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Renovator turned innovator when she started Old House Fair

Saturday, February 24, 2001

By Gretchen McKay, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Joedda Sampson knows better than most how gratifying it is to take an abandoned decaying house everyone has given up on and, with equal parts hard work and vision, slowly breathe life back into it.

Over the past two decades, Sampson has restored nearly 20 of Pittsburgh’s most dilapidated, historic properties, including two in the North Side’s Allegheny West neighborhood, a townhouse in the Mexican War Streets and, most recently, the Gwinner-Harter house, an 1870 Victorian mansion on Fifth Avenue in Shadyside.

It’s personally rewarding work, life-changing even. But fun? Don’t count on it.

“Any restoration is a major undertaking, even if it’s a small house,” Sampson says from the grand dining room of Victoria Hall in Bloomfield, the 1865 Second Empire mansion turned convent she bought in 1994, painstakingly restored and then turned into a banquet and cultural center.

Old houses, after all, are like old people — something can go wrong every day, and it’s not always easy to find a solution, she says. Decide to renovate one, and “you’ll be tested at every bend and corner.”

So before jumping in and rescuing that turn-of-the-century fixer-upper from the wrecking ball, she cautions, be sure to ask yourself: Are you ready for that type of challenge? Because no matter what you do — and count on doing plenty — the house will continue aging.

“It’s never going to turn into that new house on the golf course,” she says with a knowing smile.

Today, Sampson will talk about home restoration and interior design at the sixth annual Old House Fair at Victoria Hall. During her 35-minute session, which begins at 1:10 p.m. in the hall’s cabaret, the restoration contractor/designer — who also owns Homestyles home furnishing shop at Station Square — will talk about the benefits of old-house living. She also will give pointers on how to develop your own personal style.

It’s a subject Sampson, a former makeup artist for Revlon, is deeply familiar with. Though she has no formal training in renovation, her renown as a designer and historic preservationist extends far beyond Pittsburgh. Three of her renovations — the Victoria House Bed and Breakfast and Cafe Victoria, both in the Allegheny West section of the North Side, and the Gwinner-Harter House — have been featured in Victoria magazine. And she is one of 18 top women designers profiled in a new book by the editors of Victoria magazine, “Designers in Residence” (Hearst Books, $30).

Unfortunately, Sampson says, too many people make the mistake of trying to re-create what they see in books and magazines when decorating their homes rather than developing an individual style that fits both their particular architecture and lifestyle.

“They create this movie set look and then wonder why they can’t live in it,” she says.

Maybe it’s because she grew up in a 100-year-old log cabin in West Virginia, but Sampson has always loved the look and feel of old houses.

A self-professed “Victorian obsessive,” she’s particularly crazy about homes built during the Victorian period, which hit its peak in the latter part of the 19th century and included such architecturally distinctive styles as Queen Anne, Second Empire and Stick and Shingle.

“I just love the largeness of the era,” she says, “and not just aesthetically. There was a lot of mystery and passion during that time as well as large emotions.”

So it was only natural that when Sampson, 48, relocated from New York to Pittsburgh in the mid ’70s, she felt instantly at home. While many cities will have a certain street or perhaps a whole block with late 19th-century houses, Pittsburgh, she was thrilled to discover, boasted entire communities of historic properties. Even better, there was a wide variety of sizes and styles to choose from, with everything from Shadyside’s three-story Victorian mansions to six-room row houses in Lawrenceville.

As a result, “almost anyone can afford to live in a pretty marvelous old house,” she says.

Finding master craftspeople and even general information on how to restore those old houses, however, proved to be a different matter. Sampson, who started wallpapering at age 9 and has studied design throughout the years, was able to make do during her many renovations. But that wasn’t always the case with less-handy homeowners.

“What I kept hearing was, ‘I’d really like to live in an old house but I don’t know where to start,'” she says.

So six years ago, Sampson partnered with Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation and came up with the idea for the Old House Fair, which brings together homeowners and professionals with special skills in old house restoration, decorating and gardening for informal talks and question-and-answer sessions.

“We wanted to create a market for people who live in or are thinking about buying an old house, even if it was only once a year,” says Sampson.

The fair was such a big success, they decided to make it an annual event. It now draws nearly 1,000 visitors, as well as dozens of vendors and exhibitors. That pleases Sampson a great deal.

There’s not a whole lot of architectural history left in this country, she maintains, and Pittsburghers tend to take what they have for granted, fabulous or not.

“They’ve seen it all their lives, so it’s no big thing,” she says. “But outsiders come in and are amazed, both by the number of properties and the [relatively low] prices.”

She smiles.

“So we need to do what we can to preserve it.”

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

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