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Strip District spice shop shows off '58 photomural of city in flux

| Sunday, May 20, 2012, 11:56 p.m.
Penzeys Spices customers take in a five-section photomural of the city, which was uncovered during construction for expansion at the Strip District store.
Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
Penzeys Spices customers take in a five-section photomural of the city, which was uncovered during construction for expansion at the Strip District store. Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
'It's caused so much conversation among customers,' manager Frank Locante said.
Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
'It's caused so much conversation among customers,' manager Frank Locante said. Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
A five-section photomural on a wall in Penzeys Spices on Penn Avenue, created by Altwater & Bro. Commercial Photographers and likely taken from Mt. Washington during the city's 200th anniversary year, shows the city in flux.
Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
A five-section photomural on a wall in Penzeys Spices on Penn Avenue, created by Altwater & Bro. Commercial Photographers and likely taken from Mt. Washington during the city's 200th anniversary year, shows the city in flux. Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review

Preparations for the future of a Strip District store uncovered a glimpse into Pittsburgh's past.

A portion of a wall in Penzeys Spices on Penn Avenue is covered with a 20-foot-by-6-foot photomural depicting Pittsburgh in 1958.

"It's caused so much conversation among customers," manager Frank Locante said.

Six years ago, Penzeys acquired the space next door -- a long-closed former bar -- for expansion. During construction, Locante noticed a stretch of wall covered with cardboard. He began to pull at it and revealed the sepia-toned cityscape.

The five-section photomural, created by Altwater & Bro. Commercial Photographers and likely taken from Mt. Washington during the city's 200th anniversary year, shows the city in flux. Steel mills line the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers. Land at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers and the start of the Ohio River has been cleared for Point State Park. The stainless-steel cruciform skyscrapers of Gateway Center have just been completed.

The Fort Pitt Bridge is under construction. The Point Bridge of 1927 and Manchester Bridge of 1913 still connect to the Point. Both were demolished in 1970.

The skyline's peak points are the tops of the Gulf Building; the former U.S. Steel Building, now 525 William Penn Place; and the Grant Building. The Rosenbaum's department store sign stands out. The tip of the Cathedral of Learning peeks out between buildings.

Crews are beginning to lay the foundation for the former Hilton hotel.

According to the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, Altwater & Bro. was well known for printing multiple photo negatives and arranging them in an artistic composition.

Today, the foundation includes a stop at the Penzeys mural on its school tours of the Strip District.

"Penzeys made a conscious decision to retain and show off the mural when they expanded their Penn Avenue store," said Louise Sturgess, the foundation's executive director. "Instead of painting over the mural or ripping it off, they recognized the significance of the photo mural, framed it attractively, and placed a bench in front of it so shoppers could sit down for a minute and enjoy it."

Locante has considered rubbing Italian bread on the image -- a common restoration technique because of its absorbent properties -- but he has yet to try it.

"The worst thing I could do is damage it," he said.

He considered putting glass over it, but didn't want to put a layer between the mural and viewers. He has no idea of its value, but says that's moot because the image is essentially unmovable.

To Dan Mangine, 43, of Moon, who visited Penzeys for the first time last week and marveled at the mural, its value is beyond monetary.

"I immediately connect with my own history," he said, admiring the work and pointing out significant locations, such as Allegheny General Hospital, where he was born, and what would become Point State Park, where he proposed to his wife.

"I always felt tied to the city. That's one of those things about Pittsburgh -- it doesn't leave you."

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