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Solid character of Mexican War Streets houses lured these renovators

By Gretchen McKay
Pittsburgh Post Gazette
Saturday, September 14, 2002

Most people would not call a turn-of-the-century parsonage-turned-boarding house-turned-apartment building the ideal home. Andrea Nichola Fridley and her husband, Jim Lawrence, are not like most people.

Fridley, a graphic designer and painter from Hermitage who lived for 10 years in New York City before returning home, is able to picture possibility and greatness where others see only a giant headache of a mess.

Visitors will be able to see a little bit of both on tomorrow’s Mexican War Streets House & Garden Tour, which will feature Fridley and Lawrence’s stone townhouse along with two dozen other North Side properties.

Unlike most of the other stops on the self-guided tour, the couple’s home on Buena Vista Street is very much a work in progress. The house was purchased in the fall of 2000, but the interior renovation began only this spring. Fridley and Lawrence still live in the three-story Victorian that Fridley bought just down the street when she first moved into the neighborhood in 1997. Scaffolding and exposed lathe aside, this is one of the neighborhood’s more unusual houses.

Built between 1895 and 1900 as a parsonage for what was then the Westminster Presbyterian Church across the street, the sandstone structure was converted to a boarding house in the ’50s and to two apartments in the ’60s.

Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation considers it a “significant” example of Richardsonian Romanesque-style architecture. More importantly, it’s a heady dose of reality for anyone considering taking on an abandoned or long-neglected historic home. Tour-goers need only step inside the towering front doors to get a pretty good idea of what’s involved in bringing a turn-of-the-century structure back to life after it’s been chopped into pieces.

Even though the couple has barely started, “it’s been a ton of work,” admits Fridley, 38, somewhat wearily. Most of the past six months, for example, has been spent stripping all of the old wallpaper off the plaster walls, knocking down walls, and pulling up carpets. It took several months just to paint the front porch.

Not that she and Lawrence, a program director for telecommunications consulting firm Stratecast Partners, are complaining. It is, after all, a pretty great house despite all the dust and debris.

Along with a three-part Palladian window on the third-floor dormer and 9-foot ceilings, the house features a wooden front porch with fluted columns and a double-door front entrance topped by a transom. A tripartite window crowned with a leaded-glass transom brightens the front parlor while a marbleized slate fireplace gives it character. The hallway lined with original Lincrusta leads to a magnificent oak box staircase with hand-turned spindles. The 3,300-square-foot house also features something you don’t often find in this tiny North Side neighborhood: a large side yard shaded by a giant maple and mulberry trees.

What makes the job a little easier is the fact that Fridley has gone through the renovation process before and knew that projects of this size take time. When she decided to move back to Pittsburgh five years ago, she looked to set up housekeeping in an area that exuded the same funky, urban atmosphere as her adopted home of Manhattan.

While she liked the South Side’s energy, she ultimately decided that when it came to housing, the neighborhood more resembled the suburbs of Brooklyn than the streets of New York City — that is, there was way too much aluminum siding.

“I wanted some place aesthetically pleasing,” Fridley said.

The Mexican War Streets’ many Italianate, Gothic Revival and Queen Anne row houses reminded her of the brownstones lining the streets of Greenwich Village, an intimate, historic district favored by up-and-coming fashion designers, artists and writers.

Just as important, because many of the homes were in desperate need of restoration, “the prices were right,” says Fridley, who ended up buying and restoring a three-story Victorian townhouse. When she met and married Lawrence, they soon found that the house was too small for both to work from home. So they put out some feelers, and when a neighbor said he’d be interested in selling about two months later, they jumped at the chance.

One of their first jobs was to remove the walls that divided the house into two apartments. Knowing they wanted to bring the place back to its original footprint, “we needed to feel the flow,” says Fridley.

But they also had to get the exterior in good shape, so “things wouldn’t come crashing down,” she says with a laugh.

In addition to jacking up the front porch, which was sinking, Angel Contracting repaired the front gutter and replaced three front windows. The couple hired Reber Restoration to repoint the entire front of the house. They also removed a gazebo and some decking a former owner had installed, pulled out a galley kitchen on the second floor and replaced a window in the kitchen area with a door to accommodate a kitchen addition designed by Jill Joyce of Joyce Design Group in Lawrenceville.

Yet to come: The couple must replace 19 windows, repoint the side of the house, remodel 2 1/2 bathrooms and landscape the yard.

As expected, the project has suffered the occasional setback. When contractors jacked up the back of the house to put in a beam for a new kitchen addition, everything fell a couple of inches, causing the three-course-thick brick walls on the rear of the second and third floors to crack.

But that, Fridley philosophically notes, comes with the territory.

“At least we didn’t lose the end of the house.”

Gretchen McKay covers homes and real estate for the Post-Gazette.

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

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