Sunday, June 2; Thursday, June 6; and Saturday, June 29, 2013
If there’s a devil, it’s earthly form must be complacency! At least it feels that way to us sometimes! Maybe you know the feeling. You’re sitting at home, comfortable on the couch, and thinking about just staying right there. Somehow, you gather the gumption to get up and do the thing you were thinking of doing. Almost every single time, at least for us recently, we end up wondering later how we considered for a second that the couch could be more attractive than some life-enriching experiences! The spring and summer have been busy for us and, although we haven’t made official neighborhood visits recently, we’ve had 90 Proof Pittsburgh on our mind all the while! As it usually happens, a public event pulled us to this very special neighborhood. We can’t wait to tell you about this place! It was all new to us and we’re so thrilled to have experienced it.
“Perry North” is not a phrase you’ll hear at all while in Perry North. Instead, residents call this charming neighborhood “Observatory Hill” for the historic Allegheny Observatory that sits atop one of the city’s highest points in Riverview Park. Riverview Park is the fourth of the city’s regional parks (Frick, Highland, and Schenley being the others) we’ve visited and one in which neither of us had ever stepped a foot. We’ll get back to both the Allegheny Observatory and Riverview Park, two absolute highlights, but first back to some basics on Perry North…from here onward, Observatory Hill!
Observatory Hill is among the city’s northernmost neighborhoods. It is bordered by Summer Hill, Northview Heights, Perry South, Marshall-Shadeland, and Brighton Heights, as well as Ross Township – an area outside city limits in the North Hills of Pittsburgh. Believe it or not, the McKnight Road business district and downtown Pittsburgh are almost equidistant, within a few miles north and south, respectively. Observatory Hill, Inc., the community’s active association, describes it as “historic, charming, and neighborly” offering “something for everyone.” They explain that it’s “tight-knit” and contains “stately homes, a business district, historic Riverview Park, and the Allegheny Observatory.” Most notably, you’ll find significant economic and ethnic diversity within the neighborhood boundaries, yet there seems to be such a feeling of cohesion – perhaps thanks to the glue of community pride – across it all.
Like numbers? The 2010 census tells us, via PGHSNAP, that 4,050 residents call Observatory Hill home. The neighborhood is the 10th largest by land mass, but is the 27th most populated. That’s good for 67th out of 90 in population density, explained quickly by the fact that Riverview Park makes up 33% of the neighborhood.
Observatory Hill, like all North Side neighborhoods, once belonged to Allegheny City and not Pittsburgh. Allegheny City and Pittsburgh, from 1840 – 1907, existed sort of like today’s Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota. They were distinct cities, separated by the Allegheny River. Pittsburgh annexed Allegheny City in 1907. That story, in itself, is worth an entire blog. We understand that the annexation occurred much to the dismay of residents in Allegheny City, but the larger population of Pittsburgh carried the voting clout and, after the landmark Supreme Court case Hunter v. City of Pittsburgh, the cities became one. Here’s a quick excerpt from that famous court decision:
“Be it enacted, etc., that, wherever in this commonwealth, now or hereafter, two cities shall be contiguous or in close proximity to each other, the two, with any intervening land other than boroughs, may be united and become one by annexing and consolidating the lesser city and the intervening land other than boroughs, if any, with the greater city, and thus making one consolidated city if, at an election, to be held as hereinafter provided, there shall be a majority of all the votes cast in favor of such union.”
We can take the history back a step further, too. According to the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, the neighborhood’s busy bisecting street – Perrysville Avenue – was once a part of the Venango Trail. The library explains that “Commodore Perry used the Trail to carry supplies from Pittsburgh to Erie for his lake battle against the British during the War of 1812.” That would explain this gigantic mural seen across the street from Perry High School in the business district of Observatory Hill (Perry North)!
At this point, we’re unclear about history specific to this neighborhood when it was a part of Allegheny City. Hopefully, as our knowledge of the North Side’s history grows and we uncover more resources, we’ll learn more about the histories of these locations as they originated within the confines of Allegheny City. Until then, we’ll reserve further history for a bit later when we discuss the incredible Allegheny Observatory.
The Business District
Perrysville Avenue cuts through the “business district” of Perry North. Dotted along the way are spots like Schorr Bakery, Mandy’s Pizza (where we stopped for lunch part way through our day), a beautiful firehouse in Engine Co. 34, a convenience store, First Niagara Bank, a chiropractic office, a thrift store, and a number of other establishments.
