Steps to Nowhere: The Thomasson of Essex Way

Steps to Nowhere: The Thomasson of Essex Way, Bloomfield

Well, it took long enough–three years and change.

It was that long ago, in this same electronic publication, where the author declared, “To Pittsburgh’s other Thomassons, hang in there: we’re coming for you!” (“A Thomasson!” Pittsburgh Orbit, March 16, 2016)

Rabid fans of architectural effluvia have been sitting on their hands for years now, waiting for a promised revival, but was the wait ever worth it! It’s not every day that a beaut’ like this comes along.

Five short steps form a poured concrete stoop along the alley side of a Bloomfield row house. They lead to a blank wall. The base has been freshly repainted in a deep slate blue with its risers and wooden railing accented in alternating colors of red, mauve, aqua green, yellow, orange, and a couple shades of blue. The whole construction pops from the otherwise nondescript off-white siding.

We’ll not go into the whole thing here, but a “Thomasson” is an artist-created name for an architectural or infrastructure relic that no longer serves any purpose but is still actively maintained. It’s that second clause that makes them so rare.

While Webster Hall’s former retail entrance (see the earlier story) is totally legit, it never felt quite right. The remaining two-step platform makes a pretty obvious nice long bench along the Fifth Avenue sidewalk bookended by a pair of planters. One could argue this is less Thomasson and more adaptive reuse. In reality, no one ever sits there; theoretically a person could.

In contrast, the Bloomfield side steps-to-nowhere are really textbook Thomasson. They clearly led to a door that’s no longer there, boxed in by after-market aluminum siding in a serious home renovation project. It’s expensive and/or labor-intensive to jackhammer out all that concrete–not to mention there’s a possible structural hazard for the home’s foundation. So one can imagine the very reasonable desire to just leave it be.

But by preserving the useless handrails and taking up the paint brush–in eight different colors, no less–the homeowners are working at some next-level Thomasson generation. It’s an oddball curio, discussion topic, and detour destination for a backstreet Bloomfield gambol.

Someone made the effort to redd up their Thomasson. We’re glad they did.

A Thomasson!

Man relaxing on unused, but well-maintained entry steps to apartment building in Pittsburgh, PA

At least one guy uses this thing. The Thomasson, after a full rehab, March, 2016

We got really interested in Thomassons from a story of the same name on the great 99% Invisible podcast. A Thomasson, as defined by the Japanese artist Akasegawa Genpei who first identified and named them, is an architectural leftover or vestige that no longer has any use and is actively maintained. The name is a reference to one Gary Thomasson, a baseball player who, through twist of fate and contractual obligations was paid to ride the bench–ineffective, but maintained. [The podcast has that whole backstory.] Pittsburgh Orbit became obsessed with finding a local Thomasson.

Pittsburgh is littered with evidence of architectural decay. The giant extant former stone supports of the old Point and Manchester bridges downtown or the countless foundations of long-gone hillside houses come to mind–but there are plenty of examples. The tricky part in identifying a Thomasson is in finding one that people are still actively taking care of.

Bellefield Tower and Bellefield Clinic, Pittsburgh, PA

Bellefield Tower, Oakland. The mother of all Thomassons or still in use?

Bellefield Tower, at the corner of Fifth and Bellefield streets in Oakland, is a potentially glorious Thomasson–we could go as far as saying the mother of all Thomassons. But does it count? Bellefield is a freestanding bell tower that appears to have outlived the church (we assume?) it was once attached to. It’s now mere feet from the curved puce and mauve shopping mall chic exterior of Bellefield Clinic, making for possibly the most painfully awkward architectural juxtaposition in the city.

But does the tower really have no current use? It’s hard to say–this blogger has never heard its bell ringing, and it seems too small and awkwardly-shaped for much else. But possibly the clinic stores scrubs and hypodermic needles there. Maybe a couple of lucky administrative employees get solo offices, each with a tiny staircase. The point is, it could be in use. An investigation is in order*, but we’re not ready to call this a Thomasson…yet.

Apartment building on Fifth Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA

In context: Webster Hall’s Thomasson (pre-rebuild), Summer, 2015

Luckily, though, almost right next door, on the corner of Dithridge and Fifth Avenue, sits Webster Hall and what is an undeniable Thomasson. The eleven-story apartment building clearly used to hold something like lunch counters, or maybe retail spaces, on each ground floor corner–you can tell by the decorative masonry work and big window openings. There’s also a strange pair of steps that lead up to a now-bricked-in and glassed-over former entry point. It’s dressed-up with a pair of inviting potted boxwood shrubs, but they’re not fooling this blogger: in nine years of working a block away, I’ve never seen anyone (except The Orbit‘s hired stooge/model) use this as a resting spot. And why would you? As steps, they’re an uncomfortable, awkward seat–there’s no back and not enough leg room–and who wants to relax on busy/noisy Fifth Avenue when you could walk two blocks and be in Schenley Plaza?

