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Restoration revealed 'amazing' details in house featured on Crafton holiday tour

Saturday, November 29, 2003

By Kevin Kirkland, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Neill Stouffer had lots of reasons not to buy this house. He was happily living in an Uptown condominium that he had renovated and redecorated. He knew nothing about Crafton, a tiny century-old borough with a smattering of grand old homes and many more pleasant but unspectacular ones. And this particular house was fairly ordinary outside, fairly filthy inside.

The circular staircase and its surrounding features proved to be the deal maker when Neill Stouffer was deciding to buy his 1938 house in Crafton. His Tudor home is among the six stops on next weekend's "Discover Christmas in Crafton" house tour, sponsored by the Crafton Historical Society. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette)
Click photo for larger image.

But then he saw it, two stories above a floating circular staircase -- a smooth plaster dome ringed with acanthus leaves, beading and ropelike molding.

"This was just ... This was amazing. I said, 'I want it.' "

Looking at the house 4 1/2 months later, you would want it, too. And Stouffer will share it with you, for one day, as part of the Crafton Historical Society's "Discover Christmas in Crafton" house tour. His 1938 Tudor will be one of six homes on the Dec. 7 tour and the site of the Dec. 6 gala for society members.

As director of design for Today's Home stores, Stouffer excels at making the most of sometimes plain interiors. But this time, his job was to reveal and maybe enhance the work of another decorator, George Leber, the home's first owner.

Leber, who worked for the Mellons, Heinzes and other prominent local families, had the home built for himself and his wife, Ada. Stouffer believes he must have "called in all his favors," using the very best craftsmen and a top architect, George M. Rowland, whose high style can be found in homes throughout the Sewickley Valley.

Stouffer, 42, has found much to admire in the home's design. He appreciates the way each of the drawing room's three large windows captures sunlight at a different time of day. Despite the rich mahogany veneer paneling, the room is never dark.

"There's just an amazing amber glow to it at dusk," Stouffer said.

His bum knee hates the many little steps that create seven distinct levels in the 2 1/2-story home. But his designer's eye loves the theatrical effect they create in the staircase landing.

"It's like a little stage," he said. "I feel like Mr. Norma Desmond [of "Sunset Boulevard"] walking up the stairs."

Stouffer also likes the many built-in niches for displaying knickknacks and the recessed radiators that preserve every inch of the home's 2,200 square feet.

Some of the house's unique features were hidden beneath dirt and clutter when he bought it in July. After several cleanings, Stouffer moved in, accompanied by a steady stream of contractors, including Malcon Builders of Bridgeville, Craft Heating & Cooling and George W. Humphreys & Sons Wallpaper, Painting and Restoration.

Stouffer bought his Crafton Tudor 4 1/2 months ago and has spent the time since then restoring it. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette)
Click photo for larger image.

One pleasant surprise found amid the clutter was Leber's gift to the restoration -- extra pieces of the original plaster molding, mahogany veneer and wallpaper. Working from a scrap of blue-and-white Japanese panoramic wallpaper, decorative artist Lynn Smith of Mt. Lebanon was able to hand-paint the dining room walls as they looked when the Lebers lived there. In the arched doorway, Smith also painted tassels to match the Scalamandre paper Stouffer chose for the walls of the staircase.

Based on a Leber relative's stories and several other discoveries, it's clear the Lebers enjoyed entertaining. The staircase's terrazzo steps and wrought-iron railing continue down to a basement family room, whose beaded paneling gave it its name on Rowland's plans: the Pine Room. In addition to a wood-burning fireplace (now converted to gas), it has a large exhaust fan to carry away cigarette smoke from the couple's bridge and martini parties. There's also a mini-bar built into the dining room wall.

He's intrigued by the house's blend of Tudoresque elements and 1930s-'40s design. The second-floor doors have no molding or visible hinges, and most are equipped with a pressure switch that turns on the light when they're opened. Then there's the master bathroom, smartly clad in black and lime green Carrara glass tile.

"It is supreme deco!" Stouffer said.

The designer/homeowner admits he didn't try to preserve all of Leber and Rowland's touches. He replaced the original linoleum in the powder room and master bath with marble and granite tile. And he converted Leber's tiny office off the kitchen to a breakfast nook with a bell-jar chandelier and glass and wrought-iron table and chairs.

"I didn't want to take away any of the character," Stouffer said. "But I have to live here."

Underneath a lot of dirt and grime, Stouffer, who is director of design for Today's Home stores, found details such as this carved wood trim next to the ceiling. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette)
Click photo for larger image.

He also hasn't tried to replicate the home's probable deco furnishings. The classical window treatments, wallpaper, rugs and furniture came from either Today's Home or Stouffer's personal stash of antiques and art. He inherited some pieces along with his taste for fine design from his late mother, Ann, whose oil portrait has a place of honor in the dining room.

The home's furnishings are a who's who of high-end design companies, including Schumacher, Scalamandre, St. Michele, Henredon, Baker and Drexel Heritage. Even without knowing this, a visitor can't help but notice little decorative touches that indicate a designer lives here. Who else would place a fruit-filled concrete urn on a ledge outside the kitchen window, just to look at while doing dishes? Stouffer found an even bigger urn to display an artificial Christmas tree in the drawing room.

 
 
Holiday House Tours

Decorated houses and museums are ready to host holiday tours

   
 

His favorite find, however, is this house.

"It has all the features of a great estate in a manageable size," he said.

Stouffer is enjoying getting to know his neighbors and this town, where some of the largest homes go for $300,000 or $325,000, but many sell for much less. He declined to say what he spent on the house and its renovation, but he believes he got in on the ground floor.

"Crafton is a little bohemian. There's definitely a rebirth," he said.

His friend Bruce Harshman, vice president of the historical society, agreed.

"Neill's home is a perfect example of why we titled the house tour 'Discover Christmas in Crafton.' There are still so many treasures yet to be found."


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

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