Mural by Christian Miller who is from New Kensington. Thanks to Westmoreland Community Action and Marvin Birner.
First off, thanks to everyone who sent me condolences on the death of my grandmother (my late mom’s mom) last month. I greatly appreciate the cards and emails.
Grandma reminded me a little bit of Betty White. Grandma was 90 years old and Betty White was 99. To be honest, it kinda hurt when, right after Grandma passed away, I saw Betty White appear in a television commercial. Then, a few weeks after Grandma passed away, Betty White also passed away. I also lost one of my favorite uncles in 2021 – my dad’s brother. My family greatly appreciates everyone who reached out to us.
Here’s another “mural” photo for you. I don’t know who did this one. My Google skills fail me today. So, if anyone knows who painted these dogs in these windows, please reach out to me. I would love to credit the artist.
So, a little bit over a week ago, my maternal grandmother died. Grandma Margaret.
Grandma celebrated her 90th birthday this past summer. In fact, she celebrated her birthday during the week between my birthday and my sister’s birthday, and several other family birthdays occurred during this same week. Grandma left behind a lot of people who loved her. However, I understand that all or almost all people who live to the age of 90 lose much. My grandfather died several years ago. And, as Grandma reminded me, she herself had only one sister, named Shirley. Shirley died of cancer in her 20’s. About two years after the first Shirley died, my grandmother had my mom and she named my mom Shirley. My mom, the second Shirley, died of cancer three years ago. Grandma wondered about this to me. She wondered about the odds of losing both of her Shirleys to the same disease, decades apart.
But, I remember something completely different now. After my mom died, I sat and looked through Grandma’s photo albums with her. We looked through an album consisting mostly of photos that Grandma herself took. Grandma took A LOT of photos of sunrises and sunsets. She took some of these photos when she visited my uncle in Florida. She took other sunset photos over the winter countryside after my grandparents retired and moved out to farmland in Beaver County and raised goats. She took them with her point-and-shoot camera. She paid to develop them, then put them into her photo albums along with her photos of her family.
I learned that day that when I enjoy a sunrise or a sunset, I owe this at least in part to Grandma Margaret.
Sunrises are beautiful. Sunsets are sad but also beautiful. Neither exists without the other.
If you Google “New Kensington” and “Voodoo Brewery,” you can find a lot of photos of Shane Pilster’s “Rising Phoenix” mural. In fact, here are photos that I took last December, a week after Krampus brought me my camera.
You can also find a lot of information about New Kensington’s Voodoo Brewery / Voodoo at the Ritz and Old Town Overhaul with a quick Google search. Here’s such an article from the Trib.
So, for this blog post, I took a bunch of photos that showed the “Rising Phoenix” mural in the background as the community gathered for New Kensington’s Christmas Parade.
I felt really defeated last spring over the setbacks that Jonathan and I had encountered in trying to rebuild our front porch. I wrote a snarky post on this very blog about how murals weren’t going to solve New Kensington’s problems. The murals weren’t solving any of MY problems. My sister Elizabeth is a hero because she read the post right after I published it. She told me that I was harsh. I took the blog post down about an hour after I published it. The post now resides for eternity in blog post hell. Or, maybe it resides in blog post purgatory because with my luck it’s cached somewhere.
But, now our porch is almost complete. I feel much more hopeful about my future here in New Kensington.
These marchers arrived on a bus from Valley High School in New Kensington. I watched the bus arrive. It travelled past me and unloaded on the next block over from where I sat waiting the parade to begin. I saw kids sitting next to the windows, holding their trombones.
I have a soft spot for the high school marching band. I marched in a high school band when I grew up in Somerset County. I played the clarinet.
I don’t remember getting to march past any cool brewery murals, though.
I cheated and posted a version of this photo on Facebook yesterday so that I could share it with New Kensington’s Fire Department.
I wrote before that my eyes have a “little bit” of a strabismus. I’m having a really terrible time figuring out if this photo is straight, even with the tools on my Lightroom software. So, please let me know if this photo looks crooked. A close family member told me that my photo cropping on this is fine, but I don’t believe them.
Bernie Wilke and other local artists, including local volunteers, painted this mural in the spring of 2021. Here are the photos of that I took of the Work-In-Progress Mural and also of the mural dedication.
