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Architectural historian reveals home styles at Old House Fair

Saturday, February 10, 2001

By Kevin Kirkland, Post-Gazette Homes Editor

At the Old House Fair, hundreds of contractors, vendors and old house lovers find each other each year at Victoria Hall, a beautifully restored house/social hall in Bloomfield.

Old house owners (or wannabes) check out products and services, talk with experts and search for the secrets to restoring or maintaining an old house.

A few hundred will be there Feb. 24 for the sixth annual event. And as usual, a few dozen will line up for one popular program, “What Style Is My House?” led by Walter Kidney, architectural historian for the show’s sponsor, the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation.

One by one, Kidney looks at their photos and tells them what a home’s architecture says about the style and period in which it was built. Sometimes, it doesn’t say much.

“Many of the houses couldn’t be given a style label. With additions and alterations, they may have features of several styles. A house may be good in its proportions but not have many details,” Kidney says.

Some homeowners go away disappointed, but others are happy to know a little bit more about where their house fits into the varied broth of periods and styles that make up Pittsburgh’s housing stock.

Kidney, author of “Landmark Architecture: Pittsburgh and Allegheny County,” says Western Pennsylvania is best known architecturally for its bridges, churches and schools and other public buildings. Its residential construction, with the obvious exception of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater and a few others, is not as old or of as consistently high quality as a city like Philadelphia.

“In Philadelphia, ordinary houses sometimes have great beauty and distinction that you don’t find here,” Kidney says. “They have been building very good-looking houses since the 1700s.”

Western Pennsylvania does have a sprinkling of intact homes from the late 1700s and early to mid-1800s, most of which are described in Kidney’s landmark work. There are also clusters of Italianate, Second Empire, Queen Anne and other elaborate styles. But these weren’t built for ordinary Pittsburghers. And they’re rarely the ones that Kidney sees photos of at the Old House Fair.

Instead, he sees Colonial Revivals of every period, from the first batch around the time of our country’s centennial right up through the 1950s.

Some of the century-old structures are also Foursquares, a term popularized in the 1970s and ’80s by Delaware architectural historian Alan Gowans. It refers to tall boxy houses with four equal-sized rooms upstairs and down, and pyramidal or hipped roofs. Often built of brick here, they usually have a long front porch and at least one central dormer.

“Every North American town built before the 1930s has dozens, thousands of them, and the countryside is full of them as well,” Gowans wrote in his 1986 book, “The Comfortable House: North American Suburban Architecture 1890 – 1930.”

Foursquares line whole streets in Bloomfield and the South Side, but they don’t always wear Colonial details.

“It lends itself to being tarted up,” says Albert Tannler, historical collections director for History & Landmarks. Some have Italianate bracketing, Arts & Crafts elements or Tudor half-timbering.

Kidney sees much more than Foursquares at the Old House Fair. He also sees occasional Richardsonian Romanesque and other Victorian styles from the North Side, Tudors from Squirrel Hill and Mt. Lebanon and Chateauesque and Shingle-style mansions from Shadyside. For sheer variety of periods and styles and architectural quality, he and other historians say Woodland Road in Squirrel Hill is hard to beat.

The winding street has everything from the c. 1860 Gothic Revival Howe-Childs gatehouse

(now under restoration by Chatham College) to high-style brick Georgians and ornate Tudors from the early 1900s and ’20s, to 1950s Modern.

So, in the five years that Kidney has participated in the Old House Fair, has he ever made any big discoveries? Not really, but he remembers at least one house he wouldn’t mind seeing again — a c. 1905 home in Bellevue or one of the other Ohio River towns.

“It was by Marius Rosseau, I think. He designed the St. Francis de Sales [Roman Catholic] Church in McKees Rocks. It had some interesting structural features, like reinforced concrete. He may have done it for himself. I wish I had taken some notes on that one,” Kidney says.

Neither Kidney nor other area architectural historians know much more about Rosseau but would love to see the house. So if the homeowner’s still out there, bring your photos to the fair on Feb. 24. Kidney will be in the library from 1 to 3 p.m. He’s looking forward to seeing your old house.

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

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