Neon ketchup bottles, the Warhol Museum, monuments for Mister Rogers, Mount Washington, inclines, and enough Steelers memorabilia to make any visiting eyeballs hemorrhage black and gold – all pretty standard tourism fare for Pittsburgh. Where’s a person to go if they have a penchant for human remains in jars, taxidermy mash-ups, and enough antique murder weapons to arm a small colony?
Trundle Manor, Pittsburgh’s own little Wunderkammer.
Thank god for Roadside America for alerting me to such a wondrous haven in my own town. My fingers had barely given my eyes a chance to jog over the description of “House of Oddities” before they were impatiently clicking over to the website.
Four seconds later, I was already trying to figure out when I was going and with whom. I texted my brother Corey the link and he immediately replied with a confident “Ya I’ll go.” We planned for Sunday, September 26th, since he would be in town that day from college. The website says to call or text Mr. ARM for an appointment. I was glad for the texting option.
“Um, I’m gonna guess it’s that house,” Corey said as we stood cluelessly in the middle of Juniata Street in Swissvale; he pointed to a house with an eerie green spotlight on top of a small hill. There was a definite sense of apprehension. Trundle Manor is an actual residence, not a for-profit museum. And since it was relatively late on a Sunday night, something told me we wouldn’t be taking a tour of the place huddled safely in the center of a traveling group of fanny-packed septuagenarians.
A coffin leaning against the house was the first thing we saw after climbing the steps to the porch. I rang the doorbell (or maybe I knocked; I know these details matter to you) and we waited. Not knowing what we were walking into gave me the same bladder-molesting apprehension that occurs while waiting in line for a haunted house; I half-expected something to spring forth from that coffin. But nothing ever did, because Trundle Manor isn’t some dime a dozen haunted attraction.
It’s much better than that.
Before we could change our minds and flee from the house like two school children attempting to corral their lost ball from the neighborhood witch’s back yard, the heavy wooden door pulled open and we were greeted by a pretty, corseted blond in heels. She introduced herself as Rachel and explained that Mr. ARM would be out momentarily. We stood nervously in the foyer, which Rachel said is also known as the game room.
“Because there’s a dart board on the back of the door,” she explained, closing the door behind us. And it was officially too late to back out.
Rachel led us into the dining room, where Mr. ARM emerged with a flourish from the back side of red velvet curtains. He passed off one of the two rock glasses in his hand to Rachel and apologized for not greeting us at the door. “You can’t stop in the middle of mixing a good drink,” he explained, and Corey and I laughed nervously. And the tour commenced.
The dining room had cabinets displaying old medical mementos – scalpels, syringes, barbaric relics of dentistry which Rachel joked could be impregnating us with cancer at that very moment. There was a mannequin fitted with a vintage mourning jacket, and Mr. ARM gave us a brief history lesson on professional mourners, which sounds like something my funeral will definitely need.
Mr. ARM, who has lived in Pittsburgh his whole life and has a lot to say to the haters, has been collecting these oddities since he was seven. In addition to residing in a veritable Arcadia of artifacts, Mr. ARM is a talented steampunk artist with a remarkable moustache. (He keeps his first moustache framed in the foyer.) And Rachel is no schlep -in addition to being Mr. ARM’s muse, she’s also a talented artist with a flair for costumery.
Mr. ARM’s talking Lilliputian.
Back in the foyer (and next to the framed moustache), Mr. ARM revealed what I considered to be the pièce de résistance of the house: Olivia’s Tumor. It’s a real tumor gifted to Mr. ARM by his bellydancer friend Olivia, straight from her uterus. (I mean, it may have been fondled by some doctors first, but that’s besides the point.) Olivia said he could have it only if he gave it a proper display case. At this point in the story, Mr. ARM whipped the cover off the dome to reveal the tumor, and music began playing from the two little horns. It was sensational.
(The tumor was benign and Olivia is OK, which made me feel less of an asshole for enjoying the sight of a singing neoplasm.)
The final leg of the tour was held in the parlor, which had low, ambient lighting, an antique organ and a cornucopia of suspended death in jars. Antlers jutted from the walls and a zebra-striped rug covered the center of the floor.
And there was a jackalope.
“That’s everyone’s favorite piece,” Mr. ARM noted, referring to a taxidermied duckling perched atop a turtle; placed on a tall table in the middle of the room, they served as the parlor’s focal point. “The tagline is ‘All I did was drill a hole in a turtle?'” Mr. ARM said with a shrug. For some reason I didn’t get the punchline until later that night, at which point I laughed out loud.
The atmosphere of Trundle Manor was full of minutia which pandered perfectly to each one of the senses: the music of Henry Hall wafting from the rafters was accentuated by the clinking of ice swirling in properly mixed drinks; a musky aroma filled the room each time Mr. ARM puffed on his cigar, the smoke of which undulated around his impeccably coiffed hair. It was easy to forget that the year was 2010 not 1920.
Corey and I sat on a couch while Rachel and Mr. ARM wowed us with stories of their collections and future projects they’re planning.
“He asked me if I wanted to cut up squirrels,” Rachel said, recalling how she won the title of Mr. ARM’s muse. “So that’s what we did for our first date.” All I can say is thank god she said yes, because they’re a creative force to be reckoned with and, on top of curating a house of oddities, they’re also afficionadoes of the art of villainy. Rachel dug out a photo of them from last year’s Zombie Fest in which Mr. ARM was the villain and she was the girl tied to the railroad tracks. I think that might have been the point where I blurted out, “You guys are my heroes.”
Hanging along the bottom of a cabinet was a row of old, rusty, and quite well-used cleavers. “This one is my favorite,” Mr. ARM said, taking one off and passing it over to us. It was heavy and misshapen; I had immediate red-tinged visions of using it.
“I always say, anything that can fit down my pants is free to take,” Mr. ARM said, after admitting to stealing some of the cleavers.
“What’s in that up there?” Corey asked, pointing to a large jug half-full of murky, sanguine fluid.
“Squirrels,” Rachel answered. “We had so many squirrels in the freezer that I couldn’t fit in any groceries, so I made him move them,” she explained with nonchalance. (It should be noted that Rachel and Mr. ARM do not harm living animals.)
Despite the sensory overload on the eyeballs, my favorite part of the night was – honestly – just sitting around with the ingenious Trundle Manor residents, talking about Pittsburgh and listening to their ideas and philosophies. They seemed genuinely interested in learning about Corey and me, as well, so we felt less lame about ourselves. (“Jesus Christ, I walked in there wearing a DC hoodie and Nikes,” Corey laughed on the way home, after I commented on how plain and boring we look on the outside.) There is not a single drop of pretentiousness in their blood; they’re down to Earth eccentrics with a willingness to share their work with the public and I left their abode feeling intellectually fulfilled. They even invited us back for their Victorian Sideshow Circus Halloween party, which I tried to tell Henry about when I came home that night, but I’m not sure he was able to decipher that from all my high-pitched squealing.
Visiting Trundle Manor was perhaps one of the best ideas I’ve had in awhile. If you’re ever passing through Pittsburgh and want to spend an hour or so examining creepy artifacts and perhaps even stepping outside of your comfort zone, I urge you to check it out. Just don’t forget to bring a dime if you want to see the 10 Cent Attraction.