At first glance, the Mattress Factory exudes modern creativity. Visitors are instantly greeted by walls covered in dazzling color-changing panels. Further inside the Mattress Factory, visitors will find several unorthodox installation art exhibits, which are built, housed, and taken down all within the confines of each room. These exhibits vary from minimalistic rooms with only a single projection of a shape to an intricate house filled with intricate trinkets and furniture. This creative expression is deeply rooted within the history of the area. The history of the Mexican War Streets illuminates the rise of creativity in the surrounding area and ultimately explains the construction of the Mattress Factory.
The Mexican War Streets comprise a historic district that features Victorian-era row houses. This area was originally a part of Allegheny, Pennsylvania, which was later annexed by Pittsburgh. Because some of the area’s wealthiest families resided in these beautiful homes, the surrounding area became a hotbed of intellectual and artistic activity. These streets were built between 1848 and 1855 by Alexander Hays (Mexican War). The street names come from various battle and generals of the Mexican-American War, which had just been won in February of 1848 (Mexican-American). Streets such as Buena Vista Street, Monterey Street, Palo Alto Street, Sherman Street, and Taylor Street still carry the names of battles and generals today (Mexican War). However, some of these street names have been slightly altered throughout the years. For example, Jackson Street has been renamed to Jacksonia Street, and Sampson Street has been renamed to Sampsonia Way, where the Mattress Factory currently resides.
The image above is a map from 1890 of the Allegheny Center in the Central Northside. Although 1890 is about 40 years after the building of this area, it is the oldest map found in the Historic Pittsburgh database. By scanning the street names, the viewer can easily pick up the relationships to the Mexican-American War. A look at the key, or the “Explanations”, can provide details on what kind of building each one was. A dominantly pink map indicates a dominantly brick or stone town. Frame buildings, stables, sheds, fire plugs, and iron-clad buildings are also detailed in the map. In addition, each box, representing a certain building, is given a number with the names of its residents etched into it. This is very similar to our street system today with organized house/building numbers and streets. At 40 Davidson Street, there is a building named “Furniture Factory”, which indicates where the Mattress Factory building was before it became the Mattress Factory. (Fig. 1)
The second image, shown below, is a more direct visual depiction of the surrounding area. Taken about 40 years later from the first image and 80 years later from the construction of the Mexican War Streets, this picture depicts a view of 1307 Monterey Street facing north-northwest. This picture represents the surrounding area in a very positive light. While very simple and straightforward at first, many details can be picked up on within the picture. The streets look relatively clean, and the buildings look very new and pristine, as opposed to the current state of the area. When visiting this area, I gained the impression that the area was very run-down by age. Also, the various cars, telephone poles, real estate stores, and trains passing in the background of the image indicate that the area was a very wealthy, populated, and developed area. (Fig. 2)
This second image can connect back to the first image because they both provide different perspectives on the same space. The first provides an aerial view of the Mexican War Streets, and the second provides a ground-level street view of a Mexican War Street. Both depictions of the space can offer different information on the space. For example, the first image can offer a relative idea of how large the streets were. By comparing Monterey Street with the other smaller side streets, you can get a good idea of how wide each street is and how wide the area as a whole is. For image two, the viewer can understand, visually, what life looked like at the time. Observations like how people got around, what they purchased, and how wealthy they were can all be drawn from this image. Also, while image one gives a relative idea of how large the streets were, image two can give a literal depiction of how large the streets were. Combining the two images, the viewer can imagine precisely the size and setting of the space.
We can understand that during the mid-19th century to the mid 20th century, the surrounding area of the Mattress Factory was a thriving and wealthy area of Pittsburgh. This, in turn, fostered the artistic and intellectual spirit – similar to the renaissance except on a much smaller, compact scale. This artistic spirit would carry on until the late 20th century where talented artists would make their way to the Mattress Factory and create beautiful, challenging, and thought-provoking contemporary art for everyone to see and appreciate.
Before I myself visited the museum, my childhood friend first told me about the Mattress Factory, describing to me how walking through the various exhibits poked around at parts of his mind that would have otherwise remained dormant. I sat down with him to talk about his testimonies and experiences with the Mattress Factory:
Q: Can you describe your initial impression of the Mattress Factory
A: At first, I wasn’t very excited to explore the Mattress Factory. The outside looked like an old biotech research facility – A building that I would have Chem lab in. There was nothing that instantly caught my eye.
Q: What was your impression when you first walked into the Mattress Factory?
A: Instantly, I was intrigued. I entered, and the color changing walls swallowed me into an Alice-in-Wonderland-esque world. It was something out of a child’s fantasy.
Q: We hear a lot about what the exhibits physically are, but how did the exhibits make you feel?
A: It’s like a very little person explored inside my head and dusted off a creative center of my brain that hadn’t been used since I was a little child. In a world where I was stuck in a daily routine, it was so refreshing to experience such an artistic shock.
It is evident that the Mattress Factory and its surrounding area is not only wealthy monetarily, but also intellectual and creatively. If not for the creative, shocking, and intellectually stimulating installation exhibits, take a trip up to the Mexican War Streets to experience the historic wealth and beautiful Victorian row houses. It is, undoubtedly, a trip worth taking.