Work truck and crew repairing unused steps on apartment building, Pittsburgh, PA

The Thomasson during reconstruction, Feb. 2016

The steps are also undeniably under active maintenance. By last fall, they had lost some of their mortar, causing stones to shift and structure to break apart. The coming of winter only made it worse. When Team Orbit spotted a work crew out front in January it led to some great group rubber-necking and speculation, trying to get a glimpse at what was happening under the mysterious plastic tent. Would they tear up the downtrodden, useless steps-to-nowhere, dashing our hopes that this was our first legit Thomasson? Or was the crew there to make things right–to enpower Oakland’s pedestrians to once again bypass this funny stoop on their way to more pleasant places of repose?

Well, by this point in the story it’s no surprise that the workers came armed with mortar and trowels (not a jackhammer) and we can happily report that the Thomasson is alive and looking as good as new. To Pittsburgh’s other Thomassons, hang in there: we’re coming for you!

* Yes: finding out what’s up with Bellefield Tower is on The Orbit‘s big list!


Poli-Science: A Double Ghost Exposed in Squirrel Hill!

Ghost building with a ghost sign for Approved Lubrication, Pittsburgh, PA

The recently-uncovered rare “double ghost” in Squirrel Hill

Everyone said that great treasures would inevitably appear. When we were in the process of buying an old house, friends told stories of finding wavy glass apothecary bottles lost behind walls, secret messages under wallpaper, amateur paintings behind basement pegboard, pornography stowed and forgotten in loosened ceiling tiles.

A house built in the 1880s should have had ample time to accrue all this and more, but fifteen years later, the sum total this home-renovating blogger unearthed was one skeleton key and a set of Pittsburgh Press pages from the 1950s, laid below the linoleum on the third floor as, it seems, everybody used to do. I kept those papers for half-dozen years and then sent them out with the recycling one day. Sigh.

Poli restaurant in Pittsburgh, PA before the fire that destroyed it

Before the fall: Poli, pre-fire/demolition [photo:]

The news that the former Poli restaurant and its neighbor building had burned was big local news–and not without its share of suspicion and intrigue. The whole block at the corner of Murray and Forward (including the former Squirrel Hill Theater) had basically been shuttered and was slated for a massive redevelopment project that seems to have been postponed.

Whatever the reason, this sad event has a curious and surprising double twist for the ghost hunters of Pittsburgh Orbit. Now exposed, behind Poli’s former rear wall, we can see both a very clear building outline against the dense retaining wall behind (this seems to be the ghost of an addition to the original Poli) and a ghost sign that must have predated that section of the structure.

The building outline is nothing special–a straight rectangular box with one angled extension that looks like a slanted entrance to cellar stairs. The sign, on the other hand, begged for some looking into.

detail of faded ghost sign for Approved Lubrication, Pittsburgh, PA

Approved Lubrication ghost sign (detail)

The paint is almost completely worn away at this point. But with a little imagination and a little investigation, it turns out the sign was a large-form rendition of Amoco’s corporate identity and its Permalube Service used in the 1930s and ’40s. The tag line  Approved Lubrication is the most recognizable part of what remains. Knowing the original building dates to 1921, it’s probably safe to assume this painted advertisement was added before Poli’s misguided facelift and expansion onto the right/south side of the old building.

Amoco sign, 1930s-40s

Amoco sign, 1930s-40s [image: the Internet]

Poli would probably have made a great Orbit obit, but we just weren’t the right people to do it. [anyone? anyone?] The restaurant had existed at the same Murray Ave. location since 1921 and this blogger had at least fifteen years of ample opportunity to give it a try. What can I say? I was busy that night! No: it just didn’t happen.

I’m glad I made it to The Suburban Lounge and Moré and Chiodo’s Tavern before each of those storied haunts ended their respective run, but I’m afraid Poli is one that got away. Let it serve as a lesson that these places that seem like they’ll exist forever will not. [Note to self: get to Minutello’s ASAP!]

Ghost building/sign at the location of the former Poli restaurant, Pittsburgh, PA

In context: the double ghost at the former Poli site, Squirrel Hill

All that remains now is a re-seeded empty lot, an incongruous out-of-work smokestack, the nested pair of ghosts, and, across Murray Ave. from the site, the (literal) sign of Poli’s mid-life crisis. This c. 1970s triangular sign sits high up on its tall pedestal and shares a pie-shaped section of the five-points corner with a sidewalk no one will ever use, a parking lot with no apparent sponsor, and a set of out-of-place fruiting apple trees. In generally healthy, pedestrian-friendly Squirrel Hill, this is one dead space.

What will become of the sign? Who owns it now? It would be great if it could gradually morph into a legitimate “Thomasson” or be repurposed into a Welcome to Squirrel Hill beacon–its placement right at one entrance to the neighborhood would be perfect for that. Or, maybe, it will just become another ghost.

Sign reading "Poli Since 1921", Pittsburgh, PA

All that remains: Poli’s triangular sign across Murray Ave.