If you leave the Pennsylvania Turnpike at the Allegheny Valley Exit, drive through Cheswick and Springdale, and then turn right to drive across the C.L. Schmitt to cross the Allegheny River into New Kensington, you will see this mural as you enter downtown New Kensington.
The very first time that I ever came to New Kensington, I drove here on Route 56 from Johnstown. I lived in Johnstown at that time because I worked in downtown Johnstown at my very first post-college job that provided health insurance. (I used to refer to the job in Johnstown as my very first “real job.” But, you see, that’s not fair to anybody who worked with me at Wendy’s or McDonald’s or Wal-Mart before I found an office job with health insurance in Johnstown. So, I’m going to replace “real job” with “job that provided health insurance.”)
On my very first trip ever to New Kensington, I visited my future husband, Jonathan, at his then newly-purchased house in Parnassus. Then, I watched a New Kensington Civic Theater play for which Jonathan provided tech and manual labor.
I left New Kensington in the dark on that visit. I intended to use the Pennsylvania Turnpike to drive to my parents’ house in Somerset County. This being my very first trip to New Kensington, I had no idea how to access the turnpike from New Kensington. I did not own any mobile devices that had GPS.
Jonathan said, “Oh, how about if I drive to the turnpike on-ramp in my car, and you can follow me. The turnpike is really close to my house, and it’s no problem at all for me to just show you where it is.”
So, I followed Jonathan to the turnpike entrance. Turned out that the turnpike was NOT “really close” to Jonathan’s house. The drive took us 15 minutes with no real traffic. Jonathan later admitted to me that he feared that I would get lost finding the turnpike and thus I would never agree to drive to New Kensington ever again if he left me to locate the turnpike on my own.
Anyway, I took the photo at the top of this blog post yesterday during New Kensington’s Christmas parade. I considered skipping the parade this year because my mom used to drive up (drive down?) from Somerset County each December to watch the parade with me before she passed away in 2018. But, we didn’t have a parade in 2020. So I went to the 2021 parade.
The above photo was an afterthought. The parade route started on Fifth Avenue, made a left, made a second left, and proceeded onto Fourth Avenue. So, the parade route has a U shape. I set myself up to watch the entire parade on Fifth Avenue. After the parade ended for the people watching on Fifth Avenue, I cut across the parade route to re-watch the tail end of the parade on Fourth Avenue. I crossed Fourth Avenue behind the end of the parade and I kept walking until I stood directly across Fourth Avenue from the New Kensington mural. Just then, the fire truck carrying Santa Claus passed by the mural. I decided at that moment to take out my camera and try to grab a photo. I really wish that I would have pre-planned this. Maybe I could have gotten a photo of Santa Claus looking at the camera.
But, I can’t complain about a photo that I didn’t plan at all.
Here is a photo of the mural “Shine” by Ashley Hodder.
I wanted to shoot this mural against a blue sky with no cars in the foreground. Maybe I’ll still get to this. However, every time that I drive down this street with my camera, the sky refuses to cooperate. Cars line both sides of the street. I’m lucky that I found a decent place to park today. I won’t complain about a thriving downtown.
I shot this mural once before. As the artist painted it. Here is the work-in-progress on the evening of September 24, 2021, during the September edition of New Kensington’s “Final Fridays.”
The building to which this wall belongs housed the former Bloser’s Jewelers. Crews filmed a scene from the 2019 movie adaptation of Maria Semple’s fiction novel “Where’d You Go, Bernadette?” inside this building.
The story actually took place in Seattle. The movie producers used Pittsburgh and the towns around Pittsburgh (such as New Kensington) as a stand-in for Seattle. Pittsburgh’s a less expensive city. (New Kensington is even less expensive.)
I read the book. The book underwhelmed me. I guess that that whole story was kinda tongue-in-cheek. Most of the humor went over my head.
I didn’t see the movie yet. I kinda want to watch it just to see the scene that was filmed inside of this building. But – the release date kept getting pushed back. Then, I found too many other ways to waste my time than to watch a movie adaptation of a book that I didn’t enjoy.
My Call to Action: Did you watch the movie “Where’d You Go, Bernadette?” What did you think of it?
Our new Victorian porch now includes all of its Victorian columns.