The House Tour
Let’s bridge history to this moment and this moment to the future. We can do that easily now that we’ve experienced the annual Observatory Hill House Tour – this year, titled The Park In Our Backyard. Among Pittsburgh’s most anticipated annual house tours, this year’s tour, our first here, showed off a dozen or so remodeled homes and historic structures in the neighborhood. Generally, the homes were built around the turn into the 20th century and showcased brilliant woodwork, stately character, and charming elegance. Rehabilitation efforts – some complete now for years, others freshly finished, and a few in-process – helped to define for us the personality of the residents (or at least a lasting impression of them). The homes demonstrated an apparent appreciation for historical integrity and a willingness to embrace modernity in tasteful ways. Molly’s Trolley’s, a local transportation company whose shuttles are reminiscent of 1920s style trolleys, provided transit around the circuit of homes. It was particularly meaningful in that it provided a sense of what it might have been like cruising around the City of Pittsburgh on real trolley lines decades ago. It was a practical and nostalgic choice by the organizers.
The tour certainly left us salivating over the quality of life in those gorgeous homes, but it also reminded us of how accessible that quality of life can be in Observatory Hill. We’re all aware now of our city’s “Most Livable City“-like accolades garnered over the last several years and resulting from nearly 30 years of transformation. Many areas – Lawrenceville and much of the North Side come to mind quickly – have been showing signs of revitalization and growth in recent years because of the quality of life available there. Observatory Hill, it seems, is on the short list for the next neighborhood to see an influx of residents. Observatory Hill, Inc. claims it’s “one of the last neighborhoods in the city that offers affordable, architecturally significant homes that retain all of their original, historic charms…in move-in condition.” We all better move soon!
There were four stops on the tour that weren’t homes, but important structures in the neighborhood. One of them, a center committed to providing health and wellness programs to North Side seniors and youth called Allen Place Community Services, Inc. is the former Chatham Elementary School. The school closed in 2006 after more than 80 years of operation, but it was quite active on this particular day, replete with a jazz band outside the entrance comprised of Observatory Hill residents and accomplished teaching musicians. The next three stops segue-way perfectly into our next two points of interest, Riverview Park and Allegheny Observatory!
The Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy aptly describes Riverview Park as a jewel of the city’s north side. They also explain that the land, once Samuel Watson’s dairy farmland in the 1700s, and once an open meadow for animal grazing, differs quite a bit from today’s heavily wooded Riverview Park. You might recall discussion of Mary Schenley’s donation to the City of Pittsburgh in 1889 for the creation of Schenley Park in our Squirrel Hill South post. Her gift to the City of Pittsburgh spurred some competition in Allegheny City across the river. Not to be outdone, residents of Allegheny City, with the help of Mayor William M. Kennedy, pooled money to purchase 200 acres of the Watson Farm in 1894. Two days later, Riverview Park was dedicated and, just 13 years later when Allegheny City was annexed by Pittsburgh, became our city’s park – one of four today. Check out more of the park’s fascinating history, here, including early attractions like an aviary and zoo with flying cage, bear pit, and elk paddock.
Riverview Park Visitor Center
Restored in 2003, the Riverview Park Visitor Center was among the next stops on the Observatory Hill House Tour and was formerly the park’s office headquarters.
The building is staffed by volunteers and offers park information, some programming, and restrooms. During our visit, a couple of volunteers – avid hikers outside of our region who stay fit for their hikes by traversing their neighborhood trail system in Observatory Hill – kindly recommended a couple of walking trail options. Nearing darkness that day, we took a quick stroll past where the old zoo was located and enjoyed the feeling of seclusion just minutes away from the city’s vibrant activity.
Next on our house tour stop was the historic Chapel Shelter. A thorough history of the building, along with fascinating details about the development of the entire park through the years, is available here on the Pittsburgh Park Conservancy’s blog archives. It’s worth a read! In the beginning, the structure was built as a nearby church, but was completely relocated when a new church was built on that site. Today, and since a thorough renovation in 2008, the gathering place looks as it did after that relocation and remains a gorgeous and historic venue for special events. Interested in renting this gem? Check out the procedure here.
Another stop we made in Riverview Park, off course from the house tour, was to the ruins of Watson’s Cabin. Of two nearby buildings, we’re not sure exactly which is Watson’s original quarters and which might be something added to the park later, when his home was being used as a shelter. In any case, we’re really excited to hear that rehabilitation of this site is on the Pittsburgh Park Conservancy’s docket!
It’s possible that this is the most overlooked, under-appreciated, and, yet, unequivocally-important place in the City of Pittsburgh. At the time of this writing, and in consideration of our mind-altering tour of this famed observatory, even our passion for the Pittsburgh Pirates and their successful mid-summer surge seems pitifully misguided. How can our pride, and that of our fellow residents, be focused on things such as sports or restaurants when there is something so profound in our city that receives a millionth of the press coverage it deserves? This observatory should mean the world to our city!
