Every day, thousands and thousands of people walk past 808 Liberty Avenue. Some are eating a meal on the go. Some are talking with friends. Some are running from the bus (because they’re late for work) or running to a bus (to catch it). Most of them are on their cell phones and not paying attention to anything.
I’m going to guesstimate that less than a fraction of 1% of those people are even aware there’s a small alley posted as Coffey Way behind that building. Even less of those people know there are extremely old, extremely cool relief sculptures implanted into the back of the building in the alley. I was one of those people until last week.
From this Pittsburgh Tribune-Review article in 2012, the building at 808 Liberty Avenue was originally known as the Arbuckle Building and home to Arbuckles’ Coffee. The original structure was built during the Civil War era and produced a popular brand of coffee, named Ariosa, that was more or less the Starbucks of its day. It was especially popular with cowboys out west and can still be purchased today, out of its Arizona operating area.
The original building was irreparably damaged during the 1936 St. Patrick’s Day flood, causing the Arbuckle Company to tear it down and rebuild on the original foundation. Although no one can say for certain, the prevailing theory is that someone saw the relief sculptures and found them too detailed to just throw into the garbage, so they were embedded into the building (about 10 feet off the ground) in the rear of the building on Coffey Way — which, by the way, has to be a typo, right? It should be Coffee Way, right?
The four relief sculptures, each about two feet by two feet, have one face in profile on them. Only one is easily identified as Abraham Lincoln, which makes sense considering the original building was built during the Civil War. The other three feature a man, a woman, and apparently a Native American in a headdress. It’s possible that the original sculptor was trying to show the history of Pittsburgh from the mid-1700’s to 1865 in those four tiles, with the French-Indian War, Revolutionary War, and the Civil War.
In an interesting juxtaposition, around the corner from these reliefs on Strawberry Way, is a series of propaganda anti-war posters. The yellowed posters, some of which were produced by Iraq Veterans Against War, are in the typical propaganda style of art, with bold colors and expressions.
One set of art is timeless, someone went out of their way to save it. The other is temporal by its nature, exposed to the elements, and will either be torn off or papered over in the next few years.
And in a sign that the universe has a sense of humor, the current tenant of the Arbuckle Building? None other than Arby’s. Quite a downslide in quality from a coffee roasting pioneer to cardboard roast beef, but humorous nonetheless. This is one alleyway that deserves some more attention from the denizens of Pittsburgh.