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Pittsburgh classroom turned into a loft that 'allows the ghosts to live on'

Saturday, May 25, 2002

By Gretchen McKay

Jennifer Rignani and her husband Jay were looking at lofts in 1997. And though it didn't look like much when she visited, Room A in South Side's old Bedford School got high marks for originality.

"The idea was so cool and original, we just had to have it," recalls Rignani, who immediately asked developer Joedda Sampson to hold the unit for her until her husband, who was out of town, could see it.

The entrance of the former school at 910 Bingham St. on Pittsburgh's South Side. (John Beale, Post-Gazette photos)

Sampson had rescued the 147-year-old red brick building from the wrecking ball a few months before and, in her first venture into multiunit housing, was in the process of converting the high-ceilinged space into 10 loft condominiums.

Sampson allowed her buyers to design their units according to their own taste and style. Architects Dutch MacDonald and Gary Carlough of EDGE studio in Friendship headed up the 3 1/2-month transformation, which Carlough says kept much of the original character and spirit of the original classrooms so as to "allow the ghosts to live on."

Now, with two new twin daughters, the Rignanis have put the two-bedroom condo on the market. It is priced at $137,000, with a $150 monthly maintenance fee.

Built in 1850, the Bedford School served thousands of school children before it closed its doors in 1954. By the time Joedda and Ben Sampson bought the Greek Revival-style building for about $350,000 in 1997, the structure -- which was being used as a salvage warehouse -- had been humbled by decades of neglect.

The Sampsons spent close to $1 million creating the Bedford School Lofts, one of the first loft projects in the city. That included restoring the red brick exterior, updating the plumbing and electrical lines, and repairing the furnace. In 1998, the Sampsons received a preservation award from the city Historic Review Commission for the school renovation.

Along with its high ceilings, the loft features a gourmet kitchen with custom wood cabinetry and stainless-steel appliances.

Along with the original maple floors and classroom door entrance, the main room of the 1,330-square-foot unit features, a pressed-tin ceiling, huge windows overlooking Bingham Street, the original wainscot and chair rail and six antique brass lighting fixtures with their original globes (discovered in the basement). Antique wooden shutters salvaged from an old Victorian mansion provide privacy but don't close out the sun.

In revamping this bright, spacious room, the Rignanis opted to sandblast the plaster off the walls, exposing the original brick. They also sandblasted the 13-foot ceiling, blackened over the years with a thick coat of dirt and soot, and painted the tin tan.

When they first saw the room, black slate chalkboards still lined the walls. The couple opted to remove all but a small section next to the kitchen area and closed up an opening to the main hallway.

Along with the historic, there is a touch of the contemporary. The gourmet kitchen, for example, boasts custom wood cabinetry, a ceramic tile center island and GE Profile Series stainless appliances (including an extra-large gas range and double-basin sink with garbage disposal). There is also a large pantry hidden behind one wall.

The first-floor bath features banana-yellow walls along with exposed brick and a walk-in tile shower big enough for two outfitted with a Hoensgroe showerhead. There is also a mirror from Perlora and Restoration Hardware hooks and fixtures.

A custom-built staircase with wrought-iron railings leads to the lower level, a small but private space divided into two carpeted rooms: a 13- by 13-foot master bedroom and an 11- by 13-foot guest room/office. The extra-large walk-in closet has enough room for two full adult wardrobes and features shelving from California Closets; a small laundry closet contains a full-size washer and dryer.

Additional storage is provided across the hall from the main entrance in the school's old boys' bathroom. The old playground behind the school provides secure off-street parking behind a remote-controlled gate.

The best thing about the condo, says Jennifer Rignani, is its careful balance between old and new. The spaciousness of the 20- by 30-foot main classroom makes it easy to "exhale," while the downstairs is extremely private, cozy and warm.

"It's the perfect combination of freedom," she says. "This is a fantastic space for entertaining, because it's so open."

Less than a mile from Downtown and within easy walking distance of the South Side's booming commercial district, the loft is ideal for empty-nesters, professional couples or singles. It also is across the street from the Oliver Bathhouse, the 1915 public pool built as a memorial to Henry Oliver.

"There's a real neighborhood feel to the space," says Rignani.

And when you feel the need to explore the great outdoors or simply get a little exercise, the nearby Eliza Furnace Trail, which stretches from Oakland to Downtown along the Monongahela River, offers 2 1/2 miles of paved pathway for bicyclists, pedestrians and joggers.

For information or an appointment to see the loft at 910 Bingham St., South Side, Unit A, call 412-732-2770 or visit the For Sale By Owner Web site at www.fsbo.com (listing No. 11663).

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

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