Swissvale couple's home is collection of oddities
By Michael Machosky
Published: Monday, September 12, 2011
When Velda Von Minx first met the mysterious Mr. Arm, it wasn't love at first sight.
But when he told her he had "a freezer full of dead squirrels," and invited her to help him cut up and stuff them -- well, that piqued her interest.
A romance for the ages• Perhaps. They remain, however, perhaps the least bizarre inhabitants of Trundle Manor, the couple's Swissvale abode. The stuffed squirrels are there, too, perched atop a cabinet full of various toothy animal skulls, creatures pickled in jars, rusty antique meat cleavers, and other eye-catching oddities. One of the squirrels wears a wedding dress.
"I made the clothes," says the corset-clad Von Minx, who -- as Rachel Rech, 22 -- studied costume design in school.
Mr. Arm, also known as Anton Raphael Miriello, 28, is the taxidermist -- a dying art that he largely has had to teach himself. Despite the slicked-back hair and handlebar mustache, Miriello comes across more as an affable, eccentric collector than shady sideshow impresario.
"We can't really say what we collect," he says. "I always imagined this as a Roadside America-type attraction."
Trundle Manor, atop a steep hill in Swissvale, is a kind of Gothic fantasia of old-timey circus sideshow oddities, black-and-white horror-movie props, humorously morbid taxidermy -- like the Fiji mermaid, an infamous hoax -- and assorted artifacts that seem like they crawled out of a Tom Waits song, or the Addams Family's attic.
Its most recent claim to fame was being featured on an episode of MTV's "Cribs," which must have run out of rappers and rockers' interior-design atrocities.
The best word for it is German -- wunderkammer, a "wonder-room" or cabinet of curiousities. Before museums existed, it was fashionable for 17th-century German aristocrats to impress their friends by showing off their collections of archeological artifacts, religious relics, exotic animal specimens and so on. Many of the pieces were fakes.
It's hard to say what the weirdest thing is at Trundle Manor, but the singing tumor is probably up there.
"It's from the belly of a belly dancer," says Miriello. "She brought it to us in a Tupperware container."
Now, Olivia's Tumor sits inside a giant jar, attached to an antique-looking music box, built from scratch by Miriello, playing music.
Trundle Manor's panoply of stuffed bears -- the once-living, eat-you-for-lunch kind -- blend into the background after a while. Things that stick out, though, include a creature that's part grouse, part raccoon, part alligator. For good measure, the monster is a puppeteer, with a squirrel as its marionette.
"We don't kill things -- we just collect them," says Miriello. "Bears seem to find us. ... We know a guy who really doesn't like squirrels. Old, crappy taxidermy -- when it's falling apart, we love it more. I feel like I'm saving the dead, sort of."
Miriello grew up as the child of artists, collectors and tinkerers. His parents run the New Guild Studio in Braddock, which specializes in liturgical art, where he occasionally works. He's worked as a builder of railroad miniatures and at a costume store. Some of his collections, like the tiny frogs in jars, began as a child.
"My dad collects Machine Age and Art Deco," Miriello says. "He said, 'You collect nothing but junk, but you display it so perfectly.'"
Truly, there's no wasted space in Trundle Manor's living room full of dead things. Every spot on the blood-red walls has something weird on it, from strange animal skulls -- like the Muntjac, a tiny African deer with fangs -- to rusty scythes and a looming, mysterious machine in the corner that transforms into a workbench.
Uncle Trundle sits, watching it all through empty eye sockets. Miriello crafted this tuxedo-clad corpse as a way to keep people from sitting on a delicate 100-year-old chair.
In the garage out back are "Trixy" and "The Purple Tentacle," Mr. Arm and Von Minx's preferred modes of transportation.
Trixy, the more impressive of the two vehicles, was once the shell of a '52 Dodge truck that Miriello got when he was 17. He rebuilt it as a monstrous black hot rod, with exposed engine block, cow catcher on the front, and vertical flamethrowers behind the cab. Inside, he custom-built the dashboard out of wood, with functional levers and diodes that look straight out of a mad scientist's laboratory in a horror flick from the '50s.
Although it's not large, Trundle Manor often hosts parties and meetings of unusual groups. The Steampunk Guild of Pittsburgh -- which creates fanciful science-fiction technology with Victorian-era style and machinery -- is a particular favorite.
One can only speculate at the amount of dares proposed by local kids on Halloween -- who's not afraid to trick-or-treat at Trundle Manor• The brave ones are rewarded, though.
"They know we give out the big candy bars," Rech says.
There's no charge for a tour -- arranged by appointment only -- of Trundle Manor at the moment.
"We ask for donations, but don't push it," Miriello says. "We also take booze, dead things, et cetera."
Admission: Free, but donations are accepted. By appointment only
Details: 412-916-5544 or www.trundlemanor.com
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