Look for Art-Deco Pylons & London Plane Trees

Two busy riverside boulevards still have bits of their beauty.

OK. It's just after dusk, and you're driving from Oakmont toward town, and on the western end of Verona, you see the old roadside stone pylons with metal-stencil signs that light up from inside!


Stately, rounded art-deco-style monuments, with brightly backlit yellow letters telling you that you're on Allegheny River Boulevard heading toward Pittsburgh, these markers are the most beautiful road signs in Western Pennsylvania, maybe in the world.

They were installed in the early 1930s by Allegheny County when four grand boulevards were established in the Pittsburgh area: Allegheny River Boulevard, Ohio River Boulevard, Saw Mill Run Boulevard and Moss Side Boulevard. These "picturesque expressways" were some practical results of the City Beautiful Movement, when the aesthetics of roadways were still factors in their designs and locations.

Moss Side Boulevard apparently never had pylons, but the other three boulevards did, two pylons at each end. All 12 featured classy granite bas-relief sculptures by Pittsburgh artist Frank Vittor that commemorated a dozen different historical events. Only four of these great pylons survive today.

The two in Verona have been lovingly treated by the town with a restoration in 2007 of the interior lighting system that gives them their magical nighttime glow. The flower bed at the base of one pylon has also been tended and replanted every year. Go, Verona!

The two Ohio River Boulevard towers that survive in Emsworth aren't in such tiptop shape. One is held together by metal straps and its top is all askew, but they're still handsome, and let's hope they can be preserved.

Once you start paying attention to these stately markers on these local roadways, you may start to notice other eye-catching aspects of the boulevards. There are lovely vistas, less industrial in nature along the Allegheny, but even the scary stacks and pipes and plants of Neville Island catch your eye as you pass through Bellevue, Avalon and Ben Avon. You may feel the urge to stop on a bridge and snap some photos.

Along Allegheny River Boulevard, there are still several rustic stone pull-off areas where you could once park, sit, watch the river, bring a picnic or whatever. Those tempt-me-to-stop observation spots resemble ruins from some forgotten ancient civilization, but they're all blocked and closed now.

But as you sit in a long line of traffic, you may notice some of the flora along these boulevards. Out near Verona, across from the Rivertown Shopping Center, for instance, there's a row of magnificent London Plane trees that bend over the boulevard. They look like dancers, leaning in unison, these hybrids of American sycamores with Oriental Plane trees. They famously thrive even in urban pollution and were planted along both sides of these boulevards back when we were still a City of Soot.

There also were careful plantings of shrubs and flowers along both sides of these roads - greenery and color provided to change with the seasons and delight drivers as they sped along these paths. These were routes designed like parks.

Now we think of them as narrow roads that back up in rush hour. But we can still love and appreciate them, watching for their beauty bits and knowing what once our roads were meant to be.

Big thanks to Christine Davis Consultants; and to Paul Korol and his collection.

Rick Sebak produces, writes and narrates documentaries for WQED tv13, as well as national specials for PBS. His programs are available online or call 800/274-1307.

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