Photo: This photo, taken in 1986, shows the raw site of “Garden Installation,” before work began. Courtesy of Winifred Lutz
By Amy George
Many old buildings throughout Pittsburgh hold clues that point to their versatile histories.
The Mattress Factory is one of them. Its clue? The brick window wall in its outdoor garden.
Today, dark green ivy dances across the picturesque wall in overgrown tendrils. The wall’s red bricks lack luster from decades exposed to the elements. But Winifred Lutz, the artist who created the wall as part of a larger project on the museum site called “Garden Installation,” once had a vision.
According to an artist statement on her website, Lutz designed the Garden to “uncover the urban and natural history of the site and to reveal its physical memory.” Lutz’s design study lasted from 1986 to 1990 when she built a model for the Garden; construction spanned from 1992 to 1997. She incorporated the architectural remains of the then-empty lot, adjacent to the Mattress Factory, into her design, which included the window wall. Bricks were excavated from the foundation of the building which had previously stood on the lot at 500 Sampsonia Way to build the window wall, a building which originally housed the Italo-French Produce Company.
Constructed in the 1890s, this four-story structure played an integral part in the history of the Mexican War Streets, which were laid out in 1848 by General William Robinson Jr. on land originally purchased from the Six Nations of the Iroquois.
The Italo—French Produce Company, known for its macaroni, was owned by Felice Pivirotto. He resided with his family in a three-story structure across the street from the Produce Company and used the building’s adjoining garage, still standing at 504 Sampsonia Way, as a horse stable.
Macaroni products were made in the four-story building where Lutz’s “Garden Installation” is now located, and dried in the six-story addition, which was built in 1900—now the home of the Mattress Factory. This ended around 1930, when Pivirotto moved his expanding business to Pressley Street. Pivirotto was one of thousands of Italian immigrants who, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, settled in the area around what is now the Mattress Factory.
“Many of these [Italian residents] worked in agriculture-related jobs, including food production and cooking, as grocery store operators and as vegetable hucksters,” Mattress Factory museum archives state. “The history of the Mattress Factory building directly reflects this fact.”
Azzarello, Ciaccia, Calcagno, Robbibaro, Sartorio, Pesavento, Munari, Catelli, Cella, Cimino, Borgo, Baggio, Conti, Busin, Therisod, and Marasti were some of the last names of long-standing families in the area.
“Sampsonia Way was such a friendly neighborhood,” reads a historical document from the Mexican War Streets Society. “Everyone was so willing to help one another. During the Prohibition Era every Italian family made their own wine and home brew. The neighbors would go into one another’s houses, drink, and have…fun. On Saturday evenings there would always be music at one of the houses and the neighbors would get together and dance. In the summertime there would be picnics at various farms and the neighbors would get together and go by truck.”
Then the Great Depression hit, and both sections of the building at 500 Sampsonia Way remained empty for much of the decade.
In 1936, however, Pittsburgh experienced a great flood known as the “St. Patrick’s Day Flood,” and both sections were used to store and sort damaged materials, clothing and other relief materials for flood victims.
As the economy recovered, both portions of the building were again occupied: the six-story section by the Gorman Candy Company, and the four-story section by the Stewart Paper Company. The paper company remained in the four-story section until 1963, when it was demolished by a fire. After the candy company left the six-story space, it was filled by a furniture company, then, notably, a mattress business.
The Mattress Factory building, in essence, is not only a space for contemporary art, but is also a monument to Pittsburgh’s long and multifaceted industrial history—a history made possible by the toil of various waves of immigrants who came to this city from around the globe throughout the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.
The next time you enter one of the thousands of centuries-old buildings around the Northside, keep in mind that it likely holds many secrets and stories within its walls.