil, Friendship

tin can lids painted and nailed to a utility pole, Pittsburgh, PA

“So lost … pray for me, I’m down,” Garfield

Somebody needs to get this guy into therapy! Or maybe we all just need to be better friends to the devils we know. Whatever it is, she’s gone and the plea to appease momma aren’t the only cries for help on the city’s telephone poles.

So lost…pray for me, Mom, I’m down reads a Garfield alley two-fer (above); the simple message Struggle, along with a fire-dancing, heart-balancing devil, turns up on a nice, rust patina’d single-color piece in Shadyside (below).

small painting of devil with heart on tin can nailed to utility pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Struggle, Shadyside [photo: Lee Floyd]

While that’s a lot of devils clinging to East End telephone poles, they’re far from the only specimens in this tin can pole art roundup. We also spotted a number of other pieces with the same stylistic DNA as the devil-doer dealt–we’re talking about the tell-tale cryptic calligraphy, hearts, flowers, martinis, and anarchy.

BUT…[yes, there’s always a big but] there are some outliers in the collection, too. We’ve seen the swirling, psychedelic television/VCR combo scrawled on all sorts of walls and dumpsters, as well as turned into back-of-sign decals. But this nice, two-color paint can lid outside The Glitterbox Theater (below) feels like a giant leap forward–even if the perpetrator still can’t get his or her mind off the TV.

tin can lid painted with TV and nailed to utility pole, Pittsburgh, PA

North Oakland

steel can with painting nailed to utility pole, Pittsburgh, PA

“I try to stop…and smell the flowers (in life too),” East Liberty

steel can metal painted and nailed to utility pole, Pittsburgh, PA

“My worst enemy has always been time, 2001,” Friendship

tin can lid painted with abstract face and nailed to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Garfield

can lid painting of flower with crying face, Pittsburgh, PA

sad flower face, Bloomfield

tin can lid painted with the message "It's all I know", Pittsburgh, PA

“It’s all I know,” Bloomfield

tin can lid painted with indecipherable image and nailed to utility pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Shadyside [photo: Lee Floyd]

tin can painted and nailed to utility pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Shadyside (partial) [photo: Lee Floyd]

While asking one’s mother for her prayers may or may not be common practice, doing so via painted kitchen tool on side-street telephone pole seems an especially unlikely way to share one’s feelings.

As if parenting weren’t difficult enough, kids are always coming up with new ways to communicate. First SnapChat, now GreatChee. “How’s our youth doing, honey?” We imagine a clueless Dad asking, “Why, not so good,” the response from Mom, “Haven’t you checked East Liberty for cheese graters?”

painted cheese grater nailed to utility pole, Pittsburgh, PA

cheese grater pole art! “Mom – pray for me”, East Liberty

There are also a couple more of these giant, five-gallon driveway sealant drum lids, tagged-up and screwed-into poles/trees along Spring Hill city steps. The pair clearly begs for a deeper investigation of the neighborhood’s walkways as we’re guessing these aren’t the only two out there[2].

steel can lid painted and attached to utility pole, Pittsburgh, PA

“I am home 16” / “free Rakan” / “R.I.P. Syzer”, Spring Hill

large metal can lid painted and nailed to a tree, Pittsburgh, PA

“I’m so glad you’re here,” Basin Street steps, Spring Garden/Troy Hill

Finally, a couple pieces that are absolutely metal and pole art, but don’t have their material origin in discarded soup cans. They’re a little off-topic, but we’re not going to sit on these waiting for a collection of stray non-tin can-but-still-metal pole art.

The triptych of embossed blank verse into sheet metal that hangs on a Harriet Street utility pole (below, top) gets high marks for its innovation in the genre, but the execution feels a little, you know, “smoke a little dope, skip a little rope”… but maybe this blogger just doesn’t get it, man.

