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Building suppliers are key players in resurrection of historic homes


By Bob Karlovits – TRIBUNE-REVIEW

Argine Carter sees herself as something of a detective.

Mike Gable looks at his work as a form of conservation.

Eric Younkins says he often is simply a sharp set of eyes.

Whether they’re dealing with woodwork, wallpaper or bricks, they’re all trying to help owners of historic homes in what can be a task amounting to thousands of dollars.

They become key players in the tricky attempt to turn battered, old buildings into landmarks from another era.

“You’re dealing with a certain type of person,” says Younkins, a counter manager at a Masterwork Paint & Decorating store in East Liberty. “I have 1,800 different colors and sometimes none of them is just the right thing.”

With other materials, other issues come into play. For instance, Jim Dattilo, one of the owners of Pittsburgh Structural Clay Products in Oakland, says his company is asked to match bricks from older homes. Sometimes workers can match the size – but the real problem is the color.

That’s because the Environmental Protection Agency has disallowed the use of some chemicals that create those colors because they are dangerous.

“Still, we can match about 90 percent of the bricks people ask us to,” he says.

Homeowners often are directed to suppliers through agencies such as the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation. Every year, the foundation has an Old House Fair that is a gathering place for dealers in historically rooted supplies and contractors for such jobs.

Cathy McCollom, the group’s director of operations and marketing, says the event attracts about 1,000 people, but generates so many inquiries afterward the foundation has begun “overprinting” the program with information on the dealers.

“We don’t recommend people, though,” McCollom says. “We just supply the names.” She says the event helps provide links to dealers and contractors, and also creates some networking among homeowners. “You know how Pittsburgh is,” she says. “It is a great word-of-mouth city.

Renovators also can contact enthusiasts such as Fred Mannion, president of the Manchester Historic Society, who is renovating his home and says he is eager to see other people doing the same.

“We can send you places like the Architecture Emporium in Canonsburg, and we also know people who are so dedicated to repairs they will come in the middle of the night,” he says.

Or they might deal with an architect such as Shelley Clement from Sewickley who says she does 90 percent of her work in renovation of historic homes. She says she knows of supply dealers who are good to deal with because they are mentally attuned to renovation.

Ron Mistick, purchasing director for Allegheny Millwork, for example, has about 150 to 200 profiles of baseboards and pieces of quarter-round trim at the South Side lumber yard. Fifteen percent to 20 percent of the yard’s business is in replacing those pieces for renovations.

When workers see a sample four or five times, they add it to the design files so future buyers might be able to find the style they need.

“People can then see it in the catalog and order it without paying for any setup time,” Mistick says.

Similarly, Allegheny Moulding on the North Side has pattern books that can help staffers produce woodwork that fits older homes, says Mark Shar, the company’s technical supervisor. The books allow them to create pieces even when they don’t have samples to guide them.

Mike Gable, executive director of Construction Junction in Lawrenceville, says he is looking for a way to help people save money – and to promote conservation as well. He describes his company as “sort of a used Home Depot.”

The company gets all sorts of supplies – from cornices to lumber – then offers them to builders and renovators. Because the firm is centered on matters other than renovation, he says, its historic items amount to 15 percent to 20 percent of its supply at any one time.

“But if you want to whip up the paint stripper or fire up the steel wool, we could be the place,” he says.

Firms of these sorts sometimes can get customers from all over the country. Argine Carter of Carter & Co. of Vallejo, Calif., has made a career out of creating historically correct wallpaper. Those efforts have taken her from doing the paper for Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House on the Prairie” in South Dakota to President James Garfield’s residence in Ohio.

She says there is “a lot of detective work” in what she and her staff do because they have to work from an assortment of clues rather than a good sample of the object they are duplicating. That often means trying to find out what colors might have been used and reproducing a pattern from a quarter-inch image from a battered photograph.

About 30 percent of the work she does is initiated by individual homeowners and the other 70 percent by parks organizations or civic renovators. Most often, she adds designs they have made to the firm’s catalog. Then they can be used by other home renovators who, like Mistick’s customers, get a break in the price for items in the book.

She doesn’t add all the designs, though.

“Bad taste back then was just as bad as it is now,” she says.

While reproducing paper can be difficult, paint generally is not as big of an issue in historical renovations. While some commercial housing developments have agreements – known as covenants – that govern what colors can be used on the exterior of homes, there are no real restrictions in historical projects.

The “Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Preservation & Guidelines for Preserving Historic Buildings” suggests only to use colors that “are historically appropriate to the building and district.”

The City of Pittsburgh’s Historic Review Commission’s guidelines insist on the rights to review all paint jobs “to avoid odd or extreme color schemes.” The guidelines, however, set “no requirements to use any particular type or color of paint.”

Sharon Park from the National Park Service says that agency makes no color demands in its governance of the National Register of Historic Places.

She says she’s more concerned with whether a paint does the job on its surface. For instance, it is more important to use a waterproof paint on an exterior than to be concerned with a historically “correct” color, she says.

Paints for historic homes, therefore, have become a rather simple issue. Technicians at dealers such as Masterwork, Home Depot and even smaller firms have “color eyes” that can duplicate nearly any color, Younkins reports.

Most often, he and other dealers say, the historic color lines produced by manufactures such as PPG, Pratt and Lambert or Behr fit the bill.

With paint or other items, determination is the key, Younkins suggests.

“How deep the project goes depends on the tenacity of the person who wants it done,” he says

This article appeared in the Pittsburgh Tribune Review. © Tribune Review

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