“In the steam-heated and electric-lighted homes of today there is no place for the old genii, either of fire or of darkness. The superstitions that once vapored from isolation as miasma exhales from stagnant pools finds no place since we have cobwebbed the land with trolley lines and turned night into day. So we laugh at the old fears, the dread old legends and the dear old mysteries.” An anonymous editorial writer penned those words for the October 31, 1912 edition of The Pittsburgh Press. He continued, “But are we sure that as the old mysteries disappear other deeper mysteries do not take their place?”
That was a Thursday evening. Earlier in the day, a fifty-something couple by the name of Henry and Anna Berner purchased a house on Troy Hill for $1,300. They were lifelong Northsiders, both the children of German immigrants who settled in Allegheny City long before Pittsburgh annexed it. Henry Berner tended bar in a saloon for many years. His 19-year-old son Lawrence was a dispatcher for the telephone company. It was a good job in a cutting-edge profession, the sort responsible for sweeping away those old genii.
The house was 1812 Rialto Street. It was a brand new, two-story box of blonde brick surrounded by older and taller wooden homes. Their house was simple, sturdy and modern. There were hundreds of houses identical to it going up throughout the city.
The neighborhood was still a work in progress. Earlier in the year, Henry’s younger brother Frank Berner helped form the Troy Hill Board of Trade. The group spent the following decade advocating for improvements. They got the streets paved. They improved the lighting and sewage. They built a swimming pool and playground on the site of an old reservoir where a young boy drown in 1898 while fishing for minnows.
Henry and Anna Berner both finished their lives in the house. Henry died at home in November 1933 and Anna died among its rooms in December 1938. First for his father and then for his mother, Lawrence traveled the three blocks to the Most Holy Name of Jesus Catholic Church on Claim Street, where a requiem mass was held for each.
Lawrence Berner was a father by the time he became an orphan. In 1936, he and his wife Florence Smith Berner had a daughter, Lois Ann Berner. Lois attended Seton Hill University and became a buyer for Horne’s Department Store. She inherited the house in 1980, when her mother died, but sold it in 1985. It went into foreclosure, and squatters were living there when local art collector Evan Mirapaul bought the house in 2011.
He recently finished fixing it up. Now, 1812 Rialto Street is called La Hütte Royal. It’s unlike any other house in Pittsburgh and Mr. Mirapaul regularly offers tours.
Mr. Mirapaul was waiting at the front door when we arrived for ours. The blinds were drawn and the windows appeared to be blacked out. “I just turned the house on,” he said.
We stood on the porch while he provided an introduction. He told us we could go anywhere we wanted in the house, but asked us not to touch any of the moving parts. He said he was being vague as a compromise. The person responsible for La Hütte Royal, a Hamburg artist named Thorsten Brinkmann, would prefer that guests get no explanation.
We removed our shoes and coats in the entryway. It was cramped because a giant bell-shaped object hanging from the ceiling by a thick rope and pulley took up most of the room. A rhythmic sound came from the living room. It was four inverted ceiling fans, each topping a low column like propeller blades. The columns were decorated in album covers, as were two benches in the dining room, where the Berners once ate dinner.
The house was full of human parts. There were spinning ears in the living room, fists flying through the air above the boxing ring in the basement and a rotating wig on the counter in the washroom. The portraits on the walls showed veiled figures, no faces.
There were no tenants, either, but the house didn’t feel empty. A record playing on a portable turntable in the room under the master bed was stuck on the run-out groove. The hairdryer chairs in the attic theatre were all empty. An unfinished game of solitaire waited in a tent pitched among rubber chips spread across the floor of the small bedroom on the second floor. The house felt abandoned. These were the rooms where Henry and Anna Berner had died. These were the rooms where squatters had once lived rent-free.
To describe the house in greater detail would ruin it, as would discussing La Hütte Royal only as a work of art. The house is legally a single-family residence. Seen that way, its effect lingers longest. Troy Hill feels suspiciously normal after being inside the house. Pigs once ran to slaughter up the dizzyingly steep grade of Rialto Street. The bones of saints fill St. Anthony’s Chapel, where the Berners prayed. The neighborhood is where the city once built precarious wooden steps to help people up the hill and massive stone retaining walls to keep the hill from tumbling into the river. Today, it’s quiet. All those dread old legends and dear old mysteries are gone. Only the deeper ones remain.
Mr. Mirapaul can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.