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Revival amid the ruins: 9 homes open doors for Manchester tour

Saturday, August 12, 2000

By Kevin Kirkland | Post-Gazette Homes Editor

Both houses were built more than 100 years ago, two houses were built as rental property for Pittsburgh's rising middle class, which was as happy to rent as to own a house that mimicked the homes of their wealthier neighbors.

  Martin Fuess and David Fleischman found the perfect setting for their combined collections of Victorian furniture, furnishings and artwork in an Italianate house on Sheffield Street. They both like dark ornate furniture, delicate Victorian lamps and period draperies. (Tony Tye, Post-Gazette)

A century later, it took members of today's middle class to look past Manchester's decline and the homes' decay to rescue them.

"Our families and some of our friends thought it was terrible," said Terry Craig of the Italianate row house she began restoring 18 years ago with her husband, Grayson Ward. "We never saw the house the way it really was. We saw the dream."

Martin Fuess and David Fleischman had a dream, too. They wanted the perfect setting for their combined collections of Victorian furniture, furnishings and artwork. A little more than a year ago, they, too, found it in Manchester, in an Italianate house on Sheffield Street.

Tomorrow, both homes will be among nine featured on the fourth annual Manchester House and Garden Tour, along with several gardens and the recently renovated Chatham Apartments.

Craig and Ward were among the first and Fuess and Fleischman among the latest to find affordable, mostly intact Victorian homes to restore in Manchester, a North Side historic district stigmatized by crime and blight and overshadowed by better-known historic neighborhoods like the Mexican War Streets and Allegheny West.

When Craig and Ward were looking for an old house in 1982, they knew little about restoration. But the two psychiatric social workers had a subscription to Old House Journal -- the restorers' bible -- and a willingness to work.

"We looked for 2 1/2 years. Much of Manchester was boarded up," Craig said. "There were 10 identical houses in this row. They were all disasters."

  The delphinium, clematis, scabiosa, butterfly bush, roses, hydrangeas, marigolds and much more in the back yard of Martin Fuess and David Fleischman's home will be on display along with several other gardens and nine houses on the Manchester House and Garden Tour. (Tony Tye, Post-Gazette)

The house at the end of the row on Page Street was better than some, a little worse than others. All of its five slate fireplace mantels were intact, as was its three-story barrel staircase made of walnut, disguised under garish brown and white paint. So what drew Craig and Ward?

"This is what we bought the house for -- these three steps," Ward said, laughing. "I loved the second-floor landing. We loved the architecture."

The March day they moved in, they slept on the living room floor, with snow blowing in through broken or boarded-up windows. Noticing traces of an older, much larger doorway on the wall between the living room and dining room, they bashed a hole in the wall -- and found the original 10-foot-tall pocket doors, made of fir grain, painted to look like mahogany.

They replaced the furnace, electrical system and most of the plumbing and began working on the third floor, planning to gradually work downward. Consulting Old House Journal and friends, they got a federal grant to restore the facade and began looking for contractors.


The Manchester House and Garden Tour runs from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. tomorrow. Walk from house to house or ride a trolley. Tickets are $12 each and are available the day of the tour at Conroy School, 1398 Page St., or at 1410 Pennsylvania Ave. For more information, call 412-322-4480.


Their best find was carpenter Tom Slusser, who rebuilt the front and back porches, re-created missing pieces of two newel posts, put in the new kitchen, pantry and first-floor bathroom and dismantled and reassembled the staircase, which Craig and Ward stripped and refinished.

Slusser and other contractors were aided in their restoration by a handy resource -- the other houses in the row. While re-creating the exterior cornices, brackets and other trim, they could just walk down the street to see what was left on the once-identical row houses. And when five of them fell into ruin and were razed, Craig and Ward rescued some of the hardware and wood trim before it reached the dumpster.

The couple did most of their own demolition -- ripping and hauling out hundreds of pounds of soot and plaster -- and all the wallpapering and painting.

When wallpapering, she relied on crystal-clear memories of watching her father hang paper in the early '40s.