One of our neighbors stopped on her Sunday walk to tell us how excited she was to see that our porch contractor was “able to save the house’s original columns” for our porch rebuild.
Jonathan explained to our neighbor that these columns AREN’T the house’s original columns. However, we know exactly what the original columns looked like. Our new columns are close reproductions of the original.
Jonathan DID NOT explain to our neighbor that in our quest to identify the house’s original columns, Jenny saw a ghost.
Jenny saw several ghosts, in fact. Maybe.
I am Jenny. I am a semi-educated adult. (I don’t usually refer to myself in the third person.) I do NOT walk through most of life talking about ghosts all day. However, it’s almost Halloween. So, for the pure entertainment value, let’s talk about my “experiences” seeing things that “might be ghosts.”
Jonathan and I attempted to have the porch rebuilt starting in 2014. (We had several, ahem, “false starts” with contractors and vendors as we planned our porch rebuild.) Jonathan attempted to figure out what the original 1890’s porch – especially the original porch columns – looked like. We had seen photos of what our house looked like during the 1936 St. Patrick’s Day Flood that hit Pittsburgh and also a bunch of the other river towns in Western Pennsylvania. (The flood waters went up to the intersection of our street, which is why our house is in the background of some of these flood photos.) We knew that the house’s original 1890’s front porch was replaced in the 1930’s. (The 1930’s porch was the porch that we had removed in 2014.) So, the photos that we saw of our house during the 1936 flood included the 1930’s era porch, not the original 1890’s porch.
Sometime around 2014, I fell asleep in my bed. Jonathan was still awake. I sat up and said the following to Jonathan:
“Jonathan. The people in the hallway want to talk to you about the porch.”
Or – I said something to that effect. I don’t remember what exactly I said because I don’t remember ever saying this.
I was asleep when I said this. Dead asleep.
What I do remember is that during my sleep, I saw people standing in our upstairs hallway.
All of these people wore clothing from the late 1800’s, early 1900’s.
These were the people who wanted to talk to Jonathan about our porch.
Shortly after this happened, Jonathan went through random piles of stuff that previous owners of our house left in our basement.
Jonathan uncovered one of these piles and discovered two of the house’s original porch’s columns.
Here is a photo of one of these columns. The photo is so dark because Jonathan never brought the columns out of our basement. They are heavy.
Circa 2014 or 2015 or 2016, Jonathan located a company in Texas that produced several of the most popular styles of Victorian-era porch columns. We ordered from this company the porch column style that most closely matched the original columns that Jonathan discovered in our basement.
So, we ordered and paid for these Victorian porch columns circa 2015 or 2016.
The porch columns arrived to us from Texas via a tractor trailer.
There wasn’t enough room for the tractor trailer to park along the street in front of our house. The truck had to park on the next block over. Jonathan had to enlist the help of the truck driver to carry the porch columns over to our house.
The porch columns sat under a tarp in front of our house from that day in 2015 or 2016 until September – October 2021.
We have waited ever since at least 2015 or 2016 to see these columns installed on our rebuilt porch.
We got to realize our Victorian porch column dream last week. Last week, our porch contractor’s crew installed the final column on our porch.
I can’t believe that I finally got to see these porch posts installed on our rebuilt porch. Jonathan’s mom died in 2016 and my mom died in 2018. When we started to plan our porch rebuild in 2014, I never dreamed that both of our moms would be gone before we could sit on our porch again. Within a week from today, I will observe both my mom’s birthday AND the anniversary of when she passed away. (I actually said good-bye to my mom ON her 64th birthday and she passed away less than 48 hours after this.)
The YEARS of delays on our porch rebuild demoralized both of us. We weren’t exactly twiddling our thumbs during these years. Jonathan attempted to hire contractors, find suppliers, etc. We hired an architect. We are so thankful that we found our current porch contractor.
We heard that at least one passer-by asked our current contractor’s crew whether somebody new just bought our house. I guess that they were trying to figure out what prompted the sudden porch activity after years of “inactivity.”
I can imagine this passer-by thinking, “So, is this place Under New Management now, or what?”
I guess that they never attempted to rebuild an 1890’s porch before.
I told Jonathan that I was going to start a local rumor that the influencer couple from “Young House Love” actually bought our house for their next social media project.
“What’s Young House Love?” Jonathan said.
