Adventure Through Colorful And Historic Allentown
The southern hilltop neighborhood of Allentown is a walkable community with a number of historic buildings and beautiful murals.
Approx. 25 minutes
Annexed by the City of Pittsburgh in 1872, Allentown was named for butcher Joseph Allen and attracted many German, Welsh, Irish and English immigrants. The architecture of the buildings and churches in Allentown reflect this early population, although the community’s make-up has changed. Now, according to 2010 census data, the neighborhood is comprised about 2,500 people, with about half of residents identifying as white and more than one-third as Black or African American.
Start at the intersection of East Warrington and Arlington avenues, near the Allentown sign
A Daily Mart sits on what was once the upper station of the Knoxville Incline. Pittsburgh was home to more than a dozen inclines in the late 19th century, which carried coal, produce and people up and down the city’s hills. The Knoxville Incline was the city’s second curved funicular (the first was the Nunnery Hill Incline in Fineview) and ran from Bradford Street (now Bradish Street) on the South Side Flats, curving along what’s now Brosville Street.
According to an 1890 Pittsburgh Daily Post article, “great skill was required to overcome the difficulties of this curve.” The incline formally closed in 1960, due to the rise in popularity of personal vehicles and new public transit technology.
Cross the street to the side with Pittsburgh Police Zone 3 station. This building was once the Hilltop Savings and Trust Company. Can you find the Pittsburgh drawing in the window and the night deposit box?
Arlington Avenue used to be called the Pittsburgh and Brownsville Turnpike, according to Bob Kress, director of the Saint George Church Preservation Society and author of “Allentown: The Story of a Pittsburgh Neighborhood.” Travelers would take the Turnpike from the South Side Flats up the steep hill to the Allentown neighborhood and further south.
“There were no tunnels, so your horses were very tired when they got to the top of the hill,” Kress said. “This was the main intersection where you rested your horses.”
A hotel sat where the incline would later locate its upper station and there, Kress said, travelers would grab a beer or a room to relax while their horses refueled.
Continue down East Warrington Avenue away from the intersection. Warrington was once called Washington Road, according to Kress, because it was the route to Washington, Pa., about 30 miles southeast of Pittsburgh.
As you pass by buildings in Allentown’s business district, look up at the facades. Many still have their original ornate detailing.
Past Leon’s Caribbean Restaurant and Paisano’s Pizza, there’s a small lot that’s been converted into a parklet. It even includes a little penguin (as seen on the Allentown sign earlier). These miniature birds are formally part of a project called “A Hilltop Waddle” by local artist James Simon. He created 44 ceramic penguins for the south hilltop neighborhoods of Alllentown, Beltzhoover and Knoxville.
According to Pittsburgh Art Places’ website, “Because of how penguins live and survive, Simon states that the creatures are symbolic of friendship, loyalty, sacrifice, sharing, and living harmoniously – qualities that he and community members wanted to highlight in regard to the development and future of the Southern Hilltops.”
Continue down the street and you’ll see a store called The Weeping Glass, next to a barber shop called Dark Root. These are two newer businesses to Allentown, and they’re changing the character of the community. This, along with places like Dr. Tumblety’s Apothecary & Tasting Lounge, Black Forge Coffee and Onion Maiden are giving the neighborhood a more metal, punk and offbeat vibe.
Turn left when you get to Asteroid Way and be sure to look at the massive mural on the side of Warrington Beer. Allentown sports a number of colorful paintings along its businesses district and side streets. (Note: Asteroid Way is an alley, so the concrete might be a little rough if you’re bringing a stroller or using walking assistance. You can also take Allen Street, a bit further down Warrington.)
Walk all the way down Asteroid Way toward the giant church in front of you. Right before you arrive, you’ll see another mural on the left side of the alley. This was created by artist Lucas Stock in 2013 and features images that represent the neighborhood’s history and diversity.
The huge building in front of you is the former St. George Roman Catholic Church. It was built in the early 20th century in traditional German Romanesque and Rundbogenstil architecture. The latter originated from a 19th century revival style in Germany that typically includes rounded arches and indentations under the roof and window linings.
