Photo by Erika Fleegle
Over the weekend, residents like Kristyn and Marc Felman, homeowners of the above space in Observatory Hill, opened their homes to visitors during two community house tours.
by Erika Fleegle
A little fall of rain over the weekend didn’t stop visitors from exploring the rich history and beautiful architecture of Allegheny West June 5-6 during Allegheny West Civic Council’s fifth annual Old Allegheny Tour and Tasting, a showcase of seven neighborhood homes and gardens paired with a wine tasting.
This year’s tour theme, Paris of Appalachia, was borrowed from author and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist Brian O’Neill, who penned a book of the same name. O’Neill notes that Pittsburgh earned the title of Paris of Appalachia due to its “world-class museums, universities, architecture and performing arts” nestled within its hills and valleys. But that’s not the only French connection Allegheny West can boast. Novelist Gertrude Stein, mystery writer Mary Roberts Rinehart and painter Mary Cassatt all had Allegheny West roots despite living parts of their lives in Paris. In keeping with the theme, French wines were available for tasting at each home.
The evening began with a light, refreshing crème de cassis spritzer at Holmes Hall, the opulent home of John DeSantis. The home itself, a “jewel box of color, texture and design” is the oldest survivor of Brighton Road’s “millionaire’s row,” now brilliantly restored to its former glory. Visitors wound their way through the various sitting areas and elaborate kitchen, and lounged in the backyard before meeting their tour guides in the ballroom.
The guides led tour-goers to the rest of the homes on the list, offering bits of history of the neighborhood in between while giving brief introductions to each home.
“You’ll notice there are no overhead wires, just the fake gas lamps,” tour guide Greg Coll mentioned. “Take away the cars, and the streets could pass for any 19th century neighborhood.”
Eleanor Coleman of North Lincoln Avenue welcomed visitors into her restored 19th century Italianate home filled with antique furniture and a large, medallion-accented chandelier in the parlor. A dry red wine was the perfect accompaniment for strolling around the back garden, complete with a flagstone patio and pergola accented by columns that Coleman found at a flea market.
Brian O’Neill showcased his residence on Beech Avenue as well, proudly inviting tour-goers onto the recently-added porch. The porch had not been attached to the house when O’Neill purchased the home in 1997, though through careful research and renovation, he managed to create an award-winning preservation structure inspired by photos taken in the 1930s.
The evening’s wines flowed from dry reds to sweeter whites as the tour continued down Beech Avenue. For homeowners Gene Wilson and Cathy Serventi, the favorite space on their property was the newly-rebuilt side porch, where visitors snacked on light hors d’oeuvres and watched a slide show of the home’s before and after photos.
On the topic of renovation, which is always full of its ups and downs, Serventi said, “It’s a bit like (the movie) The Money Pit. We watched it last night and thought, ‘Hmm, this sounds like us!’”
While the porch and patio was a wonderful spot to lounge, the draw for some visitors was the expansive garage in the back of the property. Built in 1913, it was used as the main operating space for one of Pittsburgh’s earliest commercial bus companies, boasting Gibson Girl Evelyn Nesbit as one of its clients. Just across the street, Douglas Lucas’ Second Empire-style home stunned tour-goers with its solid walnut doors, double archway leading to the second floor, and the many antiques –from marble busts to rich wood cabinets– all amassed from Lucas’s 45 years as an antiques dealer. Back staircases and kitchens tucked away for use by the home’s former servants were another unique feature.
Music lilting out of one of many jukeboxes greeted visitors at the home of Howard Brokenbek and Shirley Mehring. The 130-year-old home, a prime example of Queen Anne architecture, was only on the market for a mere six hours before the pair placed their offer. Visitors were drawn to the rich interior decorating and the lively back garden accented with gargoyle statues.
The evening ended back on North Lincoln Avenue, where homeowner Jim Wallace, along with his friendly Doberman dog, invited all tour-goers from the evening’s five separate groups together for a sweet ending; dessert wines, cordials, chocolates and pastries were served. Guests admired the interior’s Russian artwork and spacious library before making their way to the garden to mingle for the rest of the evening.
The event’s organizers enjoyed the event just as much as the tour-goers. Carrie Doyle, who helped organize the evening’s tours, praised the neighborhood for its accommodating attitude.
“It’s a great neighborhood,” noting that neighbors are always willing to help out no matter what the situation.