Similarly, A boy from Frankford… (below, bottom) really feels like somebody who doesn’t know what he’s trying to do. Then again, I guess he says it right there: like anyone in the tin can pole art game, this “boy” is just trying to find his way.

metal sheets stamped with words and painted, nailed to utility pole in Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship

metal sheet painted, lettered, and screwed to utility pole, Pittsburgh, PA

“a boy from Frankford … trying to find his way,” Spring Hill

Thanks to Susan Peake for tipping us off to a number of the Friendship pieces and co-assistant cub reporter Lee Floyd for his work in Shadyside.


[1] Thank you, Chris Caldwell.
[2] Greater Spring Hill: if you spot more of these, let us know!

Step Beat: Talking Missed Connections and Mis.Steps with Ms. Steps

bent street sign for the intersection of Lappe Lane and Shirls Street with downtown Pittsburgh in the distance

Only the street sign remains: where Lappe Lane used to end at Shirls Street, Spring Hill

Lappe Lane is one of the more fascinating throughways you’re likely to travel. Roughly equal parts city steps, paved road, and (non-existent) “paper street,” Lappe begins down in Spring Garden and then runs straight up and over the hill, back down the other side, through a cemetery (though you wouldn’t know it), and just keeps going.

If you like hiking the steps, there’s a decent chance you’ve already climbed Lappe Lane’s lower flights where the stairs intersect Spring Garden Ave. or Goehring Street and continue up to Yetta and St. John’s Cemetery at the top of the hill. These early sections offer great options to what entry-level step trekkers are after–steep vertical ascents, great city views, kooky between-house catwalks, and lots of nice here-to-theres with alternate options to get back down the hill.

Even so, you’ve probably never made it up here, where we are, at the very end. And that’s because–like some twisted Zen koan–even where Lappe Lane finally ends, it doesn’t actually go there.

hillside with staircase overgrown with weeds, Pittsburgh, PA

Lappe Lane, from South Side Ave. to Fabyan Street, Spring Hill

Laura Zurowski has an ambitious goal: visit and document every one of Pittsburgh’s seven hundred and thirty-nine (known) sets of public steps. As if all the navigating, stair-climbing, and list-checking-off weren’t enough, Zurowski’s Mis.Steps project gets even more complicated. No mere exercise/sight-seeing venture, each and every steps visit is followed by an additional mixed media exploration via old-school/pre-digital instant photography, short prose, colored sidewalk chalk, print-making, and final distribution via the computer Internet.

We’ll get to all this. Today, though, we’re just trying to locate the very last two flights of Lappe Lane, at the far north end of Spring Hill.

woman taking photograph of weed-covered set of public stairs in Pittsburgh, PA

In the weeds: Laura Zurowski with her Polaroid Spectra 2 camera

“Pittsburgh chose me,” Zurowski says of her relocation from Providence, by-way-of upstate New York. The decision came six years ago alongside the desire to own a home in a place she could pursue more creative projects. “I asked myself, ‘What do I want life to be?’ and the answer was that I wanted to be open to ideas; to have a more robust, creative existence.”

The interest in the city steps only came some time after the move. Seeing the volume of empty houses in Pittsburgh was new, startling, and inspirational–but also melancholy. “Every one of those (abandoned) homes contained people’s lives, so seeing them empty is really sad,” Zurowski says, “With the steps–even if they’re in bad condition–I never feel sad like I do with empty houses.”

That, coupled with Bob Regan’s Orbit essential The Steps of Pittsburgh: Portrait of a City (The Local History Company, 2004) was enough to send Zurowski on her mission.

woman marking public steps with sidewalk chalk

Chalk it up: Zurowski tags another completed set of steps with a Polaroid-sized chalk square.

We see one small boarded-up home, but for the most part, the houses on this block all appear both lived-in and loved. Lappe Lane’s thirty-or-so steps starting from South Side Ave. [Mis.Steps Trip #109] are easy enough to spot. There is no street sign at this intersection, but a familiar pair of red-brown handrails reaches out of the hillside and right down to the edge of the quiet residential road.

