It's a blustery night that feels nowhere near spring, and I'm braving the icy blasts off the Allegheny River to meet a man who'd be awfully surprised to end up here. One glimpse of that rabbity face, magnified and posterized to celebrity proportions, and I know I'm at the Andy Warhol Museum, the world's largest single-artist museum, in his home town of Pittsburgh.
The major museums in town were lavishly endowed in the 19th century by Pittsburgh millionaires, a term synonymous with vast, vaguely vulgar wealth. But newer, quirkier venues, like the Warhol, the nearby Mattress Factory and the over-the-top Clayton, home of industrialist Henry Clay Frick, flesh out the city's character for a weekend visitor.
I'd always thought of Warhol's work as passionless. But gathered into this giant seven-story space, a funky North Side factory now clothed in pop art silk screens, fluorescent cow wallpaper and memorabilia, it seems hilarious, blunt and colorful.
I loved the Interview magazine-style portrait of the artist's elderly mother, Julia Warhola, flanked by those of New York glitterati (but what would she have thought of the condom bud vases in the museum gift shop?). The roomful of silk-screened Chairman Maos on the fourth floor, created in the era of Nixon's China visit, are colored so luridly that they become witty. And the "Silver Clouds" installation, a room full of gently wafting, helium-filled Mylar pillows, invites you to bat the artwork around. An art-school-age couple in leather, lounging flat on the floor, was doing just that. It was a pop moment.
I slipped into the theater to catch an episode of Andy's Manhattan cable TV show (not his best medium) en route to the gift shop. Here's where the museum really gets quirky, with wares from Velvet Underground CDs to Candy Darling's locking diary to shelves of "Billy" and "Carlos," billed as "the world's first out-and-proud gay doll." And, of course, the bud vases. Not high art, but going fast at $29.95.
Andy would have loved the next day's stop: the Mattress Factory. Not far from Warhola Recycling, a family-owned junkyard, and half a mile up the hill from the Warhol, the Mattress Factory anchors an ungentrified block of row houses. One of its two buildings looms over a surreal three-level garden with ghostly music (yup, it's art). With some of the country's weirdest large-scale permanent installations, this Factory's holdings are far more avant-garde than anything produced by Warhol's.
"The upper floors are unheated. The second floor is dark. Take off your shoes or wear shoe covers on three," said the assistant who handed me a diagram of the room-size works. With that, I was on my own, literally. There wasn't another soul around.
On the second floor, the elevator slid open onto darkness. Feeling like Jane Fonda in "Klute," I inched toward a throbbing red cube in the distance, a light installation by James Turrell. In the basement, with its rough-hewn stone walls, a disembodied, agitated murmur echoed off a morguelike scene by Lynn Cazabon. It's the only time a museum has ever scared me a strange tribute.
Pittsburgh is a jazz town, and the North Side offers the city's best. That night I joined a sold-out house at Manchester Craftsmen's Guild to hear a group of legends brought together by hometown jazz drummer Cecil Brooks III: Houston Person, Etta Jones and Steve Turre. From the first bright, tight blasts of their horns, the ensemble had a rapt audience cheering. Trombonist Turre's virtuoso performance on giant conch shells two at a time was a highlight.
In daylight, I navigated across the Allegheny River and drove 20 minutes to the city's East End, past the universities in Oakland. The houses became statelier, the streets a bit straighter. I was heading for the antithesis of the Warhol: Clayton.
Born a century apart, Warhol and Henry Clay Frick fled their Pittsburgh roots for Manhattan and never looked back. Frick's home is to us what Bill Gates's home might become in a century: a glimpse of how a tycoon with a fondness for high-tech gadgets lived. Helen, Frick's daughter, lived in the house until her death in 1984, not touching a thing (the servants did that, keeping the original furnishings, right down to the calling cards, in perfect condition). Reopened after restoration in 1990, it's a showplace of perfectly preserved Victoriana.
The house has a heavy, ornate style, with lots of carved wood, stained glass, overscale artwork and silk damask; but our docent also pointed out the very modern touches, like the whole-house electricity, a rarity in 1888, arranged by Frick's neighbor George Westinghouse. The fantastic orchestrion, a huge musical invention, plays symphonic music rolls at ear-piercing levels. A bathroom jet is marked "liver spray," which our guide described as the Jacuzzi of its era. And there's Miss Frick's museum of Renaissance art treasures, right in the back yard.
Even when the Fricks lived here, the estate was opened to the public, with flower shows in its spacious greenhouse and gardens.
"They loved to show off what they had," the head gardener told me.
So does Pittsburgh.
Being There: At 117 Sandusky St. on Pittsburgh's North Side, the Andy Warhol Museum (412/237-8300, www.warhol.org) is a quick walk across the Seventh Street Bridge from downtown. Closed Monday-Tuesday; admission $6. The Cafe serves light meals, microbrews and wine (but no Campbell's tomato soup). The Mattress Factory (412/231-3169, www.mattress.org, 500 Sampsonia Way) is closed Mondays and all of August. Admission is $4, free Thursdays. Frick Art and Historical Center (412/371-0600, 7227 Reynolds St., a 20-minute drive from downtown) is closed Mondays. Admission to Clayton, the home, is $8; admission to the adjacent art and car/carriage museums are free. The Cafe at the Frick, in a charming cottage on the property, is an award-winning lunch and tea room. Jazz performance series are offered monthly at Manchester Craftsmen's Guild (412/322-1773, www.artsnet.org/mcg, 1815 Metropolitan St.). Sen. John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center (412/454-6000, www.pghhistory.org, 1212 Smallman St.), opened in a former ice warehouse in the downtown Strip District in 1996, mines the dissonance of the area's immigrant labor background and its industrial wealth in its "Points in Time" exhibit. The building, open daily, is a beaut.
Where to Eat: In the Warhol/Priory neighborhood, long, narrow and cheerful Park House (412/231-0551) is one of the city's oldest bars, with a plaque declaring it the winner of Pittsburgh magazine's Best Crunchy Floor award (thanks to the peanut shells). Standard pub fare. The nearby James Street Tavern (412/323-2222, closed Sundays) offers lunch and dinner (dinner only on Saturdays) and live jazz Tuesday-Saturday nights.
Where to Stay: Full-service downtown hotels include the Hilton, Marriott, Westin William Penn and Doubletree. B&Bs include the Priory (412/231-3338, www.sgi.net/thepriory, doubles $67 to $114), a former monastery that is a spacious, quiet and properly eclectic refuge for many visitors to the Warhol (which is five blocks away). There's also Victoria House (412/231-4948, www.victoriahouse-bb.com, doubles from $85 till March 31, from $115 after that). In Shadyside, a trendy East End shopping and dining district two miles from Clayton, there's Sunnyledge (412/683-5014, doubles from $189), a chic full-service hotel in an 1886 landmark with a bar and restaurant. Shadyside Bed and Breakfast (412/683-6501, www.pittsburgh.net/ShadySideBB, doubles from $110) is a drop-dead gorgeous, spacious Jacobean manor home on a quiet dead-end street. Check out the billiards room.
Information: Contact the Greater Pittsburgh Convention and Visitors Bureau, 800/366-0093, www.pittsburgh-cvb.org.
Getaway tips? Good trips? Send a note to escapist@ washpost.com. For a guidebook filled with more than 75 getaway ideas, check out Escape Plans, now available at bookstores and area Giants.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company
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