Highway to Hell: The House of Hades “Toynbee” Tiles, Part 2

House of Hades "Toynbee Tile" imprinted on city street, Pittsburgh, PA

House of Hades “Toynbee Tile” #4 (detail), Blvd. of the Allies, downtown

A cautionary tale: Whenever one thinks she or he has reached the end of the metaphorical line and is dangling by the very last fibers above the abyss, know that if you’re successfully converting oxygen to carbon dioxide, you’ve still got a fighting chance. Heck, maybe one day we’ll finally get the high-quality hemp rope N.O.R.M.L. promised us back in the ’90s.

Just a few months back, we bagged what we thought were the very last “Toynbee tiles” in Pittsburgh. Those two little street artworks, both found on Blvd. of the Allies downtown, are actually courtesy of the equally-mysterious House of Hades, which is believed to be either copycat or super-fan, depending on one’s viewpoint. [Our handful of “real” Toynbee tiles are, sadly, long gone.]

linoleum art of city scene at night, imprinted on city street, Pittsburgh, PA

city at night tile (detail), Blvd. of the Allies, downtown

And so, as we said in that post, that was all she seemed to write…err, carve into linoleum and press into the street.

But (yes: there’s always a big but) how wrong a blogger can be! Within mere blocks of those two specimens, we encountered yet another pair of wayward street tiles–apparently from the very same hands. The first of these is on Smithfield Street, right before the bridge; the other just around the corner and up a block on the Boulevard (at Cherry Way).

The former (we’re calling it House of Hades tile #3) includes the exact same message as tile #1 from the previous post: House of Hades / One man versus American media in society ‘2012. This one also has the added ominous zinger To punish them all.

House of Hades "Toynbee Tile" imprinted on city street, Pittsburgh, PA

House of Hades tile #3, Smithfield Street at First Ave.

Tile #4 is a little more difficult to parse. The Toynbee half of it contains what we’ve come to recognize as a naked lady’s shapely gam across the top (there was probably a right leg to go with this left, but it’s gone now), plus some of the familiar big headline text: House of Hades / The resurrection of Toynbee’s idea in society ‘2012. It also contains an extra stanza in relative fine print with the disturbing message I must work harder to punish these butchers for all that they’ve done.

The most unusual thing about #4, though, has to be that it’s also immediately abutting/overlapping yet another linoleum street tile of an entirely different mood and design. This one, vertical in composition with rounded corners, features a night scene in one-point perspective of a car driving toward a stylized big city skyline [notably not Pittsburgh]. A crescent moon hangs overhead against the star-speckled black sky.

It’s probably safe to say this nightscape is not the work of either the Toynbee or House of Hades folks. Aside from the medium itself, it just has none of the tell-tale style elements or apocalyptic messaging. That said, it sure is curious that the two ended up where they did. With all the available, naked pavement out there, how do two road tiles lie nearly right on top of each other? Can’t we all get along!

House of Hades "Toynbee Tile" imprinted on city street, Pittsburgh, PA

The full scene. House of Hades tile #4/nighttime city scene, Blvd. of the Allies at Cherry Way

Are these really the last of the Toynbee (inspired) tiles in Pittsburgh? We sure hope that isn’t the case and we’ll not make the mistake of trying to declare such a truth again. Fool me twice, as they say.

Plus, like that desperate hero watching the fraying strands of her lifeline unspool from its anchor above, we like to think there’s a little more life left in these streets and–with it now legal in 30 states–hemp is on the way. We haven’t given up just yet.


See also: Highway to Hell: The House of Hades “Toynbee” Tiles: (Pittsburgh Orbit, April 9, 2017)

Highway to Hell: The House of Hades “Toynbee” Tiles

Street art "Toynbee tile" reading "House of Hades, one man versus American media in society: 2012", Pittsburgh, PA

Pennies for your paranoid thoughts. House of Hades tile #1, Blvd. of the Allies at Market St., Downtown.