But try walking up these stairs and you’re quickly ensnared in wild jumble of weedy overgrowth, thorny bramble, and whatever those plants are that leave prickly stickers on your socks and pant legs. Even half-way up the short flight, it’s obvious you’ll not be going far. One of the uphill homeowners has–perhaps, illegally–built an elaborate A-frame treehouse directly blocking the public right-of-way. Even if someone wanted to, no one’s going anywhere on these steps.

Polaroid photo of overgrown city steps in Pittsburgh, PA

Trip #109: Lappe Lane – S. Side Ave. Polaroid [photo: Laura Zurowski]

Zurowski fights her way through the thicket of tall grass, up past the first plateau, and on until nearly swallowed by the plant kingdom. There’s a shrugged acceptance this is far as these particular steps will allow, an untangling from the jaggers, careful descent back to the landing, and then hands dart into the backpack for the Polaroid camera. The single picture–there is only one per set of steps–is taken in an instant.

“My friend who’s a photographer said, ‘You’re going to have a really hard time coming up with 739 ways to take pictures of stairs’,” Zurowski says, “And it would be hard if they were all the same–but I haven’t come across two sets that look alike.”

“I look at the Polaroid [photos] like they’re portraits of people,” Zurowski continues, “If I were going to give human-like qualities to the steps, what would they be like? Hopefully the Polaroid captures the essence of what each flight of steps is all about.”

Polaroid photo of public staircase with trees and house behind

Late summer scene: Polaroid from Trip #61 – Harpster Street, Oct. 2017, Troy Hill [photo: Laura Zurowski]

The instant photograph is ejected from the camera, rested on a stair tread, and then the journals come out. There are two of them: one for “field notes”; the other, narrative impressions. With each visit, Zurowski includes a short meditation on the scene, which will be used later on.

Zurowski scratches a rough square, just about the size of a Polaroid picture, with sidewalk chalk on one of the stair risers. Mis.Steps super fans are undoubtedly taking selfies with chalk squares around town right now. Finally, the iPhone is used to snap one last picture summing up the whole scene.

With that, we’re on to Trip #110–the very end of Lappe Lane, just up the hill from where we are now. Here, Zurowski will do it all over again, but, just like every other one of those 739 sets of steps, this one is completely different from the one we just saw. For one, there aren’t any steps here (anymore).

autumn leaves on long set of public steps in Pittsburgh, PA

A blast of autumn past: Mis.Steps summary photo (including Polaroid and chalk square) from Trip #68 – Basin Street, Troy Hill/Spring Garden, Oct. 2017 [photo: Laura Zurowski]

That’s a lot of process–but it ain’t over yet! Back home, Zurowski completes the cycle with the publishing of each Mis.Steps adventure every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. The narrative is honed, the Polaroid digitized, and the pairing of image + words goes out to the world via the Mis.Steps’ blog, Instagram, and Craig’s List “Missed Connections” page. That’s right: between “Kinky Dom Roleplay – m4m (Canonsburg)” and “Thanks for the hot time – m4m (McKeesport)” there’s a little story and photo about listening to birdsongs on the Morningside Avenue steps.

Risograph print of a Polaroid photo showing public stairs with a woman leaning on handrail

#20 Diulius Way, Central Oakland. Risograph print by Jimmy Riordan.

I know what you’re thinking: All this sounds great, but there’s nothing to hang on my wall or swap with friends! That’s where you’re sorely mistaken. Conveniently, Mis.Steps has taken the whole project out of the aether and fed it through a 1980s-era technology at the hands of Braddock printer Jimmy Riordan.

