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Allegheny West resident plays detective in restoration of former mansion

Saturday, May 26, 2001

By Patricia Lowry, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Last year, Louis DePellegrini solved a vexing neighborhood problem when he purchased the nuisance apartment building next door to his Allegheny West home. Now he has a different problem: He wants to restore the former mansion at 835 N. Lincoln Ave., which had been chopped into 20 apartments -- one per room -- in the early 1950s. But he can only guess at what the facade, which has been stripped of its porch and brutally modernized with casement windows, might have looked like.

Louis DePellegrini, standing in the doorway of a former mansion on North Lincoln Avenue, is in search of a photograph of the building that will help him replicate the original facade. (Andy Starnes, Post-Gazette)

DePellegrini, a vocational counselor at Mayview State Hospital, is hoping someone, somewhere, has a photograph of the house John Frazier built between 1864 and 1867, when North Lincoln Avenue (then Allegheny City's Central Street) was blossoming with mansions and middle-class houses.

When DePellegrini had the drab gray paint stripped from the house, the mangled facade began yielding clues, revealing the outlines of the original arched window hoods and the iron balconies at the base of the first-floor windows. They confirmed that the house was designed, by an unknown architect, as a five-bay, Italianate villa.

"This building started to speak to me," said DePellegrini, who tried for three years to buy the house. "I used to have dreams about it and how it would look."

 
 

To contact Louis DePellegrini with information about his house, write to him at P.O. Box 235, Bridgeville 15017.

   
 

Inside, a central hall leads to a double parlor and kitchen on the right and a library and dining room on the left. Beyond this original part of the house stands a large brick addition, which added six rooms to the house sometime between 1872 and 1882.

In the 1950s conversion to apartments, the house lost its mantels and doors and almost all of its interior woodwork. Over the past eight months, DePellegrini and a few helpers have gutted the house, removing dropped ceilings, partition walls and 20 kitchens and baths.

On the plus side, the original staircase and newel post remain, along with enough plaster crown molding and ceiling medallions and the ghosted outlines of woodwork to replicate what had been there.


 
 
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Still, the word "daunting" doesn't begin to do this project justice.

"This really doesn't scare me," DePellegrini said in the entrance hall, where a narrow strip of embossed wallpaper hints at the home's long-ago elegance.

Emboldened and somewhat enriched by 14 past North Side restorations and renovations, DePellegrini has a lot of fortitude and a little nest egg for the recovery of what could be called the Frazier-Watson House.

"It really goes from the worst of all situations to the best of all situations," said John DeSantis, chairman of the city's Historic Review Commission and DePellegrini's around-the-corner neighbor on Brighton Road.

"All of the things that were negative about this property haven't just reversed to neutral, but are going positive. To have an angel come along who wants to do it for himself, and put the money, effort and love into this project, you just look up and say 'Thank you, one more.' "

An Allegheny West resident since 1977, DeSantis has seen the neighborhood come back to an extent he could not have anticipated 20 years ago.

"Allegheny West is blessed and cursed with these very large, mansion-size houses" that were either demolished or, like DeSantis' Holmes Hall, subdivided into small apartments. Today, he said, only two of the former mansions remain "white elephant" apartment buildings. Both are in DePellegrini's block, and one, located next to his house, is on the market.

According to a house history researched and written by old-house historian Carol Peterson, John Frazier was a master carpenter who, with brothers George and William, founded Frazier Brothers, a construction business, in about 1865.

The firm was well positioned to take advantage of the city's thriving post-Civil War economy, building commissioned and speculative houses in Allegheny City and operating a factory and lumber yard with 100 full-time employees.

Frazier shared the house with his wife, Eleanor; their daughters, Elizabeth and Ella; and servants Amanda McKain and Betsy Grant. The latter two would have slept on the third floor, with a view of North Lincoln Avenue from the narrow band of windows under the eaves. Eleanor's parents, Dr. John and Elizabeth Cowden, also began living in the house in about 1870, but the entire family moved out in 1875, when Frazier sold the house to glass manufacturer and banker Mark W. Watson.

Watson and his second wife, Harriet Marshall Watson, lived in the house in 1880 with their four children -- Mary, Harriet, Julia and Amy -- plus two adult children from Watson's first marriage, Margaret and John. Five servants, including a driver, nurse, chambermaid and cook, also lived there.

On Oct. 11, 1893, the big house had one of its biggest days, hosting the wedding of Julia Watson and Bernard Horne, son of department store owner Joseph Horne. In her research, Peterson uncovered a Pittsburgh Press society column that described the mansion's interior and "the shower of blossoms that in honor of this happy day has transformed the rich, dark rooms of the Watson house into a veritable bower of floral beauty."

The dining room, The Press reported, "is a mahogany room where in the polished wood are inserted immense cabinets of the same [wood] glistening with silver and china. Above, finishing the wall to the ceiling, is a stamped Tyne castle tapestry. ... The stairway is close at hand, winding down from a great window above."

Watson, who outlived both his wives, died in 1909 at age 81, and by 1920 the house had been converted into seven apartments by his descendants, who sold it in 1925. The house had six more sales in its future, but never again was it a single-family home.

DePellegrini plans to change that, making the original, 1860s house his own home and turning the rear addition into a separate two-story townhouse.

Louis DePellegrini has found an old door from the Allegheny West mansion he is renovating. (Andy Starnes, Post-Gazette)

He has called on all the usual suspects in trying to track down a photograph of the house and now wonders if someone might have snapped a picture of it when photographing a wedding at the nearby now-demolished North Presbyterian Church.

It's also possible a descendant of the Frazier, Watson or Horne families, or anyone else who lived there before the 1950s remodeling, might have a photograph of the house.

In the meantime, DePellegrini commissioned Pittsburgh architect Bill Joyce to design a facade based on the available evidence and the facades of similar houses.

DeSantis' Holmes Hall, in the Renaissance Revival style, provided some inspiration for DePellegrini and Joyce, who borrowed from it the arched pediment over the central, projecting pavilion. DePellegrini found some internal evidence for such a treatment.

Together, architect and client researched 19th-century pressed-tin builders' catalogs for the design of the facade's window hoods.

"It was strictly detective work," Joyce said.

And while the facade design was approved by the Historic Review Commission, "it's still something of a moving target."

And will remain so unless and until a photograph comes to light.

Thursday, May 24, 2001

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