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Homes of character: Friendship tour to showcase architecturally interesting houses

Saturday, September 09, 2000

By Gretchen McKay, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Paul and Diana Dolan knew exactly what they wanted in a home when they relocated from Hawaii to Pittsburgh in 1992: one of those big, architecturally interesting houses for which the city is known. The only question was where. Then they stumbled upon the four-story, turn-of-the-century Colonial Revival on South Fairmount Street in Friendship.

"I just fell in love with the woodwork and its size," says Diana Dolan of the house she and her husband Paul bought in 1992 on Fairmont Avenue. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette photos) 

Just one look was enough. From the moment they toured the home, built in 1904 for $15,000 for Pittsburgh contractor Thomas McNally, "it was our house," recalls Diana, who grew up in Brookline.

It hardly mattered that the house, like many of the older homes in this small East End neighborhood, had been cut into eight apartments. Nor did it matter that most of the original pocket doors had been ripped out and replaced with industrial-strength metal doors, or that the elaborate oak woodwork in the entry hall and library had been painted with several coats of "poo brown." The Dolans couldn't help but see its potential.

"I just fell in love with the woodwork and its size," says Diana.

Just as appealing was the neighborhood's mix of people. Everyone is warmly welcomed into the fold, she says, no matter what his or her background -- whites and blacks, homeowners and renters, foreigners and native Pittsburghers.

"There is a super community spirit," says Diana, who has spent the past eight years working with her husband, a chimney sweep, to restore the house to its original grandeur. "If there's a common thread, it's that everyone has been working for the past 10 years to make things even better."

Writer Doug Root was similarly entranced by Friendship's century-old architecture and diversity when, as Mayor Murphy's new director of communications, he began looking for the required city digs a little more than a year ago.

Unlike the Dolans, however, Root ultimately settled on one of the neighborhood's more petite, but just as historically significant, dwellings -- an 1890s carriage house on South Winebiddle. Converted to an apartment sometime in the mid '30s, what was once an old hayloft now features French doors off the kitchen, stained-glass windows and wide-plank pine flooring.

In the living/dining room area of an 1890s carriage house in Friendship, writer Doug Root stripped the floors and painted the burlap-covered walls a Southwestern-inspired Aztec gold. (John Heller, Post-Gazette) 

"There's something about these places, with all their nooks and crannies and the way the rooms all fall into one another," says Root. "It's really charming."

Twenty years ago, all three probably would have passed over Friendship, an ethnically and socially diverse neighborhood bounded by Bloomfield, East Liberty and Garfield. Though it boasted dozens of three- and four-story houses dating to the turn of the century, relaxed zoning laws in the '60s and '70s -- and the subsequent profusion of absentee landlords -- had allowed many of the houses to fall into disrepair. Over the years, some had been stripped of their original woodwork, windows, mantels and other defining details and carved into apartment buildings and rooming houses.

Thanks to the efforts of Friendship Development Associates and its sister organization, Friendship Preservation Group, the neighborhood is in the midst of a revitalization. Both groups work to promote Friendship's architecture, affordability and diversity through strategic real estate development and community advocacy.

That includes an annual house tour, which this year will be held Sept. 17. and feature eight of the neighborhood's most interesting homes, including the Dolans' and Root's, as well as two city gardens.

Because so many of its residents are employed in the arts -- as writers, painters, sculptors, actors -- Friendship, named by a descendent of William Penn, is sometimes called Pittsburgh's Little Bohemia.

"There's a saying here that you can't throw a stone in Friendship without hitting an architect," says Root with a laugh.

With 7,000 square feet of living space to play with -- and thousands of dollars in repairs on the horizon -- the Dolans decided to revamp two apartments on the third and fourth floors and keep them as rental units. Then they set about reorganizing and restoring the rest of the house for single-family living.

"I'll never forget it. The first time I walked through the house, there was a woman cooking french fries in what is now the living room," says Diana, laughing.