The result is a hard copy series of “trading cards” that further abstract the original murky Polaroid into ghostly, high-contrast 3-color art prints. In addition to the photographic image, the cards contain the Mis.Steps index number, street and neighborhood names, location, step count, and the city’s construction date (if known) on the front and the narrative text on the back. Card collections are available from the Mis.Steps website and Copacetic Comics in Polish Hill.

collage of nine Risograph prints made from Laura Zukowski's steps photos

No two alike: various Mis.Steps Polaroid-sized Risograph trading cards printed by Jimmy Riordan

If it’s not obvious yet, Laura Zurowski really loves Pittsburgh’s city steps–Orbit readers know we share an opinion on this matter. “If there’s an underlying goal,” Zurowski says of the Mis.Steps project, “It’s to get people to visit the stairs. I’d like to encourage people to look around, to check out other parts of the city, and to become connected with their neighborhoods.” We couldn’t agree more.

woman at top of long set of public stairs looking at a view of downtown Pittsburgh, PA

Route with a view: Zurowski at the top of the Vinial Street steps, part of the “Spring Garden Stair Stepping” event, Troy Hill

Still not enough Mis.Steps for you? Well, you’re in luck. Zurowski has teamed up with Threadbare Cider for a series of combined guided city step hikes and cider house tours/tastings dubbed Spring Garden Stair Stepping (and Cider Sipping). You’re probably too late for today’s kick off hike–and it sold out way ahead of time anyway–but there will be a couple more chances with repeat events April 15 and May 20.

Hail, Mary! Front Yard Mary Roundup

grotto with statue of Mary in front yard, Pittsburgh, PA

Deluxe grotto Mary, Spring Hill

With apologies to James Rado and Jerome Ragni:

Don’t ask me why, I’m just a Mary guy
I’m Mary noon and night, Mary, she’s a sight
I’m Mary high and low, don’t ask me why, don’t know

Not really expecting Mary to fly in the breeze, get caught in the trees, or provide a hive for the buzzing bees, we’ll end this frivolity right now–there’s big Mary business on the docket!

Mary statuette in front yard grass, Pittsburgh, PA

The Run

More Marys! In super-deluxe retaining wall grottos, bedecked in spinners and lights, obscured by Halloween decorations, enveloped in the deep-fry aromas of Big Jim’s, and standing alone in shame like a misbehaving student at recess.

The Orbit was not at all sated the by The Front Yard Marys of Bloomfield. No, that June, 2016 scene report just whet an appetite that inspired us to climb mountains, ford streams, and canvas for Hillary Clinton to slake this curio-religious thirst. Drink up.

Statuette of Mary in front yard, Homestead, PA

Homestead

Mary statuette in front of brick house, Pittsburgh, PA

Stanton Heights

Mary statuette in front yard, Pittsburgh, PA

Morningside

statue of Mary in front of older pink frame house, Pittsburgh, PA

Oakland

front yard Mary in grotto with a separate front yard Mary, Pittsburgh, PA

Big Jim’s Marys, The Run

Front yard Mary, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

Mary statuette in wooded yard, Pittsburgh, PA

Mary of the Wood, South Side Slopes

Mary statue in grotto in front of frame house, Pittsburgh, PA

Halloween Mary, Spring Hill

statuette of Mary in front yard of house, Pittsburgh, PA

Allentown

Three statuettes of Mary in front yard of home, Pittsburgh, PA

Trio of Marys, Stanton Heights

statue of Mary in homemade grotto, Pittsburgh, PA

Back yard Mary, Lawrenceville

Castle Damas

retaining wall on hillside constructed to look like medieval castle, Pittsburgh, PA

Castle Damas, Spring Hill

Rick Sebak’s inevitable future Pittsburgh history documentary Great Retaining Walls of Allegheny County should begin right here, in Spring Hill.

Castle Damas[1], a medieval fortress whose turrets and battlements were formed from mortar and stone rises with a spectacular view of the lands it holds dominion over–through the valley, down to Spring Garden, and across the river to the Strip District.