The style is exactly the same: linoleum tile, constructed in reverse, and embedded as mosaic into a tar base that is applied directly to road surface. Ultimately, the piece will fuse with street macadam given enough over-rolling traffic to force it into the pavement. Arch messages are cut into rough block capital letters and have a familiar cryptic apocalyptic tone with phrases like House of Hades and Media must be reduced to ash in society.

We know these–they’re the so-called “Toynbee Tiles”…right? The (very literal) street art/paranoia phenomenon has emanated from center city Philadelphia outward for several decades now. They’ve been featured in their own investigative documentary film [Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles (2012)], and–at least at one time–decorated a bunch of streets in the Golden Triangle.

Street art "Toynbee tile" reading "House of Hades, media must be reduced to ash in society: 2012", Pittsburgh, PA

House of Hades tile #2, Blvd. of the Allies at Wood St., Downtown

But…not so fast. For one thing, pretty much every legitimate Toynbee tile in downtown Pittsburgh has vanished from this earth[1]. We chronicled a bunch of these in our stories on The Toynbee Tiles of Smithfield Street and its follow-up Orbit obit to The Last Toynbee Tile on Smithfield Street a year later. The all-things-Toynbee site toynbeeidea.com has a Google map that includes pinpoints for eight different tiles that used to exist on Smithfield, Forbes, Oliver, and Commonweath Place. Under Orbit due diligence, our bicycle- and sidewalk-based researchers criss-crossed downtown and couldn’t locate a single extant tile from this set.

Second, the pair of tiles that arrived on Blvd. of the Allies (photographed here, but not currently on toynbeeidea.com’s map) aren’t strictly “Toynbee”. Whether they’re the work of a copycat, tributes to the original, or just plain doing their own thing (using the same visual language), is a matter of some debate. What’s clear, though, is that these House of Hades tiles have been left by a different crew than the person Resurrect Dead researcher/filmmaker Steve Weinik calls The Toynbee Tiler (“TTT”).

map of downtown Pittsburgh with locations marked for former locations of Toynbee tiles

Red dots mark the former locations of eight Toynbee tiles in downtown Pittsburgh–now all are gone. [map: toynbeeidea.com]

The ominous warning One man versus American media in society certainly comes off as incredibly timely given the current political climate. But in fact these messages go back well before Steve Bannon’s elevation to the White House. Both pieces contain the date 2012. This may or may not be accurate to the time of installation, but that’s around when we first remember tripping across them.

Information on this “House of Hades” is scant. Is it the message or the maker? As these things go, there’s no P.O. box to send your S.A.S.E. into or 800 number to call for a free brochure. ToynbeeIdea.com claims the tiles started appearing in Buffalo some time in the oughts and “look nice, but don’t last long”[2]. That’s not our experience, though. The pair on Boulevard remains nearly perfect five (or more) years on. Of course, we probably don’t have the volume of Philly traffic they’re comparing them to, but it’s still impressive.

street art "Toynbee tile" and buildings of downtown Pittsburgh, PA

Regardless, we’ll re-issue that old Orbit saw and simply say, House of Hades–who- or whatever you are–we’re glad somebody’s still out there carving wacky words, spoons, and lady legs into street decoration and we’re glad you dropped enough morsels in downtown Pittsburgh for us to chew on for a while. If it stops us in our tracks–possibly with oncoming travel barreling forward–makes us wonder, and gives the noodle a twist, well, you’re all right by us.

Oh–and one more thing: while The Orbit may technically qualify as part of “the media” [in its loosest, most pathetic usage], please don’t reduce us to ash just yet. We’ve still got some things we want to cover.

street art "Toynbee tile" and buildings of downtown Pittsburgh, PA


[1] That we know of…but The Orbit is pretty sure this is it. If you know of any other remaining Toynbee tiles in the city, please educate us.
[2] http://www.toynbeeidea.com/house-of-hades/


See also: Highway to Hell: The House of Hades “Toynbee” Tiles, Part 2: (Pittsburgh Orbit, August 6, 2017)

An Orbit Obit: The Toynbee Tiles of Smithfield Street

Toynbee Tile reading "Toynbee Idea in movie '2001' resurrect dead on planet Jupiter"

Resurrect dead while you can. The last remaining Smithfield Street Toynbee Tile, Downtown.

