Chet’s Tiny Backyard Dream World

garden with waterfalls and model pirate ship and dock

The Orbit hit pay dirt right away at the great annual Highland Park neighborhood yard sale. The very first stop yielded copies of The Floaters cheese-soul astrology by way of the classified ads slow jam Float On” (the full 12-minute album version). Sadly, thirty-eight years later, Larry is still looking for a woman that loves everything and everybody.

We also found one from that other Larry–Larry Norman and his bluesy Jesus-rock concept album Something New Under the Son (recorded the same year as “Float On”!). So this off-duty blogger slash on-duty record fiend was sated almost before he’d begun.

Of course we soldiered on, following some enticing signs off Highland towards a side street. There, we came to one particular sale that didn’t have any merchandise worth perusal, but the most amazing back yard world opened up behind the sale tables set up along the street.

The house’s owner Chet (we only got a first name) told us that he’s been gradually building this tiny fantasy world for the last thirty years. On the one hand, it’s an outdoor two-or-three-season model train set, but it’s also so much more.

Chet individually hand built huts, log cabins (one includes an outhouse–in use), a church, farmhouse, stable, greenhouse, bungalow with garage, pirate ship, floating river dock, a bridge, surf shack, windmill, and fire tower. He told us he rearranges the train set and building layout every year when the world re-emerges each Spring. And that’s all on top of the permanently-landscaped pair of waterfalls and flowing river that run through and around this part of the yard.

The full eco-system lives outside for the duration of the season with only the thick cover of the giant elm tree over head as protection. It’s miraculous that these tiny wooden houses survive so well. But then again, they’re protected by magic.

model cabin with man in outhouse

backyard train set with model buildings

model house, garage, and old pickup truck

model hut and church

model church and surf shack

model log cabins with waterfall in background

model river scene with bridge and dock

A Tiny Castle in The Strip District

homemade model of a castle mounted to a brick wall

A tiny castle on a wall in an alley in the Strip District

Man, can The Orbit ever haunt some alleys. Some days it seems like all the good stuff turns up in them. It was that way recently when this blogger found himself headed home from downtown, rolling through Spring Way (the long alley between Liberty and Penn in the Strip District). There I was, minding my own business*, not a care in the world**, when something quite literally popped-out from the brick wall high over head causing one citizen-journalist to nearly eject himself from his bicycle seat with the hasty application of a desperately in-need-of-repair set of brakes.

What could possibly demand this kind of reckless photo-pseudo-journalism? Well, the astute reader has probably already divined that there was a mysterious red castle fixed to a painted piece of wood and screwed to the wall. The piece is high over head (I’d say maybe twelve or fifteen feet off the ground?)–so unnaturally out-of-sight and out-of-mind that less reputable bloggers and side-street walkers wouldn’t even have noticed its presence.

Ha! It’s this kind of attention-to-detail that hopes to land Pittsburgh Orbit as your go-to news source. Look no further! But where was I? Oh, yeah–the castle.

We have very few clues to tell us what this is all about. I’m calling it a castle, but it could just as easily be a prison, maybe a school, or some other institutional building with turrets and large porticos. The model has what appears to be a flag of Mexico affixed to the high central parapet, but it’s up too high to make a positive ID. There’s also a dramatic helipad with a tiny yellow chopper seated in place.

homemade model of a castle mounted to a brick wall

In context: the tiny castle affixed above window/door height

“Real” castles may last for hundreds (thousands!) of years, but this objet d’art d’alley will not. It’s made of some combination of particle board, foam, paper, and paint and is already showing some serious deterioration. I doubt it will make it through more than one harsh Pittsburgh winter—and that’s assuming the man doesn’t take it down before then.

Getting there: For all these reasons, if you want to see the tiny castle, you shouldn’t wait too long. Those headed to Penn-Mac for their Fiore Sardo or to Stan’s Market for cheap peppers this long holiday weekend should take the extra couple minutes to walk around the corner. The castle is located in Spring Way on the block between 21st and 22nd Streets, approximately behind Luke Wholey’s Wild Alaskan Grill. Look up.

homemade model of a castle mounted to a brick wall

Note: An Orbit apology for the photo quality here, which does not meet our usual standards, but it’s the best we could do under the circumstances. The piece was so high I had to get way back to snap it and the ol’ camera phone just doesn’t do too well with the zoom.

* Nebbing into every possible window, conversation, open loading dock, etc.
** Skating on the thin ice of crippling self-doubt, guilt, and regret