Canning: Look to see to remember


An old medallion with George Washington on it was found in the Central Northside. (Photo courtesy John Canning).

Joseph Fitzpatrick, the former Art Supervisor at Pittsburgh Public Schools, periodically visited the art classrooms at John Morrow School back in the ‘50s. He was quite the dapper fellow and, we later learned, quite an artist in his own right.

It seemed that in almost every visit he made to our class, he would talk to us about broadening our understanding of art in all of its many forms. His regular word of advice was to "look to see to remember." A recent visit to The Warhol brought this advice to mind. 

In the exhibit focusing on the comic book art of Alex Ross, there was a painting of Norman Rockwell, one of the artists who contributed to Ross’s artistic development. 

Rockwell’s work, "The Connoisseur," depicted  the image  of a conservatively dressed, grey flannel suit type ,middle-aged man holding a Homburg hat , think Eisenhower, and a copy of a newspaper looking at a very abstract painting of Jackson Pollock ­– quite a contrast. 

I wondered if the man in Rockwell’s work was looking to see to remember. Fitzpatrick’s advice of over a half century ago pertains to how we respond to most of life’s experiences.  
A few years back a team of avid artifact collectors set about he task of "digging out"  a series of outhouse pits in the backyards of Nuttell Row on the west side of Monterey Street between Sampsonia and Jacksonia Street.

The homes there were probably constructed in the late 1860s by Robert Nuttell as rental housing for working-class families, known in that era as "mechanics."  Every two dwellings shared an outdoor privy. 

These were no simple holes in the ground. They were brick-lined and 40-some feet deep. During the mid 19th century urban sprawl in Allegheny City, outhouses were more common than indoor facilities, especially for "mechanic" classes. 

In the process of collecting old bottles (one pit had a great stack of ginger beer bottles), pottery  shards and sundry other artifacts, the team working on a site adjacent to our yard came upon a real find.  It was a very large and complete ceramic medallion containing a relief image of George Washington. 

The collectors were ecstatic over this find, and we neighbors were amazed.  All looked to see to remember.  The question arose:  "Were medallions like this in other parts of the Northside?" 

I recalled seeing a similar work high on the facade of a double house on Cedar Avenue in Historic Deutschtown. The elaborate facade of the double house built by the Huckestein brothers incorporated the ceramic relief of a classical face.  

Given the nature of the Huckestein brothers’ businesses, brewing and distilling, that image might have indeed been an ancient symbol of that trade.

My thoughts recalled similar statements in stone and ceramic found in various Northside neighborhoods: the horse head carving above the entrance to a late 19th century teamster’s stable on Lowrie Street, the functionless but fascinating gargoyles on Calvary Methodist Church, the smiling faces carved in the 1890s into the facade of Charles and Hannah Zeugschmidt’s row houses on Buena Vista Street and those grotesque ceramics incorporated into the designs of  the Memorial Hall of the Western Theological Seminary, now CCAC, as well as into the 1930  Allegheny General Hospital tower.

All of these bits and pieces are part of this wonderful Northside story if we just take the time to “look to see to remember.”

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