That these impenetrable walls should stand just up the block from the Spring Hill spring is no accident. The first settlers of Damas Street wisely selected an optimal site for defense, visibility, quality of life, and its free-flowing supply of life-sustaining cleanish natural spring water[2].

house with retaining wall on hillside constructed to look like medieval castle, Pittsburgh, PA

The keep and battlements of Castle Damas

Given the news of the week, we can assume we’ll all be getting a little more familiar with wall-building. On our recent visit, we were fortunate enough to meet the lord or this particular manor, who’s probably got as much wall experience as anyone. This day, our regent was engaged in maintenance of the structure, giving his naves a precious Saturday off and pulling weeds from the parapets himself. Lord Damas [Swiss cheese-for-brains failed to record the homeowner’s given name] told us his hilltop house was built in 1926 and its first owner, a baker, began construction of the elaborate wall around 1933.

Perhaps because it hasn’t been around quite as long as its European cousins, the castle wall and its bungalow-style keep are in impressive condition. Our liege told us he’d had to rebuild the top left half of the battlements and after pointing it out, the different colored mortar makes that somewhat obvious–but there’s enough variance in the stonework that this masonry-challenged blogger probably wouldn’t have noticed otherwise.

figure of an owl created with concrete and reflectors, Pittsburgh, PA

The owl of Castle Damas

Brendan Gill, (then) architecture critic for The New Yorker, famously wrote “If Pittsburgh were situated somewhere in the heart of Europe, tourists would eagerly journey hundreds of miles out of their way to visit it.”[3] This blogger’s about as crazy cuckoo coconuts on Pittsburgh as anyone, but even he can recognize hyperbole when he trips on it.

That said, when just any old anonymous hillside street gives us these cross-city views, this public spring, and a terrific faux castle/retaining wall overgrown in beautiful wildflowers and fall colors, birds–even a guard owl–well, who are we to argue?

retaining wall on hillside constructed to look like medieval castle, Pittsburgh, PA

Castle Damas


[1] “Castle Damas” is Pittsburgh Orbit‘s name for the construction–don’t bother looking it up (at least, not by that name).
[2] We’ll note that the construction of the uphill houses on Damas Street was considered a contributing factor to the discoloration and impurity of the sping’s water.
[3] In the same quote, Gill also claims “The three most beautiful cities in the world are Paris; St. Petersburg, Russia; and Pittsburgh,” but if the guy has never even been to Akron, take it with a grain of salt.

Get Out The Voegt: Finding the Spring Hill Spring

natural spring in concrete pedestal embedded in hillside, Pittsburgh, PA

Spring is sprung: Voegtly Spring, The Spring Hill spring

Ask a Spring Hill local how to get to the neighborhood’s newly-unearthed and re-opened natural spring and he or she will make it real easy for you: “It’s right by the boxing ring.” Me: “Oh, thank you very much, that helps a lot. Just one more question: where’s the boxing ring?”

From there, it just gets more confusing. The “boxing ring” is actually the Steel City Boxing Association and Google Maps puts it way down the hill from its true location. Assuming you do find the right place, the stonework is engraved Hook & Engine Co. 53 for its (former?) life as a fire hall and contains no after-market mention of the sweet science.

How about the Internet–a recently excavated and restored piece of local history should be front page news, right? Well, you try a web search for “Spring Hill spring”–it’s un-Googleable! Spring Hill’s Internet presence doesn’t assist at all–there’s nary a peep about the spring from the neighborhood associations or its wiki page. C’mon, guys–help a blogger out!

Rest assured, dear reader: if we achieve nothing else, The Orbit will get you to the Spring Hill spring.

Detail from public mosaic "The German Settlers of Spring Hill" depicting the Spring Hill spring, Pittsburgh, PA

“The German Settlers of Spring Hill” (detail) mosaic depicting Voegtly Spring, Spring Hill

A large mosaic installation titled The German Settlers of Spring Hill welcomes visitors near the corner of Homer and Damas Streets*, one of just a few access points to the hilltop neighborhood. The final section of the four-panel piece features various community members in old world garb gathered around the image of the hearth-like Voegtly Spring, the natural water source that gave Spring Hill its name.