It was not that long ago (February, to be exact) when Pittsburgh Orbit filed one of its earliest stories on the great run of five “Toynbee Tiles” that were imprinted on Smithfield Street, approximately one per block from Boulevard of the Allies to Sixth, downtown.

This blogger likes to think The Orbit come a long way since those nascent days of yore, [Only two paragraphs of text? Who was doing the photo editing?] but looking back on this very recent history, it’s also a reminder of how rapidly (and drastically) things can change in the city as a whole. [Young people: for good or bad, back in the ’90s/early aughts, the words “Pittsburgh,” “rapid,” and “change” were never bundled in the same text.]

I’ve gotten in the habit of eyeballing and taking inventory of the Toynbee Tiles every time I ride through downtown, inevitably on Smithfield’s relatively-convenient route from the South Side to the great new Penn Ave. bike lane. It’s news to no one that there’s a tremendous amount of development happening in town right now–you see giant cranes, construction fencing, and torn up pavement everywhere you look. But I was startled to find that as of this past weekend–less than a year after that early blog post–only one out of the five Toynbee Tiles was still intact. The sole survivor (pictured above) is at the corner of Smithfield and Oliver Way.

It doesn’t seem like there was any malice involved here or that the tiles were actively removed in a clean-up effort. [Let’s hope not: the city has far bigger infrastructure-shaped fish to fry.] There just seems to be that much digging up of streets and running new, uh, things under them. The block of Smithfield from Sixth to Seventh has been totally resurfaced.

terra cotta storefront for former G's Restaurant and Pizzeria, Pittsburgh, PA

(The former) G’s Restaurant and Pizzeria on a torn-up Forbes Ave., Downtown

Fifteen years ago, me and a whole bunch of other concerned citizens drank a lot of beers and ate a lot of fried zucchini at The Chart Room in the name of not having downtown Pittsburgh eaten alive (or something like that) (hey: it worked, didn’t it? sort of?). The Chart Room is long gone (heavy sigh), but at least the building didn’t get torn down. [Sadly we can’t say the same for the old nickel bingo parlor across the street.]

No, The Chart Room got mangled by choice, in private hands, without needing any help from eminent domain. It’s strange to have lived through that extreme “Hail Mary”/desperation-style urban planning only to wake up in an entirely new world where big money comes in and builds big things all on its own. It’s different in a whole lot of important, structural ways, but still strangely the same as it seemed like it might have turned out to be. Resurrect dead, indeed.

Ah, hell. If you want The Orbit’s advice, go check out the last Toynbee Tile on Smithfield Street while you still can. It won’t be there forever.

The Toynbee Tiles of Smithfield Street

Toynbee tile, Smithfield Street, Pittsburgh

It doesn’t get much more “street art” than the mystery “Toynbee Tiles” that have appeared embedded in the macadam of city streets throughout the country (and the world!) for the last several decades.  They’ve been tracked pretty thoroughly and their story and the search for their creator was spellbindingly told in the terrific documentary film Resurrect Dead (2011).

We don’t have the kind of quantity that exist in Philadelphia or Baltimore, but Pittsburgh still has a bunch.  Smithfield Street (downtown) is the best spot to collectively see a run of the local ones, all of which are photographed here.  There’s approximately one on each block from Boulevard of the Allies to Sixth Street.

Toynbee tile, Smithfield Street, Pittsburgh

Toynbee tile, Smithfield Street, Pittsburgh

Toynbee tile, Smithfield Street, Pittsburgh

Toynbee tile, Smithfield Street, Pittsburgh