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Charm abounds in houses on Manchester tour

Saturday, June 14, 2003

By Gretchen McKay, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

If Kevin Higgins and wife Elizabeth Frazee had listened to their Realtor, they'd probably be relaxing today in a cute little house in the suburbs. Instead, they're standing knee-deep in construction debris in an 1890s row house in Manchester, trying to figure out where to find the proper hardware for a pair of 100-year-old pocket doors. But they also wouldn't be so deliriously happy.

The Victorian home of Tom Murphy, along with its landscaped garden just off the gourmet kitchen, is among the houses featured on the seventh annual Manchester House and Garden Tour. (Matt Freed, Post-Gazette)


Seventh annual Manchester House and Garden Tour

WHAT: A guided walking tour of six homes and two gardens in Manchester, North Side.

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. June 22.

TICKETS: $13, available on day of the tour at Conroy School on Page Street

EXTRAS: House and garden shop and light snacks.

INFORMATION: 412-321-7707 or www.manchesterhistoricsocietypa.com.

The restored home of their dreams -- as visitors to the seventh annual Manchester House and Garden Tour will discover June 22 -- is still several months and tens of thousands of dollars away.

The three-story house, one of six on the Manchester Historic Society's tour, is still little more than a jungle of framing and crumbled plaster with only a wire holding up the stair's handrail. Still, it's a hundred times better than when the Washington, D.C., transplants bought the house in March. Having been abandoned a decade ago after a long stint as Section 8 housing, "It looked like a bomb went off," recalls Higgins, 29, a bookseller and writer.

"It was really frighteningly squalid," agreed Frazee, 30, grimacing at the memory. "I didn't want to go past the kitchen."

Another house on the tour, the brightly colored Italianate row house belonging to Tom Murphy and Paula Hill, has already undergone a loving transformation. Here, amid the 100-year-old crown moldings, 12-foot ceilings and elegantly papered walls, you can pretty much picture what it would have been like to have lived in this middle-working-class community in the late 19th century.

The house was already in mint condition when Murphy, an English teacher at Shady Side Academy in Fox Chapel, purchased it in 1995. He and Hill were enchanted by the working pocket doors and marble mantels, not to mention the aged Tuscan glazing and faux-painted floors in the sunny yellow master bedroom.

"It was like, 'Wow,' " Murphy says. "We just fell in love, totally."

Seven years later, the love affair rages on. If anything, the couple, who have since decorated the Victorian with an eclectic mix of antiques, modern furniture, theater pieces and masks, are even more sure they made the right choice.

"There's such a strong sense of community here," says Murphy. "Everyone says hello." And you can't walk down the street without hearing the tap-tap sound of a hammer, a sure sign of the community's rebirth.

Higgins and Frazee say they will spend an estimated $150,000 on renovations above the $80,000 purchase price. But they still feel they got a bargain. Where else could you buy a solidly built, six-bedroom Victorian with all new wiring and plumbing and a modern kitchen?

"We liked the fact that we could own a house and still have enough resources left over to set up a life," says Higgins.

Kevin Higgins and his son Jack, 2, play in Jack's bedroom in the home they are restoring in Manchester. (Tony Tye, Post-Gazette)

It will, however, take some work. The roof and exterior were meticulously restored as part of the Liverpool Historic Brownstone Project, which involved Manchester Citizens Corp., Citizens of Manchester, Pittsburgh Housing Development Corp. and Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation. But the interior was little more than a shell when the couple first saw it. Higgins insisted that they tour all three floors, as well as the completely renovated house next door.

"The wheels just started turning," he says, smiling. "The possibilities seemed endless."

Frazee, a student at the Pennsylvania Culinary Institute, liked the fact that the house -- one in a row of six houses built in the 1890s -- was big. She was adamant that any new house have lots of space for their 2 1/2-year-old son, Jack, to stretch out in and grow.

While many of their neighbors have opted for meticulous Victorian restorations, the couple, who started construction at the end of April with John Hancock Contracting, have something a little more contemporary in mind. To accommodate a second-floor laundry and allow for a larger kitchen, for instance, they have removed the back servants' staircase and a couple of walls. They also eliminated inside access to the basement to make way for a powder room under the staircase.

Upstairs, one of the six bedrooms is being converted into a spacious master bathroom, complete with walk-in shower, separate room for the commode and skylight. The rear bedroom on the third floor -- maybe a library, maybe an office -- will eventually feature a roof deck as well as built-in bookcases on either side of a show fireplace.

In Tom Murphy and Paula Hill's home, a mannequin sits atop a speaker in the formal dining room. (Matt Freed, Post-Gazette)

"It'll be like a brand new house but with all the charm of an old house," says Higgins.

Murphy and Hill's house also exudes charm, though of a different nature. Built in the early 1870s, when Manchester was still part of Allegheny city, it boasts the expected accouterments of Victorian times -- hardwood floors, marble mantels and pocket doors. But it also reflects its owners' love of theater.

Masks decorate many of the walls, and a full-size mannequin wearing a pink lace dress perches on a speaker in the formal dining room next to a lamp crafted from an old church candlestick and a Tiffany-style, stained-glass shade. To the right, lighted shelves hold Hill's collection of beaded purses and antique shoes.

In the living room, a large gold-framed mirror Murphy found in Montreal hangs above a modern green leather sofa from Fox Chapel Interiors. The French hand-flocked screen in one corner, currently dressed with a bright red boa to add drama, dates from the 1800s. The stained-glass image of a woman in the front window was designed by Hunt Studios.

The master bedroom, with its dreamy glazed walls and ceiling, hand-painted window shades and faux-painted oriental rug, is very romantic. An 1850s Louis XIV gold-leaf mirror hangs above the wood-burning fireplace while a bright-red Chinese armoire that Murphy discovered at Hot Haute Hot holds the TV. Floral arrangements by Dee Gazdik add even more color.

"It doesn't matter what the season," says Murphy. "When you wake up, this is a cherry room."

It's the beautifully landscaped garden off the gourmet kitchen, however, that gets most of the attention in the warmer months. The first thing to bloom each February are two delicate Lenten rose plants. By the beginning of June, several varieties of clematis are climbing the wooden fence along the brick walkway.

Murphy, who often trades plants with neighbor Lisa Blackson, also boasts three different kinds of coral bells, hosta, amarillos, sweet woodruff, salvia and -- something he's extremely proud of -- night-blooming cereus, a member of the cactus family.

"The house is eclectic and so is the garden," he says.

Gretchen McKay can be reached at 412-761-4670 orgmckay@post-gazette.com .

Correction/Clarification: (Published June 17, 2003) The last name of floral arranger Dee Gazdik was misspelled in a story Saturday about homes on the Manchester House & Garden Tour. Also, it is a guided, rather than self-guided, tour.

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