Pittsburgh, PA
May 25, 2019
    News           Sports           Lifestyle           Classifieds           About Us
The Dining Guide
Real Estate Transactions
Mortgage Rates
Consumer Rates
Home >  Lifestyle >  Homes Printer-friendly versionE-mail this story
Homes with a history please new owners

Saturday, April 26, 2003

By Kevin Kirkland, Post-Gazette Homes Editor

After losing another house four days before closing, one couple were hoping for some pleasant surprises in their new home.

Ornate woodwork and a hardwood floor grace the dining room at John and Beth Straka's home on Beaver Street.

31st Sewickley House Tour

WHEN: 9 a.m. -- 4 p.m., 6 -- 9 p.m. Thursday; 9 a.m. -- 4 p.m. Friday

TICKETS: $55 for day bus tour and lunch Thursday; $25 for candlelight tour Thursday or self-guided day tour Friday.

INFORMATION: Child Health Association of Sewickley at 412-741-2593.

Sewickley House Tour: photo journal

The other couple wanted no surprises, choosing their house because it had already been "done" by the previous owners.

Both found what they wanted in century-old buildings in Sewickley, and you can see for yourself how well they worked out. The homes of John and Beth Straka and Greg and Susan Kaminski are among six open to the public next week for the 31st Sewickley House Tour.

When the Strakas bought "Wisteria" three years ago, it was a homecoming for John, who grew up in Sewickley and knew some of the home's former residents. The house, designed by prominent Pittsburgh architects Rutan and Russell, was built in 1894 for Edward O'Neil. O'Neil's legacy lives on in his initials gracefully carved into the chestnut mantelpiece in what is now the Strakas' family room. And his Irish ancestry is reflected in a large stained-glass window over the windowseat in the landing of the central staircase.

The Strakas learned from some neighbors the story illustrated in the window's simple iconography, of two brothers who must sail against each other to determine who will inherit their mother's kingdom. The red hand symbolizes one brother's desperate ploy, cutting off his hand and flinging it toward the shore so he would be the first to touch land.

The Strakas and their three children -- particularly their 10-year-old son -- love the gory, colorful tale, just one of the house's pleasant surprises. Others are the leaded-glass doors for the fumed oak cabinets in the gentlemen's parlor, found behind the furnace, and the beautiful and varied hardwood floors, most of which were hidden beneath carpeting.

Greg and Susan Kaminski's Colonial Revival on Cochran Street will be one of six homes open for the 31st Sewickley House Tour.

Beth chose a brighter-than- Victorian color palette for the interior. But on the exterior, they had painter John Brozda copy the earliest paint he could find, including a bottle green on the shutters.

The couple have made some small changes inside, adding an island with rangetop in the kitchen and removing a shower stall -- the only one in the house -- that had been shoehorned into a second-floor maid's closet. The rest of the 3 1/2 bathrooms feature the original tile, claw-foot tubs and pedestal sinks. Beth Straka said they have tried to maintain the home's period look and layout.

"We're more preservationists. If it was functional for a family 100 years ago, we're inclined to try to keep it that way," she says.

The Kaminskis, meanwhile, moved here three years ago from a small Mission-style home in California. Interested in living in the city, they looked in several city neighborhoods but didn't find one that suited them and that didn't need lots of work. Then they and their three girls discovered Sewickley, with its wealth of well-designed, older homes in many styles. Greg's mother, Frances, helped them find this early 1900s Georgian Colonial Revival designed by Joseph Ladd Neal and George M. Rowland.

"She said, 'I can see the girls walking down the stairs in their wedding gowns,' " Susan says, adding sadly that Frances died before they moved in.

The couple loved all the space and the fact that previous owners had taken such good care of it. They turned to designer Susan Friday to choose colors and furniture to fill it.

"This is a very formal house, but we are casual people," Susan says.

Friday's instincts transformed the dining room from a white and baby-blue hodgepodge to a bright yellow and white showpiece that nicely contrast their gilt and black French Empire candelabras and reproduction chandelier. Upstairs, Friday brought in decorative painter Joanie Summit Volpe to paint a jungle scene on the walls of 10-year-old Annie's bedroom and swag motifs in 13-year-old Jane's room.

As the Strakas found out, the large stained-glass window in the central staircase at "Wisteria" comes with quite a story.

One room needed nothing more than a new rug and window treatments. The living room features oak paneling and a wall of bookshelves backed by a whimsical faux book wallpaper. The unique sconces can be detached and carried to get a better look at the library's collection. Though obviously old, the paneling is apparently not original. The Kaminskis found photos in Carnegie Library showing the house's interior and exterior shortly after it was built, taken for its builder and first owner, engineer James Lyall Stuart.

The couple have come to appreciate Stuart's sturdy construction and attention to detail. Solid brick walls more than 1 foot thick mean that when Greg and Susan are watching TV in the sunroom/office, they can't hear the girls in their huge third-floor family room. But the walls also block wireless phone and Internet signals.

"I think we have a phone in every room. You walk into another room and you lose the signal," Greg said, laughing.

The kitchen, the only room that's not quite big enough for the family, is Greg's domain. A wine lover and TV sports fan, he had a TV and special wine cooler built into a wall of cabinets. On the older Garland commercial stove, he tries recipes from various cultures, including Italian, Japanese, Mexican, Thai and his native Polish.

"I like whatever Greg makes," Susan said.

Here in Sewickley, they and the Strakas have made old houses into homes, with their flavorful histories intact.

Kevin Kirkland can be reached at kkirkland@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1978.

Back to top Back to top E-mail this story E-mail this story
Search | Contact Us |  Site Map | Terms of Use |  Privacy Policy |  Advertise | Help |  Corrections