"I could play out in my mind what to do, like finding the part of the room where a mismatched pattern would be least noticeable."

Ward credits Craig's decorating sense for the warm color choices -- shades of cream and ivory complemented by dark green, rose and blue. She didn't strive for historic authenticity.

"Sherwin-Williams had historic colors but we used some that aren't," she said. "When we started this, you couldn't find document wallpapers."

Ward said the fun really started when the restoration, painting and wallpapering were done.

"When we finished a room, the thing we enjoyed most was furnishing it," he said.

Their tastes and a small reference library of books and photos showing Victorian interiors determined what they hunted for in antique stores on vacations and other trips. Much of the furniture is Empire or Empire Revival, but other styles show up, too.

  The home of Martin Fuess and David Fleischman at 1419 Sheffield St. will be part of tomorrow's tour. (Tony Tye, Post-Gazette)

"We're not trying to do the house exactly to period," Craig said. "It's not a museum."

The couple declined to say how much they spent for the house or its restoration, but they estimate it would have cost more than $100,000 to have it done by professionals.

"We're retired psychiatric social workers. We couldn't have done it," Craig said.

Fuess and Fleischman aren't independently wealthy either. Fuess is an archaeologist for Michael Baker Jr. Inc. and Fleischman is a visual apparel merchandising supervisor for Dick's Sporting Goods. Yet, in less than a year, they've created a place where a top-hatted gentleman and hoop-skirted lady would feel perfectly at home.

"I always wanted a house that had double doors and an entrance hall," said Fleischman, 36, who remembers admiring this house and others in Manchester when he visited as a child.

Growing up in Ross, he never expected to live in the city. But where else would his period collections look so authentic?

"David has a passion for jardinieres (planters). I like silver plate. We both like glass," said Fuess, 34.

Both also appreciate dark ornate furniture like the walnut etagere in the front parlor displaying vases and other decorative objects, delicate Victorian lamps and hanging fixtures with painted shades, and period draperies like the vintage tasseled portieres that hang in most of the first-floor doorways.

Many of the finest items come from Miles Douglas Galleries at Mahla & Co. Antiques in the Strip District, but the portieres can turn up almost anywhere.

"A lot of people don't know what they have," Fuess said. "You find them labeled 'throws.' "

But before they could hang the portieres and period prints, pastels and oil paintings, Fuess and Fleischman had to do some major restoration.

"The house was empty 15 years, but the neighbors tended to watch out for it. The mantels were still here and the plaster crown mold in the front hall. We were very fortunate -- a lot didn't have to be done," Fuess said.

The facade had been restored in the '80s and needed only a new paint job, but the interior sported travesties like pink stucco and brown and yellow paint on the black walnut staircase.

Some of the windows were replaced and the fir floors refinished. Four of the five gas fireplaces were made functional again and an early 1800s pine mantel was refinished to become the centerpiece of the new/old kitchen.

Restoration contractor John Hancock did the kitchen and other major work. Fuess and Fleischman did all the paint, wallpaper and "fine tuning," including leatherizing the Lincrusta wall covering in the hall and adding beadboard to an old kitchen cupboard that displays Fleischman's collection of 19th-century flow blue china.

After all this, they still found time to transform a backyard full of 6-foot-tall weeds into a beautiful urban garden, with a trellised archway, a fountain, seating areas and a goldfish pond surrounded by delphinium, clematis, scabiosa, butterfly bush, roses, hydrangeas, marigolds and much more.

The paths were created with found pavers and Belgium block that Fleischman's father had saved when this neighborhood was torn up for roadwork in the '70s -- from Manchester to the North Hills and back to Manchester.

Fuess, meanwhile, came from New York's Mohawk Valley to graduate school at the University of Pittsburgh and never left.

"We fell in love with this area," he said.

He's heartened to see others share his enthusiasm and buy old houses. And yes, he said, you can afford it.

"I'm frugal," Fleischman said. "We shopped for bargains in antique stores, looked in magazines. Bit by bit, we put this together. You can do a Victorian house in a historic area and make it look terrific."

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