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Glassy townhouse, restored Victorian among the sights on Mt. Washington tour

Saturday, June 28, 2003

By Kevin Kirkland, Post-Gazette Homes Editor

If a house reflects its owner, Pat McCullum found her soul mate in this blue, beige and white Victorian. "This house is Pat -- very efficient and elegant," says her friend and Realtor, Darla D'Anna. So what then does Craig and Sherri Cozza's Grandview Avenue townhouse -- with lots of glass in front and their own personal gym in the back -- say about them? That they're a friendly couple with lots of energy?

Craig and Sherri Cozza's Mount Washington townhouse boasts the view that was ranked second best in the country by USA Weekend Magazine. The home is one of the stops on the first Mount Washington House Tour and Celebration. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette photos)

If you go...
Mount Washington Tour & Celebration

FEATURING: Eight homes, gardens and historic sites

WHEN: Party -- 7 to 10 tonight; tour -- 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. tomorrow

TICKETS: $50 for party at one home and tour; $12 for tour; tickets available Sunday at corner of Shiloh and Virginia avenues

INFORMATION: Mount Washington Community Development Corp., 412-481-3220

Well, that's true. But more importantly, both homes speak to the variety of dwellings on Mount Washington, which will be on display tonight and tomorrow in the neighborhood's first House Tour and Celebration.

Another home that shares the view that was recently named second best in the country by USA Weekend Magazine will be the site of tonight's preview party. Then, eight homes, gardens and historic public buildings will be open tomorrow for the tour.

The Cozzas were hurrying to get ready this week, moving stuff around to make room for new carpet and monitoring the contractors who have practically become members of the family over the past few years.

The couple was still tinkering with their huge gym/media room/garage when work started on their "son room" -- a nursery/sun room for the baby boy they're expecting in mid-September. The room is replacing one of three decks on the 7-year-old townhouse, one of four units in the building.

Craig Cozza, 39, was single and living in the Trimont when he "found this place and fell in love with it." He loved its windows of many shapes and sizes, all combining to give the couple not only a panorama postcard of Downtown but also an instant traffic report and weather forecast.

"You can see the storms coming up the river," Craig says.

Of course, they also have a great view of July Fourth fireworks, not only Downtown but also in the surrounding South Hills. Stadiums, bridges, rivers and major roads are all visible from the living room, study and kitchen, which are decorated in contemporary style with a few antiques thrown in. Curving wrought iron and steel are everywhere, all designed by Craig's brother, Frank, an architect in San Diego. He also drew the plans for the monumental addition that pushed the home's living space to nearly 4,000 square feet.

Craig says it started humbly as a two-car addition to the condominums' shared three-car garage, to add to the resale value of his unit. The hilly terrain suggested a basement and, finally, a large living area above what had become a five-car garage.

"My brother said, 'Craig, it's just walls and a roof,"' he remembers, laughing.

Pat McCullum's restored1895 Victorian was once the home of Sara Soffel, the first female judge in Pennsylvania.

Craig, president of Alex Development Co., said he thought of a gym because he had trouble finding time to work out and wanted a place to spend time with his daughter, Alex, 8, who visits often from Indianapolis. The result is a dramatic space about one-third the size of a full court with a maple floor and NBA regulation basket, media room/bedroom and full bath. The addition of a pool table and bar cut down on play space a bit, but, Craig says, there's still just enough room for a two-on-two game.

The heavy metal bar, designed by Craig's brother, features a textured glass counter and sink made by Emerald Art Glass. Craig was so enamored of the counter's translucent glass that he plans to use it on the facade of Bella Vista, a luxury condominium high-rise his company is developing nearby. He and Sherri poured and dyed the concrete bar top the shade of their favorite vacation spot, the red rock country of Sedona, Ariz., which happens to be the place that nudged out Mount Washington for most beautiful view in America. Sherri, 34, a mid-day radio personality on WSHH-FM (99.7), painted the same color on the walls of their master bedroom, which boasts one of four gas fireplaces and a corner whirlpool tub.

Sherri says the only downside to owning a home with the second-best view in America is all the tourists who come to share it.

"A lot of people take pictures of our house," she says as knots of visitors pass by below on their way to the overlooks and inclines.

The couple are grateful for the large maple that provides a buffer between their mostly unadorned windows and passers-by. But its leaves can hardly obscure the city spread out below, or the sky above.

"With all these windows, the weather sets the mood for the day," Sherri says.

McCullum, who lives several blocks away on Greenbush Street, has a better view from her deck of the sky and her gardens than of Downtown, which pokes out from behind a stand of slippery elms, locust and other tall trees. There's a good reason they call this tour, intended to be an annual event, "A Different Point of View."

Downtown Pittsburgh and the South Hills can be seen from many points in the Cozzas' home, including the living room.

"I like to come out early in the morning. The clouds change, the sun comes out. It's really beautiful," says McCullum, who moved to this restored 1895 Victorian 15 years ago. It was an interior view that drew her, however.

"I saw a picture of the entrance hall and zoomed over," she says, noting its beautiful oak fretwork and stairs.

Luckily for her, the house's previous owners had spent more than a year restoring the house. Then the husband was transferred. She decided to rent out the first floor and live on the second and third. The second floor contains a kitchen and two bedrooms that have been combined to create one large living/dining room with matching fireplaces. The third floor has a full bath and three cozy bedrooms under the eaves.

"I love these slopey ceilings and all these angles," McCullum says. "There are views from every window."

Simple white walls contrast with the original, dark-stained woodwork and her traditional furnishings. Floral arrangements and classical music playing softly in the living room add to the home's quiet elegance. McCullum says she didn't volunteer to be on the house tour; she was volunteered by fellow members of the Mount Washington Community Development Corp., the event's organizer.

"Other board members said, 'Your house has to be on the tour,"' she says, laughing.

Pat McCullum's home and garden, which gets visits from Tuxedo, a neighbor's cat, is also on the house tour.

Shortly after moving here, McCullum discovered that her house had once belonged to another gracious woman, Sara Soffel, the first female judge in Pennsylvania. From 1930 to 1962, Soffel served first as an Allegheny County Court judge and later as Common Pleas judge. She was born on adjacent Shiloh Street and moved with her family to this house when she was 4. Never married, she lived here nearly all her life with her sisters. And yes, her father was related to Allegheny County Jail Warden Peter Soffel, whose wife, Kate, famously helped condemned murderers Ed and Jack Biddle escape in 1902.

Only their last name links the women, McCullum says. She is protective of her predecessor's memory.

"The judge did not run off with the Biddle boys," she says firmly.

She speaks just as fondly of her house, which weathered the tornado of 1998 better than many of its modern neighbors. The twister ripped off many roof slates and toppled both tall chimneys. McCullum's insurance paid for a new slate roof and to have the chimneys rebuilt.

The tornado also stole some of her trees and part of her garden, which stretches from the back and side of the house down a hillside to the site of Soffel's birthplace on Shiloh. Today, McCullum tends coneflowers, black-eyed Susans and other perennials there in a small shaded garden beside a stacked-stone wall. Only one other creature shares this placid view, a deep-voiced neighborhood cat named Tuxedo.

"He comes to talk to me when I'm gardening," she says. "He leaps out from behind the plants trying to scare me."

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

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