Our post will not do justice to this place, its history, the larger-than-life characters that made it all possible, or the contributions to science made on this site (or in its former site…we’ll get to that). Maybe a full book could do it. Maybe a movie would be most appropriate, actually. Well, it turns out that a movie was recently made. We haven’t seen it yet, but it’s a big deal. Check out a trailer here for UNDAUNTED: The Forgotten Giants of the Allegheny Observatory, which highlights the incredible careers of Samuel Langley, John Brashear, and others and features an interview with none other than Director of the Hayden Planetarium, Neil DeGrasse Tyson.
After learning that the Allegheny Observatory offers tours Thursdays and Fridays between April and October, we knew we had to experience it if we wanted to truly experience Perry North / Observatory Hill. You may delight, as we did, in the fact that the tours are absolutely free of charge and only require a reservation. More details are here, so don’t wait another minute before booking your tour! Make sure you leave yourself free between 8 pm and 10 pm or later!
Here are just a few highlights from the tour, almost all of which were new to us, which should help prompt you to make that reservation!
- History of the Allegheny Telescope Association – a group of 32 people with interest in the “heavenly bodies” – and the first Allegheny Observatory, opened in 1861
- Basic explanation – easy enough for kids, better than a refresher for adults, and plenty from which to learn something new – about the sun, stars, moon, solar system, and more
- The many directors and contributors to the Observatory through the years and their contributions, including focus on Professor Langley for his pioneering work in astronomy and aviation, as well as John Brashear for his underdog story, rising from the ranks of local steel mills to become the finest builder of telescopic refractors and other scientific instruments
- The story behind the curious stained-glass window installation in the atrium where John Brashear’s statue stands today
- Unexpected contributions to human progress achieved through innovations related to work at the Allegheny Observatory
- An in-person look at century-old equipment that still operates and stands among the greatest humans have ever created
- Current uses of the Allegheny Observatory by the University of Pittsburgh
- If it’s a clear evening, you’ll get a peek at the universe through the 13″ Fitz-Clark refractor that started it all
We appreciated our impassioned tour guide, Eric Canali, co-founder of the South Hills Backyard Astronomers (1973), former tour guide and manager at the Buhl Planetarium, and tour guide at the Allegheny Observatory on Thursday evenings since 1989! We hope you have the opportunity to enjoy his guided tour as well.
Though we’re tempted to post all of our pictures from this visit, we’d rather not give away the prize! Go see it for yourself!
Free Fun in Riverview Park
Just when we thought Perry North couldn’t possibly offer anything else…and just when we thought we were done with our blog post…
Did you know that throughout the summer in seven of the city’s parks, including three of the big four, Citiparks presents Dollar Bank Cinema in the Park – free outdoor movie screenings?! As soon as we found out and realized that Jack Reacher – a recent Tom Cruise action movie shot in Pittsburgh reputed to be a real showcase for the city – was showing in Riverview Park, we knew we had to be there! At about that same moment, we also recalled hearing from those kind volunteers at Riverview Park’s Visitor Center that free live jazz concerts often took place on Observatory Hill throughout the summer. So, we checked it out and found local jazz great Roger Humphries’ band to be playing preceding the Jack Reacher showing! Here’s a clip we found, taken by someone in the crowd that night, of the band’s encore, “Cold Duck Time,” by Eddie Harris.
We were impressed with the screen set-up, too. This was not your uncle’s living room projector screen. This was a giant inflatable theater-sized screen big enough to be seen on all of Observatory Hill with no telescope at all. The sound was ample, but captions were included, too, to ensure that no one missed a moment. We recommend checking out both schedules – Stars at Riverview Jazz Series and Dollar Bank Cinema in the Park in Riverview Park and visiting soon!
Less than a year ago, when we were having the conversation about whether to start this project, one of the greatest points of intrigue was what we didn’t know about so many neighborhoods. “Perry North” used to mean nothing to us. We didn’t know it from dozens of other neighborhoods. After three visits to Perry North, which we’ll now always fondly call Observatory Hill, we understand it not only as another proof of Pittsburgh’s unmatched character, but also as an endearing and diverse neighborhood worth a visit, day or night.
A visit during the day might lead you to a hike down the Wissahickon Trail, a mountain biking excursion after a hard rain (a great idea according to our friend, Pat McCloskey, who says the trails in Riverview Park drain the best among local parks), a swim in the Riverview Park pool, or a trip to the bakery. By night, you might be enjoying a summertime movie with friends and family or an unforgettable stargazing experience at the Allegheny Observatory. There, it’s impossible not to feel proud of our city…the center of our universe.
“I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.”
– Sarah Williams, in The Old Astronomer to his Pupil
(see if you can find this line, slightly paraphrased, somewhere in Perry North 🙂 )