I explained that Young House Love was an old house renovation blog from about a decade or so ago. The married couple who wrote it branched out to Instagram and sponsored posts, and soon they were rich and famous. They were a brand.
“You should turn this house into a brand,” Jonathan said.
Perhaps I will turn this house into a brand.
How does “Porch Column Ghost Love” sound?
This is my aunt’ s beach ball.
Correction: this was my aunt’s beach ball.
Our first porch contractor found this bottle when he dismantled our 1930’s era porch in 2014.
What’s this? you say. A broken bottle?
We saw the words “Natrona Bottling Company” on the back.
So let’s start here, at the Natrona Bottling Company’s own website. Because luckily for us, they still operate, only six miles from Parnassus. Per this website, the company started in 1904.
Jonathan searched eBay, where he learned that bottles such as these dated from the 1950’s – 1960’s. Frostie was a brand out of Baltimore, and during that time period it contracted with several companies to bottle it. Including Natrona Bottling Company.
You can still purchase Frostie Root Beer.
Natrona Bottling Company no longer bottles for Frostie, but luckily for us it currently does bottle its own root beer today. Jonathan and I drink it, out of glass bottles much thinner than the one found under our porch.
I intend to bore you for several paragraphs if you don’t have any interest in Parnassus or its history. But – I wrap up this blog post by talking about controversial old houses in other states. Maybe that’s more up your alley.
So, in 2014, Jonathan and I truly believed that we were going to get a new porch very soon. Our house was built in the 1890’s. Jonathan blogged about our house’s history here on our other blog in 2014. Heck, in 2016, we still thought that we were going to get a new porch in the immediate future. I was so optimistic in 2016 when I blogged here.
We were so naive.
The good news is, if you visit the first link that I posted, you can read Jonathan’s write-up about the first owner of our house, Frank R. Alter Sr., co-founder of the Keystone Dairy Company. Keystone Dairy Company was also located here in Parnassus, New Kensington.
So, anyway, by 2014 we realized that we needed to hire somebody to tear off our circa 1930’s front porch and replace it. You know, before this porch affected the entire house’s structural integrity. A contractor tore off the 1930’s front porch and started to replace it. Started to replace it. After that, from 2014 until the near present day, things did not go at all the way that Jonathan and I expected. Just one setback after another. I haven’t had a porch on which I could sit with Jonathan since 2014.
I didn’t mention any of this on my blog in September because I was afraid that I might jinx this. I still might jinx it. I’m still holding my breath out this. However, it looks as if Jonathan and I are going to be able to sit on our porch together again soon!
You see, we finally found a new contractor who actually committed to building a new porch for us. During this past September, this contractor’s crew tore off the “porch” that the previous contractor started to build in 2014. This new contractor started from scratch. His crew made a great deal of progress this past month.
I posted above a photo that I took today. I took that photo from the approximate spot at which I used to sit and blog, prior to 2014. From the approximate spot at which I am blogging this right now!
You see, years after the porch saga started in 2014, Jonathan lost his mother and then I lost my own mother. I came home from each of their funerals and thought, “Now she’s never going to see how nice our house looks with a finished porch!”
I promise you that if I die before this porch is completed, or even if I die after the porch is completed but before I have time to enjoy the new porch, I will come back and haunt this place. I will stand on this porch and bug the crap out of whoever enjoys it in my stead. You better hope that my two shots of Pfizer actually work.
I am an extremely privileged and semi-educated. I said what I said partially in jest. But partially not in jest. I associate the entire porch saga with family tragedy. I can’t believe that I might finally see the end of the porch frustration.
We still have a long way to go on the old house work. We need to think about replacing the entire back “mud room” next.
I wasn’t a very ambitious 12-year-old. I wanted to do two things in my adult life:
1.) Live in a house built in the 1800’s.
2.) Have a cat. (My parents wouldn’t let me have a cat.)
I accomplished both of these goals that I set for myself at the age of 12. So, I win!
I wish that I could go back in time and tell myself about the realities of life as an old house owner. Not even my own experiences in Parnassus, but also about other people’s experiences.
North Side / Allegheny West, Pittsburgh
For instance, Jonathan and I used to take tours of Pittsburgh’s North Side / Allegheny West neighborhood. On one of of these tours, we visited a home that the homeowners spent the past twenty or so years renovating. We toured a beautifully restored parlor and dining room.
