Menu Contact/Location

A million dollar renovation restored a Fifth Avenue mansion once thought uninhabitable

Saturday, February 10, 2001

By Gretchen McKay, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

In the mid 1920s, one of the grandest residences along Shadyside’s famed “Millionaires Row” was the house located at 5061 Fifth Ave.

Built between 1870 and 1871 by William B. Negley and expanded in 1922 by stone contractor Edward Gwinner, this elegant, three-story Second Empire house boasted everything a wealthy urbanite could ask for: grand marble entrance hall with a winding staircase and bronze balustrade, 13-foot ceilings, rooms paneled in English oak and walnut and a large veranda overlooking fabulous gardens. In his 1985 book “Landmark Architecture: Pittsburgh and Allegheny County,” architectural historian Walter Kidney called the Gwinner-Harter house “a handsome object in its spacious and well-landscaped grounds.”

But just two years later, while the home was being renovated, workers using a paint-stripping gun inadvertently caught a third-floor closet on fire. By the time firefighters had quenched the flames, the entire third floor was gone.

When the owner, physician Leo Harter, died six months later, the property — boarded up and topped with a plastic tarp — became something of a white elephant. Preservationists felt the house was not salvageable and neighbors considered it a “burned-out monstrosity.” A proposal in 1993 to level the mansion and replace it with luxury condominiums failed for lack of buyers. The only practical solution seemed demolition.

Then in June 1995, just a few weeks before the wrecking ball was to fall, restoration contractor Joetta Sampson took a tour — and saw something the others had missed.

“It was just the most incredible piece of architecture, a once-in-a-lifetime property,” recalls Sampson, who has restored more than a dozen old homes in Pittsburgh since 1990. Even with plywood for windows and no electricity, it remained a grand home, she says

“I felt like it deserved a chance at rebirthing.”

Her husband, Ben, a third-generation builder and developer, agreed, and a few weeks later the couple bought the house for $700,000 and set about the arduous task of rebuilding it. Nine months and $1 million later, it had been lovingly and completely restored. Nearly two years ago, the Sampsons put it up for sale for $1.5 million. It is still available at that price, now marketed by Coldwell Banker.

Maybe it’s the price tag (or the $34,000 annual tax bill). Some potential buyers might be intimidated by the house’s size and stature or overwhelmed at the thought of how to furnish it. Others may be put off by its proximity to Fifth Avenue. Sampson, however, maintains that the house’s elaborate gardens, which include a maze, distances the house from that busy thoroughfare, both visually and audibly.

“It’s actually an incredibly peaceful place,” she says, “a serene oasis.”

Sampson doesn’t think the million-dollar-plus price tag is a deterrent. Six houses in the immediate area have sold for more than $1.3 million in the past year, she says, and “people will pay all day long for a new mansion in the suburbs.”

“No one has ever looked at it and thought it was overpriced,” she says.

And though the couple will most likely lose money on the sale, Sampson doesn’t regret a single dollar spent on the restoration, even the small fortune they sunk into the master bath. What she does regret, she says, is that Pittsburghers don’t seem to appreciate this kind of quality workmanship and architecture.

“If the house were located somewhere where people understand and appreciate the urban lifestyle — say San Francisco — it would sell very quickly.”

One of the most difficult (and expensive) tasks the Sampsons faced during their restoration was rebuilding the slate mansard roof and replacing the third-floor floor joists. Luckily, the couple had blueprints of the original design, but it still took workers months to recreate the roof’s nine dormers and lay the hand-cut, fish-scale slates.

With the roof on, they then turned their attention to the space beneath it. The result is one of the most striking rooms in the house.

The size of a small apartment, the 30- by 40-foot master suite is organized around a center colonnade and features a separate sitting room and two dressing rooms with floor-to-ceiling closets. There is also an 18- by 21-foot pink-and-gray marble bathroom, complete with claw foot tub, oversized walk-in shower and his-and-her two-legged sinks.

“We wanted our own adult living space,” says Sampson, who received some “really great inspiration” from architect John Martine.

Pale yellow rag-rolled walls, 11 faux marble pillars and century-old wide-plank, heart-of-pine flooring add an air of elegance. Dating from the 1880s, the wood was rescued from a mill that was closing in Vermont that Sampson had read about in Preservation magazine.

The rest of the home, which was completely rewired and air-conditioned, is equally impressive. The major focal point of the facade is the front porch, which winds halfway around the house and has been reconstructed with imported German tile. In picking the sunny yellow for the facade, Sampson was inspired by Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.

A pair of solid bronze front doors lead into a spacious entry hall constructed entirely of 1-inch-thick translucent marble. It has an ornate floor-to-ceiling marble mantelpiece and French doors leading out onto the verandah. The library, one of three rooms designed by Pittsburgh architect Frederick Osterling in 1922, boasts walnut and golden oak flooring in a large checkerboard pattern, German leaded-glass windows topped by stained glass and a coved plaster ceiling with pheasants and flowers in high relief. There is also a carved limestone mantel and overmantel.

The graceful sitting parlor has basket-weave inlay flooring, an Italian marble fireplace and a Bradbury & Bradbury wallpapered ceiling. (It took Sampson the better half of 10 days, working late at night, to assemble the intricate design.) The adjoining dining room has golden oak paneling and flooring, a limestone mantel and overmantel and a coffered, red-painted ceiling.

The 15- by 14-foot kitchen features marble countertops and white and mossy green porcelain tile walls and floor, as well as a turn-of-the-century Magic Chef stove (it still works). Antique birch cabinets, which Sampson refinished herself, stretch all the way to the ceiling. Just off the kitchen, a Westinghouse elevator shuttles visitors to the second floor, which has large four bedrooms, a sitting room and four baths. All the windows have interior wooden shutters. The property also includes a three-car, heated carriage house with a one-bedroom/one-bath apartment on top.

The Sampsons worked with landscape gardener Richard Liberto to create the formal Victorian garden, which cost more than $40,000 and is planted with old-fashioned perennials like hollyhocks. The 3 1/2-foot-deep pond features Japanese iris that bloom every year as well as a circa 1920 fountain Sampson discovered at an auction in Georgia and had installed “with great difficulty.”

Too many 19th-century mansions, says Sampson, have spaces that blow you away but aren’t really designed to live in.

“They just don’t have that warmth,” she says.

That’s not a problem with the Gwinner-Harter home.

“It’s great gathering place for both family and friends,” says Sampson, who adds she would love to help the new owners decorate. “And living quarters are well designed so everyone has his or her own space.”

This article appeared in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. © Pittsburgh Post Gazette

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

100 West Station Square Drive, Suite 450

Pittsburgh, PA 15219

Phone: 412-471-5808  |  Fax: 412-471-1633