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These old houses – Restoration projects take dedication, hard work


By Bob Karlovits, TRIBUNE-REVIEW

Renovation of historic homes is an avocation that never seems to falter, but its popularity at any moment can be hard to judge.

Director of operations and marketing for the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation, says increasing interest is reflected in the growing number of people at the group’s Old House Fair ever year.

“When I see the addresses of people and see Friendship or the South Side, I can see we’re dealing with the old housing stock,” she says.

Mark Shar, technical supervisor of Allegheny Mouldings on the North Side, a company that produces woodwork for home projects, sees involvement with older homes as a steady fascination. He says 60 percent to 70 percent of his company’s work is in such jobs.

“Interest in redoing older homes has been strong since the early ’70s,” he says. “It’s no flash in the pan.”

Others in the industry say they see something of a decline. Ron Mistick, director of the South Side lumber yard for Allegheny Millworks, says there are fewer renovators seeking specialty wood than there were in the mid-’80s.

“People are just putting in what they want to,” he says.

Eric Younkins, a paint counter manager in the East Liberty Masterwork Paint & Decorating store, says he gets deeply involved in finding “historically correct” paint about 10 times a year.

When people get involved in renovation, the tasks can be addictive, according to Michael Santmeyer and Christopher Kerr of Manchester. They spent about $80,000 and 14 months renovating a Gothic Revival home – and now have it up for sale. That’s because they want to move on to their next North Side revival project, which will be their third.

“I know I’m never going to live in another house like this one,” Santmeyer says. “But it’s time to move on.”

Fred Mannion, president of the Manchester Historic Society, has spent 11 years redoing a 12-room home from 1890. And the work is nearly done.

“A lot of people are doing this because they want to turn a buck,” he says, “but most people just get caught up in making the homes look they way they could.”

Jeff and Shannon Mulholland got caught up in renovations when they bought a Queen Anne home in Edgeworth two years ago. They started doing some home improvements and decided to try to make it as faithful to the period as possible.

“For instance, we redid one of the bathrooms and took out the ’80s vanity,” she says. “It took a while to find the kind of sink that we wanted, but you can’t get too frustrated.”

That sort of dedication emerged when they began looking into an addition. They hired architect Shelley Clement, co-author of a book on historic homes in the Sewickley Valley. Mulholland says Clement paid attention to subtle things such as the size and shape of the bricks and the gentle sloping of the exterior walls.

It’s important to pay that sort of attention to the exterior of buildings, but generally not the interiors private homes, say local and federal officials. Private homes may get totally modern interiors and not lose any historic status, according to Sharon Park, chief of technical preservation from the National Park Service.

Manchester’s Mannion, for instance, added a totally modern apartment behind the 1890s exterior of the carriage house of his home while keeping the main house entirely historic. Both still fit into Manchester Historic District guidelines.

Similarly, the Fitzsimmons Square project being developed along Allegheny Avenue will have entirely new interiors, but still will meet district guidelines, says Mario Costanzo from Howard Hanna Real Estate.

Interest in renovation also, obviously, demands a supply of older housing stock. The Historic Review Commission for the city of Pittsburgh, the Historical Architecture Review Board for Homestead, West Homestead and Munhall, for example, help point out and develop that stock.

“Establishing a district as historic tends to stabilize a neighborhood,” says Angelique Bamberg of the city’s Historic Review Commission.

“A renewal is a win-win situation,” says Dennis Freeland is executive director of the Perry Hilltop Association for Successful Enterprise, a group that guides or initiates renewal. “When you have an crumbling house, nobody benefits. Nobody’s living there. They city is getting no tax money. The neighborhood suffers.”

But renewal can lead to the manifestation of an architectural style.

“You have to be able to see what a house can be and not concentrate on what it isn’t,” Santmeyer says.

– Bob Karlovits can be reached at (412) 320-7852 or

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

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