Ted Zellers has some strict criteria when it comes to determining what constitutes a Pittsburgh potty, the basement-dwelling fixtures that, historically, were part of bathrooms used by steel workers to wash away the grime of their jobs before entering their homes.
“It’s not a Pittsburgh toilet if it has complete walls around it and a sink,” says Zellers, a Washington, D.C. native who became fascinated with the artifacts after moving to the city a decade ago. In his experience, the toilets are either completely exposed or are surrounded by insufficient partitions and any variety of entrances, from a “sub-standard wooden door” to curtains, saloon doors or flags.
“I’ve seen it all,” he says.
Since July, Zellers – a computer programmer who formerly worked for the online ticketing company Showclix – scoured Pittsburgh neighborhoods and surrounding suburbs photographing the curiosities for a coffee table book. After weeks of going door-to-door and making online requests, he has collected over 100 images and now feels ready to find a publisher for the work.
He says the book will showcase the variety of Pittsburgh potties, from the “completely spooky” to the “cutesy, frilly and fuzzy.” Each photograph will come with information identifying the toilet’s neighborhood, as well as any number of anecdotes Zellers obtained over the course of the project.
His collection also serves as a bittersweet farewell to Pittsburgh, as Zellers very recently moved to Philadelphia to try his hand at developing environmental housing.
Zellers spoke with NEXTpittsburgh about his journey into the world of Pittsburgh potties, and his hopes for the book.
What was your reaction when you first encountered a Pittsburgh potty?
I don’t remember when I saw my first one, but I definitely had an idea that this was a very strange part of the Pittsburgh vernacular. It’s always been one that I kind of enjoyed because it’s the funny conundrum that you have to use the bathroom but the only toilet available is this unenclosed toilet in the middle of the basement. I think we need more funny conundrums in our society. We’ve engineered a lot of them away. I always kind of wanted a Pittsburgh toilet in my house but I never got to live with one.
How did people usually respond when you asked to see their potties?
When I started, I had not polished my pitch very well and I got a lot of declines. I think some people that had toilets said they didn’t because they didn’t want to let me in their house. But as I went I got better at describing my project and why I was out there. More people started letting me into their houses. I also put out several calls online and those were extremely helpful. The people who saw [the online calls] had more photogenic toilets on average. But I definitely found some unusual toilets by knocking on doors that I wouldn’t have gotten if I had only sent out calls online.
You literally just walked up to someone’s door and asked if they had a Pittsburgh potty?
Yeah. I spent a couple dozen hours knocking on strangers’ doors all over the city. Some neighborhoods were better than others. Unfortunately, in Millvale, a lot of the Pittsburgh toilets were removed after the 2004 flooding occurred. I encountered some people who have replaced their old Pittsburgh toilets with new porcelain fixtures because they really do value them.
I’ve tried to get as much geographic and demographic variety as I can. The response has been tremendous and overwhelming, actually. I have needed to turn people down, which is hard for me to do but I have enough material to show the breadth and variety that’s out there.
What’s the most unusual Pittsburgh potty you’ve seen?
It’s kind of like asking a principal which of his students is the most unusual. There are so many toilets that stand out for different reasons. I really like one I took in Lawrenceville because it was like a religious tableau. The toilet was perfectly framed in profile in the middle of the room and then on the top right there was this glass block window with light streaming in. There was all of this symmetry. There was a line down the wall that made it look like a crepuscular ray coming out of the window. There was even a red cloth draped over the toilet.
I saw a really scary toilet in North Braddock that was a bucket flush toilet. That means the toilet doesn’t have a tank, it only has a bowl. To use it, you fill up a bucket with a hose then you pour the bucket into the toilet, which causes it to flush. That’s the only one I saw … It was very old and scary. It was dark and creepy but it was also filthy down there and there was the basement detritus. It had the whole package.
Do you have a favorite?
Nothing leaps out at me. The variety is really what makes them so interesting to me. If they all looked the same they’d be funny but it wouldn’t be worth doing a book about. There have been so many personalizations as well as the variety of the original construction. I think that’s what makes them so fun to look at and compare to each other.
What are you hoping for the book?
I’d like to make these toilets something that people take pride in the same way we do with our public steps and other unique attributes of the city. I hope that some people will buy the book. I’ve been really pleasantly surprised by how many people have told me that they can’t wait to buy it as I’ve been traveling around to take photographs in different locations. I thought it would be a really small pet project at the beginning, but it really seems like there’s a lot of interest. So I’m happy to be bringing it to fruition.