Then, as we walked towards the kitchen, the homeowner said, “We are currently working on the kitchen.”
The kitchen was a pile of bricks.
A pile of bricks sat in the kitchen.
The McPike Mansion in Alton, Illinois
I have an old house renovation horror story that I learned about from podcasts and Facebook. Whenever I feel down about the lack of progress on our porch, I think about the McPike Mansion in Alton, Illinois.
At least Jonathan and I don’t have as many old house problems as do the owners of the McPike Mansion.
Now, everything that I know about the McPike Mansion, I learned from Season #1 of the American Hauntings podcast hosted by Troy Taylor and Cody Beck, some Google research, but mostly just from lurking on the McPike Mansion’s official Facebook page and official website.
A rich businessman built the McPike Mansion shortly after the Civil War. The house has not been occupied since the 1950’s. The McPike mansion is now on the National Register of Historic Places.
From what I understand, the McPike Mansion is not currently approved for occupancy – except for the wine cellar. The current owners, Sharyn and George Luedke, purchased the mansion in 1994. I learned from American Hauntings that the Luedke’s had been led to believe that they would be eligible for some sort of grant money to renovate the place. This turned out not to be the case.
It is my understanding that the Luedke’s intended to renovate the mansion into a bed and breakfast. They have owned the house – and worked on the house – since 1994.
It is STILL NOT CLEARED FOR OCCUPANCY.
The Luedke’s have been working on trying to restore this house FOR ALMOST 30 YEARS, and they still can’t let guests sleep inside the place.
I learned from reading Facebook that the Luedke’s raise money for the old house renovation by:
1.) Renting out the wine cellar for parties.
2.) Selling tee-shirts. (More on that below.)
3.) Letting people “sponsor” and sign pieces of lumber.
4.) Selling tickets for ghost tours of the wine cellar and premises.
That’s right – ghost tours.
The McPike Mansion in Alton, Illinois is regionally famous for being haunted. That’s how I found out about the place.
And, to me, this “ghost tour as a profit center” thing is a double-edged sword.
One the one hand, the Luedke’s sell tee-shirts that say “McPike Mansion” above a graphic of a cute ghost.
On the other hand, thrill-seekers, vandals, and thieves show up on a regular basis and damage the place. In fact, even the McPike Mansion’s sign got stolen at least once.
I got exhausted just reading about the saga on Facebook. I mean, at what point does this turn into Captain Ahab’s search for the White Whale in Moby Dick?
Sauer Castle, Kansas City, Kansas
Another “old house in need of repair” that fascinates me is Sauer Castle in Kansas City, Kansas. This was another mansion built in the 1800’s by a rich guy. It is listed on at least one “endangered historic structure” list. There is a Facebook group devoted to the castle that has over 12,000 members that I used to follow. However, from what I understand, Sauer Castle is privately owned and the mansion’s owner did NOT manage the Sauer Castle Facebook page. The last time that I followed this Facebook page, I noted that almost all of this Facebook page’s posts criticized the current owner for failing to maintain Sauer Castle.
Sauer Castle has a long history of family tragedies, ghost stories, and vandalism. Nobody currently lives in the place. From what I understand, a descendant of Sauer Castle’s original owner purchased the place several decades ago with the intent to restore it. However, after several vandalism incidents, he halted the restoration efforts and he also refused to sell the place to a developer that expressed interest in restoring it. Every article that I Googled about Sauer Castle regurgitated the controversy between the current owner and preservation advocates.
Bachelor’s Grove Cemetery, Illinois
If you’re still bored, Google “Bachelor’s Grove Cemetery” in suburban Chicago. Some people claim that this cemetery holds magic powers. Other people claim that the only magic power found at Bachelor’s Grove is the ability to turn grown adults into quarreling children. Google and Youtube have a bunch of stories about Bachelor’s Grove enthusiasts calling the police on other Bachelor’s Grove enthusiasts for having “unsanctioned” cemetery clean-ups there, people showing up drunk at other people’s houses in the middle of the night just to yell at them about Bachelor’s Grove-related disputes, and people trying to get other people fired over community events held at Bachelor’s Grove. It’s an easy way to waste several hours.
Thank you for coming to my TED Talk. Hope to post photos of a completed new porch soon.