The house, which was home to the Pittsburgh College of Chiropractic between 1914 and 1921, needed all new wiring and plumbing. In addition, all of the windows had to be stripped and repaired and new box gutters put in. The Dolans also set about stripping the woodwork and pulled down the plasterboard covering the large entryway, which had been robbed of its original leaded glass about 10 years earlier.

While the house is Victorian in flavor, with 10-foot ceilings and dark woodwork, the furnishings are not. In the formal dining, for example, stands a large display case with the Dolans' collection of fossils, gathered on trips to Cody, Wyo. The heavy, Gothic furniture reminiscent of an English castle came from an auction in Ohio. The 6-foot chandelier over the table, part of which was discovered in a Cape Cod hotel that was being demolished, was custom-crafted by John Walter of Iron Eden.

"We stuck it in our trunk and hauled it all the way back," says Diana.

While the pale-yellow and sage kitchen features new cherry cabinetry and beautifully refinished pine floors, it also boasts a vintage Chambers gas stove from the '40s -- complete with griddle top and soup well -- discovered in The Pennysaver. The countertops, crafted from wood from an old bowling alley, were salvaged from a neighbor's basement.

The back staircase in the adjoining breakfast room, which features a large collection of African masks as well as another case of fossils, was walled over when the Dolans moved in; they opened it up and installed a railing and newel post rescued from an old church in McKeesport.

Luckily, some of the original architectural details remained: the parquet floors, each room with a different, inlaid pattern; the built-in bookcases in the library and dining room; the mahogany paneling in the "big" living room. There is also one surviving stained-glass window in the library, above a large window seat the couple built to disguise a ruined floor (sink space for a former tenant).

"It's like a tease," Diana says with a sigh.

Root's apartment, built in the late 1800s by prosperous tailor Fred Maeder, also boasts many details from the past, such as 27-inch doorways, narrow stairs and a wood-burning stove in the living/dining room. The cottage-style stained-glass windows at the front of the house most likely replaced wooden shutters.

But there are some more modern touches, too. Upon moving in, Root stripped the floors, covered with multiple layers of golden yellow paint, down to the original pine. He also painted the "drab, renters beige" burlap-covered walls in the main living area a Southwestern-inspired Aztec gold and the trim, forest green.

"I saw the colors at a coffee house in New Mexico and loved it," says Root.

In the large kitchen, owner Fred Noel, stage manager for Pittsburgh Public Theater and a Friendship resident since 1994, pulled up the many layers of linoleum and hired Gregg Rieder of R&R Hardwoods to tint the original plank flooring a warm plum color. The original built-ins over the sink are painted eggplant purple.

In the office is a drugstore apothecary chest Root discovered in an antique store in Wexford. The two metallic tile boxes serving as tables among the Mission-style Stickley furniture in the living room once served as display boxes at the old Horne's department store. The metal steamer trunk near the stove came from the Antique Fair at the Meadows in Washington County.

A steep set of stairs painted picnic-basket yellow, mauve and green lead to the loft bedroom under the eaves; Root hopes to one day turn the large, teepee-shaped storage area off to the side into a luxurious bathroom, complete with a whirlpool tub. The current bathroom, just off of the kitchen, features a pedestal sink and step-down shower in the tub.

"There's amazing kinds of spaces in this house," he says.

The Seventh Annual Friendship House Tour runs from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sept. 17. The self-guided tour begins at Fourth Presbyterian Church at the corner of Roup and Friendship avenues and takes between 21/2 and 31/2 hours. You can drive or walk between sites, or hop on a narrated trolley at any point along the tour route.

Tickets cost $12 in advance ($11 for groups of 10 or more) or $15 the day of the tour at the following locations: Allure, 4730 Penn Ave.; Bloomfield Artworks, 4533 Liberty Ave.; Leone's Floral Shop, 5504 Centre Ave.; or Friendship Development Associates, 5530 Penn Ave. For more information or to reserve tickets, call 412-441-6147.

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