Troy Hill residents celebrate centuries of community and commerce

Berry Breene workson the Troy Hill sign outside of the Provident School in July. Photo credit: Bridget Fertal

With a rich and diverse cultural heritage Troy Hill continues to preserve its neighborhood’s roots

By: Bridget Fertal

In 1842, a Catholic church started a cemetary on a plateau above the Allegheny River. German immigrants who worked in the breweries, tanneries and mills along the water made their home on this overlook, which became known as Troy Hill. It was included into Allegheny City in 1877 and later, into Pittsburgh’s Northside.

Troy Hill locals are bound by heritage and geography. The neighborhood’s location is secluded, and travelers rarely visit the isolated hilltop. In the book, “The Women of Troy Hill,” author Clare Ansberry describe the residents:

“Troy Hillers have cultivated an unusual loyalty to one another due to their position on the Pittsburgh map… Living on this sliver of land and left entirely to their own, they have been remarkably self-sustaining.Over the years, through small daily deeds, passing flowers over a fence, bringing Communion to shut-ins, sharing books and comforting one another in grief, they formed and maintained a simpleback-fence symbiosis.”

That notion of community sparked through Troy Hill’s heritage of Catholicism lives on within Saint Anthony’s Chapel today. The church was founded in 1880 by Father Sultbert G. Mollinger, a Belgian priest from a wealthy family.

“Mollinger’s personal background of wealth and privilege,” John Canning of the Allegheny City Society wrote in a historical pamphlet, “Contrasted greatly with parishioners who were farmers, butchers, railroad men and other blue-collar artisans. Much of the priest’s inherited wealth, however, was invested for the parish itself.”

A relic from Saint Anthony's Chapel. Photo credit: Justian Criado
A relic from Saint Anthony’s Chapel. Photo credit: Justian Criado

The church is one of the six historic landmarks in Troy Hill, and possesses over 4,000 religious “relics” — physical or personal remains of a saint — second only to the Vatican in terms of such sacred items.

The neighborhood boasts five other historic landmarks including the Troy Hill Firehouse, the Rectory of Most Holy Name of Jesus, the Troy Hill Incline Building, the Allegheny Reservoir Wall and the Ober-Guehl House.

When Troy Hill was attached to Allegheny City in 1877, there were already over one hundred families living there. Each individual brought a separate heritage, such as German or Czech, which didn’t isolate families from one another. Instead it gave them the opportunity to embrace one another’s diversities.

Today, the origin of Troy Hill lives on through citizens who celebrate their rural, German heritage. Similar to Father Mollinger’s early work of building unity via common religious beliefs, three small entrepreneurial businesses are using commerce to unite themselves with Troy Hill’s culture and community.

Photo courtesy of Pear and the Pickle
Photo courtesy of Pear and the Pickle

Atop the hill’s peak is Pear and the Pickle, a store and cafe founded by Troy Hill residents Alexis Tragos and Bobby Stockard. The name of their market is derived from two neighborhood traditions. Pear pays homage to the pear orchards that once grew in the area now known as Rialto Street. The pickle refers to a historical occupation, as many locals held positions as pickle packers at Heinz.

The store offers fresh produce and dairy as well as dry-goods and canned products. Additionally, they have locally-made specialties and prepared foods ranging from coffee to breakfast sandwiches.

Scratch Food & Beverage, another local eatery, prospers in Troy Hill’s central intersection. Owner, Don Mahaney explained that their service is customer-oriented.

“Our mission is to create a significant second and third space on the Northside of Pittsburgh where friendly paths intersect. That [mission] is taken from a larger quote from a Hermann Hesse book,” said Mahaney.

Scratch strives to focus on natural and local ingredients. The menu ranges from vegan grain salad to fried chicken and the atmosphere is just as unconventional.

Penn Brewery on Lowrie Street.
Penn Brewery on Vinial Street.

“It is important to me that I create a space where people are comfortable and my staff are able to grow. The only way that can happen is outside the typical view of business, as we bring a more human element into it [the restaurant] by talking to people and helping them along their paths,” said Mahaney. “Most importantly, the empathy between staff and guests creates a very strong group of people in the restaurant, no matter who they are or what their jobs are on paper.”

At the foot of Troy Hill sits Penn Brewery, a destination that offers locals a German watering hole serving up authentic Bravanian craft beer and cuisine just minutes from their homes.

Built in 1877, the Ober-Guehl House was once the residence of John P. Ober, who was president of Eberhardt and Ober Brewery. Additionally, Ober’s brewery links past to present as portions of Ober’s estate are currently part of the Penn Brewery complex.

“There were once multiple breweries on our location in the 1840s,” Penn Brewery marketing director, Linda Nyman said. “The offices in our complex were once part of the Ober brewery and the main building with the restaurant was the E&O brewery.”

Northside citizens worked to revive the original location which experienced a fire in the late 19th century and continued to weather under Prohibition.

“In the 1890s the brewery was purchased by Pittsburgh Brewing, but when Prohibition came along operations were closed,” said Nyman. “When it [Prohibition] ended, they opened parts back up. In 1989, Penn Brewery started operations under direction of Thomas Pastorius and with the help of the Northside Leadership Conference.”

Penn Brewery now opens several historic sections of the complex to the public and in 1987 was included (under Eberhardt and Ober Brewery) on the National Register of Historic Places.

“Behind the main building is the original cobblestone beer garden,” Nyman said. “Perhaps the most interesting feature we have is a labyrinth of logging caves from before refrigerators were invented to keep things cool. They have been cleaned out recently and four large old barrels dating back to the 1840s and 1850s, were discovered. We cut back a piece of those cave walls so people can see the interior.”

The brewery explains that they adhere to 16th-century Bavarian Reinheitsgebot purity laws which limit ingredients to barley, hops and water.

Central to most all Troy Hill happenings is the Troy Hill Citizens (THC) organization, a non-profit that holds meetings and fosters community. One of the projects they direct is building community gardens where people can grow fresh food in a city neighborhood.

Troy Hill Rialto Street murual completed in July. Photo credit: Bridget Fertal
Troy Hill Rialto Street murual completed in July. Photo credit: Bridget Fertal

In July, the THC unveiled the Rialto Street mural. The mural is a commemoration to historic hand-painted advertisements.

“Troy Hill residents have so much pride in their neighborhood,” Brian Schimmel, THC chairman said in a press release. “We wanted to create a visual gateway to the community that pays tribute to our history while embracing our future.”

Additionally, Berry Breene a Pittsburgh based artist, painted a mural in coalition with THC on Troy Hill Road across from Provident School in July.

When asked about the project Schimmel said, “The building has been a long-standing eyesore. And as a neighbor of Berry’s and a member of Troy Hill Citizens I approached Berry to see if she would be interested in doing something to spruce up that building. Berry donated her time by painting the panels and neighborhood volunteers helped with the installation.”

This mural is an example of how residents discuss and execute the beautification and preservation of their highland home. Current Troy Hill natives may not pass their neighbor flowers over the backyard fence as Anseberry wrote, but the neighborhood has preserved its historic European heritage while modernizing its business-to-resident relationships and culture.

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