The Garden: a theater that defined a neighborhood
A neighborhood can be defined by just a few landmark buildings. For Pittsburgh’s North Side, The Garden Theater is one of those places that is so central to the psyche that it becomes the symbol for the neighborhood. It is more than an marker for giving directions, it is a marker for the neighborhood's direction.
The theater glowed on North Avenue near Federal for nearly a hundred years. It’s been closed since 2007 and in 2015 renovations began. In 2017 it still sits empty -- cleaner, but empty.
In 2003 Annie O’Neill and I bought a dilapidated row house four blocks down the street from this XXX porn theater, the Garden. The “Garden block” served as a symbol of decay. The city’s Urban Redevelopment Authority was amassing property around the movie theater, 46 in all. But the porn theater fought the city over imminent domain. One person’s blight, was another person’s freedom of speech. The Garden’s owners would reportedly sell for an “obscene” amount of money, but otherwise they’d fight the city to keep ownership and its red lights burning.
One day, without plan, while walking to dinner, curiosity overcame us. “Let’s go in the Garden.” We wanted to see what it was like inside.
With our cash in hand, we approached the window and asked for two tickets. “NO” we were told. It seemed, no amount of money would gain two “unescorted” women entry to the Garden. They couldn’t “guarantee” our safety the cashier said. We argued a bit. As we walked away unsatisfied, we thought, “Hmmm… maybe Mr. Free Speech would like a nice lawsuit” since we couldn’t gain entry into a public place?” But, our desire for a legal battle wasn’t strong, and it would just be easier to find a male escort. So we did.
A few months later, an unsuspecting husband of a dear friend was visiting town for a rugby match. Seemed like a rugby player would be a good choice for a bodyguard, so we returned with our escort, got our tickets and entered through the red doors.
It was dark. Really dark.
It took more than a second for our eyes to adjust. The lobby was short and we quickly were in the main theater, walking down the aisle. It seemed big, open and we could see silhouettes of figures scattered about the seats in ones and twos --maybe 30 people in all.
About half way down, there was break in the seats, we scuttled past and sat in the middle. The featured film showed yellow Hummer. A car you say? Well, the Hummer was just the prop. There were people all over it, in various stages of having sex.
But we weren’t there to watch the video. Instead, our eyes scanned the walls that were fairly bare of ornamentation compared to grand theaters, but certainly more ornate than your typical modern theater. It looked like the theater had never been touched. No money spent, meant no damages from renovations. Neglect can be an odd form of conservation. We did spot water damage, but in general it looked in tact.
In mere minutes we had seen enough, and got up to depart. One in our party (who shall remain nameless) ducked down as would be customary in a typical movie theater. How considerate given that no one was actually watching the movie.
As we left, we passed by a partitioned area, sort of a theater within the theater, which was a separate viewing of 20 or 30 seats. A peak through the curtains showed the more intimate viewing, groping-and-more area. Soon we were out of the Garden -- our adventure was complete.
Returning to the Garden
Or so we thought. In 2013, after the Garden had been shuttered fro six years, we entered again.
It was still dark, even darker without the glow from the screen. The lack of light sensation was made for with the intensity of smells. The lobby was of urine, the theater was damp mold and upstairs in the projection room had the burnt aroma of carbon… flames that had not been lit in decades.
Now, at its close as a movie theater, all of the Garden’s past phases, from family theater to porn, were present in in one final scene under a layer of dust.
Some artifacts were easy to pin to an era -- such as the condom machine, the naked-lady wallpaper or the gigantic film projectors that looked more like wood stoves. Other items were more puzzling, and it’s a mystery who might have used them as the worlds of the Garden blended together. There was a blue sweater, neatly hanging on a hanger in the projection room. The sweater seemed to be a match to Mr. Rogers’ red version. Did it belong to the Bennett Admur who passionately loved the theater for more than 50 years and worked there daily until his death in 1970? Or was the sweater simply left behind in some random year like 1993?
Longtime residents sometimes tear up when they talk of the Garden. The building symbolizes a grand time of the neighborhood and wonderful childhood memories of weekly trips to the theater. They remember a pristine lobby and glorious movies inside.
The projection room felt like a monument to early theater. Today, we watch movies with such ease – but it used to be real work to make the film show, much less have sound. It was an art itself. Equipment once critical to the experience, but now too heavy or worthless to even move, sat nearly undisturbed. Only the recent paper latte cups from Café Mocha give hint to more recent visitors and that a next phase coming.
So Annie and I were able to explore a building, a memory, that was about to change. In renovation some of the past would disappear only to be remembered in our minds and these photographs the two of us were able to make.
Annie O’Neill and Nancy Andrews
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Joy Berelli-Edwards | firstname.lastname@example.org | 3583 Butler Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15201 | 412.687.2606
Hours: Tuesday - Friday 11 - 6 | Saturday 11 - 5
Special Thanks to:
Craig Totino, Allegheny City Development. Craig’s support was critical to this project. Tom Underiner, Pixel River. Tom’s artistry, perfection and care glow in our gallery prints. Eddie Olivet and Lynn Johnson We thank you for your excitement and assistance.