Kress said the congregation who attended St. George’s originally built a small church and quickly outgrew it.
“So they built this cathedral,” Kress said. “It’s the most significant building in Allentown.”
The church was renamed St. John Vianney Roman Catholic Church. It was deconsecrated and closed by the Diocese of Pittsburgh in 2016, citing financial issues. Since then, Kress and the St. George Church Preservation Society have been working to take control and reopen the building.
The rose window above the entrance on Allen Street is typical of churches built in Gothic architecture, most of which originated in France. These windows are often called “Catherine windows,” after Saint Catherine of Alexandria, who was, according to legend, supposed to be killed on a spiked breaking wheel. But, as the story goes, the wheel “shattered” at her touch and she was beheaded instead. She’s the patron saint of students, teachers, librarians and lawyers.
Head back toward Warrington Avenue via Allen Street.
Trolleys and transit
Allentown was the first community west of the Allegheny Mountains to have an electric streetcar in 1888.
“It came up Brownsville and one of the stops was the intersection of Warrington and Arlington avenues,” said Kress.
As technology advanced, the Warrington Avenue route was always included on public transit lines. When trolleys were installed throughout the region, Pittsburgh Railways route 52 rolled through Allentown. Later, when cars rose to prominence and the trolleys became too expensive for their upkeep, Allentown was given a light rail T route along Warrington Avenue.
The Brown Line ran from South Hills Junction to Gateway Center downtown. It was originally branded as the 52 Allentown by the Port Authority in 1984. But by 2011, due to transit cuts, the Brown Line was discontinued. It’s still used, however, when there are accidents or construction on the T’s Red and Blue lines.
At the intersection of Allen Street and Warrington Avenue, look to your right. This is now Alla Famiglia restaurant, a longtime neighborhood fixture .
“That used to be the Hilltop Theater,” said Kress. “It started out just before the war in 1941 and continued up to about 1956 as a theater.”
It was later converted to a “five and ten [cheap convenience store],”Kress said, and then a supermarket.
Art, community and utilities
The mural across the street was also created by artist Lucas Stock. It’s located on the Caliguiri High Rise, a Housing Authority development named for Pittsburgh’s 55th mayor, Richard Caliguiri (his statue stands outside the downtown City-County Building).
Take a left and head down East Warrington Avenue. When you reach Walter Street, take a peak to your left. At the end of the block is the Pennsylvania Sportsman’s Club, one of the first such clubs in Allegheny County. According to Kress it was chartered in 1887 asa place where men would play billiards and gather without female companions. (Feel free to move link up so it’s not removed.)
“There’s no sign or anything,” Kress said. “But it’s still there and still operating.”
Cross Walter Street and look across East Warrington Avenue at the large brick building with a Verizon sign over the entrance. This was once home to the Bell Telephone Company.
“All of the telecommunications that go south of Pittsburgh go through that structure and head on down Warrington Avenue and out to the south and west,” Kress said. “And going the other direction, the main exchange is in downtown Pittsburgh, it’s all connected together.”
Kress said the structure was a “big router” when telephones were still relatively new and helped connect communities south of Pittsburgh.
Continue down East Warrington Avenue until you reach the intersection with Millbridge Street. The pink brick building on the corner (with a laundromat on the first floor) was recently restored and Kress said it was once a sheet metal company that grew into Limbach Engineering Company. The business operates plumbing, HVAC and other control systems at multiple locations throughout the United States.
Cross the street at Millbridge and head up the hill. When you get to Excelsior Street, turn right.
Soon you’ll come upon Abiding Ministries, an Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. The building started its life as Bethlehem Lutheran Church in 1916. Allentown, because of its large population of German residents, had a number of Lutheran churches. The denomination is named after Martin Luther, a German theology professor known for his rejection of many teachings of the Catholic Church.
At the stop sign, turn left onto Allen Street again and continue up the hill.
Our final destination is Grandview Park. From here, on McLain Street, are some great views of the City of Pittsburgh. Enjoy!