In addition to the yearly Tour and Tasting, the Allegheny West Civic Council also offers Victorian Christmas house tours of the same or similar neighborhood homes in mid-December.
If rain didn’t stop the visitor’s in Allegheny West, then the steep staircases in Observatory Hill (OHI) did nothing to deter more tour-goers June 7 as Observatory Hill Incorporated hosted a house tour of its own.
Ten homes and two historic buildings were featured, along with two properties owned by OHI that are in the process of being renovated into single-family homes.
Tours began at Riverview United Presbyterian Church on Perrysville Avenue, which has been a fixture of the neighborhood since the late 19th century. From there, drivers from Molly’s Trolleys escorted visitors to the various featured homes on the tour.
One of the first stops was the home of Allan Byers and Mick Rizzo. The handsome stone house was built on the edge of Riverview Park in 1916. Byers and Rizzo have been residents since 2011. After redesigning the landscaping and adding a back deck, the pair have made their home complete with decorative additions from Italy and Spain.
Across the street, the Williams family is making new memories while settling into their home on Judge’s Row. After closing on the property in December and moving in this past January, Autumn and Eric Williams have made quite a few renovations –from repainting the entire interior and refinishing the floors to remodeling the kitchen and opening up doorways. While much of the house kept its original charm, the interior work made each space feel brighter and more open. For Eric, the best space in the house is the living area toward the back. Illuminated by a crystal chandelier, the room is encapsulated by 14 windows all surrounding the mosaic tile floor.
“Once we saw it, we knew we had to keep it,” Eric said of the unique feature.
Situated high up on Watson Boulevard, the home of Levi Meyers and Jason Bowman exudes Carpenter Gothic glory. Since May of 2014, the owners have worked to make the home more energy efficient while rafting the inside to suit their tastes as old and new details come together with original oak staircases, Feudal oak furniture, a functional kitchen and a photography studio. The master bedroom boasts a stunning solid walnut bedroom set that Jason found at a flea market in Washington, Pa. and fixed up himself.
Farther down the hill on Mt. Allister Road, three “little gems” opened their doors to the public. The first, home of Tom Maidens and Bill Horne, showcases their flair for the quirky and creative. After making simple cosmetic changes to the interior, they filled the space with everything they love – the art and furniture came from estate sales and thrift stores – while adding a touch of whimsy by creating a powder room from a coat closet. The spacious back deck allows for views of McKees Rocks across the Ohio River.
Featuring his home for the third time in the past 20 years, Michael Everhart showcased his own handiwork as he did all of the woodwork restoration himself, while welcoming visitors into his 1920’s Colonial just a few doors down.
New homeowners Kristyn and Marc Felman have used the past year to turn their Tudor Revival home into the perfect place to raise a family. Kristyn noted that almost all of the furniture found in the home was a secondhand treasure, refinished Craigslist find or vintage cast-off, proving that elegant interior design can be done on a “normal people budget.”
The next stop on the tour was the first actual house in Observatory Hill as it sits right along the property line that separates the community from Perry Hilltop. During the past seven years of renovation, Regan and Chuck Steiner have transformed their Craftsman-style home into its original floor plan, retaining many of the charming original elements like wood floors, and original stained glass. Most of the original elements were saved, too, for Chris and Kara Bane’s home on Judge’s Row. Despite originally thinking that the home would be too large for them, the pair have made it the perfect space to raise their baby daughter.
The tour finished at the home of Scott Pipitone on Riverview Avenue. The inviting front porch beckoned guests into the rest of the house, highlighted by original woodwork and a stunning staircase accented by an original stained glass window.
“Every day at about 2 p.m., the light comes in just right through the window,” Pipitone said.
He cited his favorite place in the house as the living room, which had been opened up to provide easy access to the kitchen, surrounded on all sides by windows that create a light, airy feel. The back deck also has great views of Riverview Park.
Also featured on the tour were Engine Station 34, where visitors enjoyed the recent renovations that kept with the original style of the firehouse, and two properties on Bonvue Street. These properties, according to Jeff Wagner of OHI, were purchased in hopes to create single family “seed houses.”
“We’re just trying to improve the community,” Wagner said, also noting that OHI had plans to turn the former Mr. Bill’s Tavern into a restaurant and coffee shop.
For more information on the OHI projects and events check out their website.