The Mattress Factory A Recollection of W. Anderson Lee

a chair sits in a patch of tall grass

Photograph by Brad Truxell


Deep into Pittsburgh’s Northside exists this ethereal, hidden gem of a backalley otherworld which leaves me certain I’ll run into David Bowie from The Labyrinth at any moment.

Northside ruminates rough around the edges, mimicking tales I’d heard told in the city’s pubs. These stories always took place in a distant past, though, and today the neighborhood feels more like any other legacy corner of Pittsburgh: a brick wall with a new paint of coat that doesn’t quite cover all of those decades of soot, but certainly gives you reason to see it in a new light. Gentrification rises up from the sidewalks to coat the remnants of rundown mansions, row houses, and large maples, nudging them along toward a possibly even brighter future.

With downtown’s skyline still towering over my back, Sampsonia Street cuts sharp left from Federal.

Soon the alley itself is being overrun by ivy. The echoes of hardballs bouncing off the brick walls of abandoned lots gone baseball fields–days long past–ricochet through the city air. The summer heat thins out around the entrance to the Mattress Factory, littered with the remnant statues of Romans long ago turned to stone. A few of these, mostly headless women clutching their breasts but still standing among the parking lot wreckage, serve as silent greeters. Like the entirety of the Mattress Factory will prove, it’s unclear if they’re an exhibit or just happen to be lying around.

Beyond the parking lot, the air breathes back its hot town summer in the city as the ground opens to catacombs of wrought iron twisted handrails leading down concrete stairs to minotaur’s maze. Perplexed, the only logical next step, as I accomplish an amount of this underground catacomb shown the light of the wild blue sky, is to enter the Mattress Factory itself.

A man at the front desk of a typical museum entrance greets me, happy to exchange a ticket for my dollars, and asks “Have you been?”.

“No, first time.” The surreal nature of the parking lot and garden vanish, gift shops and kiosks now clearly announce that this is, in fact, a museum. The clerk begins to explain what I should expect of the museum. I am here specifically because I’d been told it was a completely different experience and so, as though he was about to spoil a movie I’d been waiting to see for months, beg him to stop, politely.

“I’ll figure it out I’m sure.” He agrees verbally, but raises his eyebrows momentarily in a way that leaves me suspecting I might not.

I’m sent on my way. The immediate minutes or hours that follow blur into a festival clearly hosted by a young Tim Burton, strange, joyful and confusing, threatening and peaceful at once. In a dark basement, sometimes impossibly dark to know which way to move at all, occasional lights appear as whatever an imagination drowning in darkness can procure. It’s a future of laserbeams and warp speed or the past come back with all of the dazzling displays of wizardry at once. There is a trance about the place, and it almost feels wrong to be inching my feet from one light display to another as I wonder if I should’ve asked the front desk clerk for more information.

Finally, the lights behind me now, I’m in a room completely black, waiting for something to happen, but nothing does, ever. I wonder if I’m being fooled. Is this art? Are they just watching me to see what I’ll do, if I’ll ever do anything. Are there other people sitting in here too, silent? How long have they been in here? I wonder if when I try to get up and leave I will be eaten by zombies long lessoned to wait until participants unknowingly stumble through the dark to find the exit.

Still in tact, no sign of humans or zombies yet, I push through two doors into a dimly lit room of infinite other rooms in all directions, wall to wall mirrors turning me into a thousand versions of my reflection, this room, each one slightly different from multicolored polka dots highlighting it all. I run through to the next set of doors where suddenly the light goes nearly sunlight bright, reflecting off of white statues of dancers frozen in their slow forever expression, blinding me momentarily. I can now see the polka dots of the previous room in my eyes.

Finding myself and my hands gone from the room’s experience, I now stumble into the next of what I assume to still be an exhibit. It looks awfully like someone’s bedroom. There’s an adjoining bathroom. I’m not entirely certain how I got here, or if I’m not in an artist’s residence. Am I trespassing, or witnessing a testament to someone’s creative endeavors? If I go a room deeper, will I just be snooping through someone’s apartment or is this all part of the experience?

I have no recollection of how I got out of there, or what I did for the rest of the day afterwards. I do recall spotting the head of the minotaur himself. David Bowie, alas, was nowhere to be found. I was curious to meet him if only to ask what universe, assuming no one else on Earth would likely know better, Jim Henson was working on these days?