In that depiction, the spring is a flooding outpour overflowing its basin, its output equal to a dozen garden hoses. That’s not exactly what we found. The constant stream of water–there is no Off valve to a natural spring–is more of a dribble or a trickle than the gusher one might expect from the artwork mere feet away. That may have something to do with us visiting after a run of dry weather, so we’ll have to go back to verify after a decent stretch of rain.

masonry enclosure around pipe dribbling natural spring water, Pittsburgh, PA

The spring

Some background, from the Voegtly Spring historic nomination form**:

A stream ran down from the top of Spring Hill, ran through the intersection of Humboldt St. (now Homer St.) and an unnamed street (now Damas St.) and down into modern day Spring Garden (Fig. 4). In 1912 a rectangular stone and concrete structure was built into the shale hillside alongside Damas St. (formerly Robinson Road) to harness the flow of water beneath the ground to provide easy access to drinking water for the residents of the neighborhood and surrounding area.

The nomination form goes on to mention that “the spring water was tested and shut off sometime in the 1950s” and that house construction above the spring “may have contributed to [its] contamination”. Furthermore, “It is reported that during this time the spring water developed a distasteful odor and became a yellowish orange color.”

There’s no official word on whether the discoloration is still in effect, but it looked fine to my admittedly low standards. Despite the warning that “public works does not encourage its use because [the water] is not treated”, it’s certainly right there for the drinking and let’s face it: it’s cool to suck spring water right out of the hillside. Lesser journalists–speculative or otherwise–would turn toward home after snapping some pictures, but this blogger rushed in for a righteous century-in-the-making quaff.

glass of water from Voegtly Spring, Pittsburgh, PA

No discoloration here. Voegtly Spring water.

So…what does Voegtly Spring’s water taste like? Well, it ain’t Perrier, that’s for sure. If it’s not too vague, we’ll describe it as earthy, or maybe minerally. Flavorful–but I wouldn’t describe that flavor as desirable. It’s maybe a little gritty–like a woodsy stream–surprisingly warm, and decidedly different from city tap water (for good or bad). That said, it doesn’t have the natural toe-tingling effervescence of more celebrated waters. I’ll go out on a limb to suggest it’s unlikely we’ll encounter Winnebagos parked on Damas Street with tourists filling five-gallon jugs like you regularly see down in Berkeley Springs.

I’ll be honest: there’s not a lot else to do at the spring. You can drink from it straight like a water fountain and you can fill up a jug. That’s pretty much it. As entertainment, a visit is pretty low rent compared to, say, Pac-Man or The Jumble. Regardless, it’s a neat little old world nugget to trip across if you find yourself hanging out by the boxing ring or, more practically, desperately need some hydration and can’t quite make it down to Penn Brewery.

Here, on this eve of an incredibly important national election, we can only recommend that Orbiteers first get out and vote. And then, if you’re still not satisfied, get out and Voegt.

masonry enclosure for natural spring in hillside, Pittsburgh, PA

Voegtly Spring, The Spring Hill spring

Getting there: Voegtly Spring is on Damas Street, just off Homer. When you see the old Hook & Ladder Company or the big public mosaic/garden, you’re real close. The easiest way to get there (especially on bicycle) is from Spring Garden Avenue, up the hill on Homer. We’ve also added a pin for the spring to our Map page.


CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story quoted an August, 2016 Post-Gazette piece on the re-opening of the spring that incorrectly lists Fred and Wilbert Bergman as the builders. The Bergmans took the earliest known photograph of the spring, but construction was done by the city Department of Public Works.


* The mosaic was constructed by a large group at the leadership of Linda Wallen, whose Yetta Street mosaics (also in Spring Hill) we profiled last year.
** A big thank-you to Spring Hill resident James Rizzo for helping to clarify the facts on ownership and construction of Voegtly Spring.

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.