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House by house, North Side renovations go on

Saturday, November 10, 2001

By Bette McDevitt
Pittsburgh Post Gazette

Rehabbing one house can ruin your life, or your marriage,” says Nick Kyriazi, chairman of the Housing Committee for East Allegheny Community Council.

Now try doing 15, while also building five new homes, and you get an idea of how stressful life can be for Kyriazi and other members of this North Side neighborhood group.

It’s a major undertaking, even for a group accustomed to renovations. In 1993, the council did four new houses, in 1996, seven houses, both new and renovated, and in 1998, four renovations.

This $3.4 million project has been hectic but satisfying, Kyriazi said as he walked the streets of a neighborhood that runs from East Street to Cedar Avenue, and from Dunloe Street, at the foot of Fineview, to Pressley Street.

The 20 new or restored houses are on Cedar, James, Middle, Tripoli, Suismon and Pressley streets. Some are tall and skinny, some short and wide, some with turrets, some twins and one triplet. All but the new houses are about 80 percent finished and two are sold, including the centerpiece of the project, 810 Cedar Ave.

The grand dame of the 20 sits across from the East Allegheny Commons. The community council purchased the house four or five years ago, when it had a gaping hole in its roof and other evidence of neglect.

“People called this one ‘the graffiti house.’ An absentee doctor owned it, and neighbors were constantly painting out the graffiti,” said Ernie Hogan, associate director of the North Side Leadership Conference, the project manager for this development and others in nine North Side neighborhoods.

The inside and outside of the home cried out for major restoration. But a few people, including city Councilwoman Barbara Burns and Mark Masterson, a former employee of the North Side Leadership Conference, saw it as a chance to do even more, to make it a showcase of new technology and environmentally friendly construction techniques and materials known as “green building.”

“We are using recycled products, and the house was refurbished with steel rather than wood studs,” Hogan said. “We are using environmentally safe paints and the kitchen floor is made of recycled tires.”

The group got some help from the Green Building Alliance and Conservation Consultants on the South Side. Dietrich Industries provided the steel framing.

But the real groundbreaker here is the heating and cooling system. Geo Environmental Drilling Co. has gone 300 feet below the ground, seeking water at a constant 55 degrees. The water will be sent through coils to heat and cool the house.

“It’s a heat pump, which I have in my house, except that you use water for heat and cooling instead of outside air,” Kyriazi explained. “You draw the heat out of the water, and transfer it to the air to heat the house. To cool, you reverse the cycle.”

The group originally intended to install the system in several houses, as well as the James Street Tavern and the Old Towne Laundromat. But by the time the package was in place, one of the largest grants had expired, and they were able to afford the system for only one house.

The house, which is nearly finished, is also getting a state-of-the-art electrical system, controlled by a computer and equipped for high-speed Internet, multimedia entertainment and other current technologies. Sargent Electric donated some of the services and supplies.

“You will be able to turn on and off any lights from a phone,” said Hogan. “The house has incorporated everything that would have been grand about this house, and high technology, too.”

The Cedar Avenue home sold for slightly more than its $300,000 price tag because of a few extras the buyer wanted. Most of the homes are priced between $120,000 and $150,000, though one with only the exterior restored is selling for $53,000.

Over the next few months, environmental and educational groups will be allowed to tour 810 Cedar. Before the owner moves in, the community council also hopes to hold an open house to show off its many features to the public. In addition to gee-whiz technology, it is a fine example of a modified restoration.

“Plumbing, heating and wiring are easy. It’s the restoration that’s difficult — all the woodwork, the mantels, the balusters on the staircases,” said Kyriazi.

Architect Yoko Tai had one big advantage — the house’s twin next door. Martha Pasula’s house, whose interior is in the original state, served as a mirror for restorers. Tai duplicated some of the twin’s features in the blueprints, and Kyriazi and other volunteers helped to match balusters, doors and mantels from the cache of items they have been collecting from demolished houses for 25 years. Team Construction is the general contractor.

Sam Cammarata, a retired brick layer who lives in the neighborhood and regularly visited the houses being restored, was particularly taken with the work of master carpenter Jim Graczik.

“That guy is an artist,” he said.

Graczik’s handiwork is evident in the newel posts and spindles of the staircases at 810 Cedar.

The house’s old slate mantels were in as many as 20 pieces and had to be reassembled. They are painted to look like marble and have gold incising as decoration. Kyriazi thinks the slate pieces may have been dipped, like an Easter egg, in a solution with color floating on the top.

“When I look at these, I think they are too intricate to have been painted by hand,” he said.

It is the kind of question he ponders as he visits houses built in the same period on tours around the city, the country, and recently, a trip to Spain.

“You observe and learn, and soon you begin to speak Victorian,” he said.

The house’s first floor has been opened up to create a large living room with a dining area. A powder room has been added and the kitchen overlooks a shared courtyard and a renovated four-room apartment above a garage.

On the second floor is a master bedroom, a bath with a Jacuzzi, a laundry room and a dressing room or study. The third floor has three bedrooms and a full bath.

Funding for the project came from grants, donated labor and loans. Money came from the Urban Redevelopment Authority, Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation, Buhl Foundation, the Community Design Center, Allegheny County, North Side Bank, National City Bank, and National City’s Community Development Project.

For Kyriazi and others on the council, the project’s greatest success is creating more single-family, owner-occupied residences.

“We want properly restored, well-maintained houses, not absentee landlords, multifamily dwellings or remuddled, derelict buildings,” he said.

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

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