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Choose holiday trimmings that complement your home's architecture

And, above all, please yourself when decorating

Saturday, December 06, 2003

By Gretchen McKay, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

When it comes to trimming a turn-of-the-century house for Christmas, many people opt for the fussy swags and excessive ornamentation that were so popular during the late 1800s. The Victorians were famous for overdecorating, so it only makes sense to follow that tradition. Right?

In the Allegheny West home of Richard LeBeau and Dr. Michael White, a Nutcracker holiday set graces a Baldwin grand piano in the parlor. (Bill Wade, Post-Gazette)
Click photo for larger image.

Well, not necessarily. Sometimes less is actually more.

What you should do when decking out an old house for the holidays, says Richard LeBeau, is choose decorations that complement your home's architecture. That, and fill your home with items you truly love and which mean something to you.

"People get confused and try to do too many things," says LeBeau, co-owner of an 1880s Italianate rowhouse on the North Side. "But there's no sense in trying to reinvent the wheel."

The Galveston Avenue home he shares with Michael White is a perfect example. Built for a middle-class family, the three-story house is on the plain side architecturally, save for high ceilings, reclaimed red oak floors and a pair of elegant marble fireplaces on the first floor. So when the pair opens their door to the public next weekend as part of the Old Allegheny Victorian Christmas House Tour, don't expect to see a towering pine bedecked with dozens of hand-blown Christmas decorations or lavish, velvet-draped windows.

There's plenty of fresh greenery winding up the staircase and atop the mantels, of course, along with poinsettias, compotes filled with shiny red and gold Christmas balls, and a velvet-ribboned mistletoe "kissing ball" in the foyer that a friend made for LeBeau more than 20 years ago.

White juniper decorates the living room mantel in the LeBeau-White home. (Bill Wade, Post-Gazette)
Click photo for larger image.

"I'm from the South," he explains with a grin.

But mostly, the Christmas pleasures will be understated, enhancing rather than obscuring the couple's eclectic mix of furnishings and spectacular art collection. Be sure to peek into the powder room. Along with more than a dozen pieces of art, it features a dazzling Biedermeier-style vanity custom-crafted from burl maple and Macassar ebony by Brian Miller of Past & Present Design Studio in the Strip District.

As White, a physician, explains: "Because our house is plainer, we're not locked into high Victorian decor. We're building on its good bones."

A much-loved Nutcracker holiday set that LeBeau discovered in Louisville graces a Baldwin grand piano in the stylish parlor. An Empire-style Swanson grand pedal harp dresses up a corner of the mirrored dining room. And the table has been merrily set with a raw silk runner, tall red candles and Venetian gold chargers topped with holiday earthenware and faux sugared pears. The gourmet kitchen is primed for the season with a small Christmas tree decorated with pheasant feathers, glass beaded spikes and tiny white lights.

"Don't be afraid to mix and match," advises LeBeau, a musician and bass-baritone with the Pittsburgh Opera.

In the Anglebergers' historic home in Brighton, Beaver County, a pastel Christmas tree decorated with tiny, hand-painted Nativity ornaments gives the living room some color. (CREDIT, Post-Gazette)
Click photo for larger image.

Other old-house owners follow the same philosophy.

Keith and Beth Battaline, whose two-story Greek Revival is among six renovated homes on tomorrow's Edgewood Holiday House Tour, also decorate in a way that allows the intrinsic beauty of their home to shine through. Constructed in the 1870s, it features multilayered molding around the door frames and gorgeous original pine floors. A punched tin angel and a pair of beaded silver Christmas trees swathed in handmade wrapping paper from Ten Thousand Villages in Squirrel Hill adorn the marble living room mantel. Underneath, a festoon of magnolia leaves and heather reinforces the color scheme on the rag-painted green walls.

Christmas balls adorn family photos on a nearby table and a bookcase holds a small collection of Santas, including a starfish Santa made by Beth's aunt. The staircase banister, wrapped in fresh greens and white lights, is dotted with white felt doves and glittery gold stars.

Not only does such understated elegance allow Beth, a speech therapist, to keep some of the decorations up long past Christmas, but it respects the home's history. George Hetzel, considered one of Pennsylvania's most significant landscape, portrait and still-life painters of the 19th century, lived in the house in the 1870s and 1880s. Its decor is kept simple "in deference to him."

Beth Battaline gets her home ready for tomorrow's Edgewood Holiday House Tour. (John Beale, Post-Gazette)
Click photo for larger image.

"There's a touch in each room," Beth says.

Of course, it wouldn't feel like Christmas without a gaily decorated tree. A tall fir strung with white lights and hung with antique ornaments and ribbons takes center stage in the family room.

Family and tradition are important here, as evidenced by the many decorations that have been handed down over the years. As a child, Beth played with the cardboard winter scene displayed in the living room. And a basket of felt birds in the pool room decorated her childhood Christmas trees. How about that charming felt Santa face hanging above a writing desk in the front hall? It was purchased for her father with cigar rings when he was 2 years old.

In keeping with this year's theme of peace, Beth has framed poems from "Earth Prayers From Around the World" and scattered them around the house. She also placed a banner with the word "peace" in different languages in front of the living room fireplace.

Holiday decorations at the Battaline home reflect a consciously simple approach. (John Beale, Post-Gazette)
Click photo for larger image.

"Christmas has gotten too commercial," she says. "We need to spend more time on acceptance and things like that."

Family heirlooms and much-loved collections also take center stage in the Civil War-era home of the Revs. Gary and Judy Angleberger in Brighton, Beaver County, one of six homes on tomorrow's 17th annual SS. Peter & Paul's Christmas Candlelight House Tour.

The plantation-style house -- built in 1850 for Judge E. J. Wilson -- boasts an amazing collection of antiques, including a cherry Chippendale slant-top desk dating from the 1770s, an armoire made from mahogany imported from the French West Indies in the 1880s and a marbletop rosewood dresser from 1865.

Kerr Museum holiday tours

A restored Victorian home and doctor's office in Oakmont will be open for special Christmas tours beginning today.

The Kerr Memorial Museum, 402 Delaware Ave., was built in 1897 by Dr. Thomas R. Kerr and restored by local volunteers. In addition to the period rooms, the museum will display Victorian and Ed- wardian toys, including the doll collection of Anne Genter and Suzanne Friday of Sewickley.

Hours are 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. today and Dec. 13, 20 and 27. Dec. 13 is also children's day, with children's tours and hands-on activities. Admission is $8 for adults, $7 for seniors age 60 and older and $3 for children during the holidays.

Reservations are recommended. Group tours (10 or more persons) for days and times other than those listed above may be arranged by contacting the museum at 412-826-9295 or


"It fits the house," says Judy, minister of Steffin Hill Presbyterian Church in Beaver Falls.

The house's holiday decorations are subtle and spring from what the Anglebergers hold dear instead of something ripped from the pages of a magazine: a collection of blue Bing and Grondahl's Jule After Christmas plates, glass angels, wreaths, stockings and in their son's bedroom, wooden Nutcrackers. Sprinkled throughout the house are the 50 Nativity scenes Judy has collected from around the world since 1970, including a hand-carved one from Germany and a painted clay set from Provence, France, for which townspeople served as models. The quilted nativity was made by a member of Judy's church.

The mantel in the walnut-paneled library holds the couple's chalice collection (one came from the Vatican) and is crowned by a picture of the house from 1876.

A pastel Christmas tree decorated with tiny, hand-painted Nativity ornaments gives the living room some color, while a cookie-cutter tree in the rustic kitchen provides a touch of country-style whimsy. The lace-bedecked white pine tree in the knotty-pine family room was grown on the property's five acres, another family tradition.

The tree is far from perfect, but that's what makes it fun.

"Our kids call them our Charlie Brown trees," says Judy.

The nativities and some of the Angleberger's other seasonal touches stay up year-round.

"I'm not trying to make a look for someone else," Judy says. "I decorate with what gives me a sense of joy, beauty and pleasure."

For information on the Edgewood and SS. Peter & Paul's tours tomorrow, call 412-731-0909 and 724-775-0480, respectively. For information on the Old Allegheny tour on the North Side, call 412-323-8884.

Gretchen McKay covers homes and real estate for the Post-Gazette. She can be reached at 412-761-4670 .

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