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A Pittsburgh high

Above Elliott, a neon-maker is turned on by the electrifying views from his renovatd home

Saturday, March 20, 1999

By Cristina Rouvalis, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Getting to the house that Fred Niepp Jr. rebuilt atop Elliott is a rough ride. Friends who try to follow Niepp's directions usually get lost in the maze of narrow, winding, hill-hugging streets. Some even wonder out loud: Is Niepp pulling some cruel joke?

Fred Neipp's bathroom has a great view of its own, looking down on the West End Bridge. (Tony Tye, Post-Gazette) 

So it's easier for everyone concerned if Niepp just meets his visitors at his neon shop on Main Street in the West End, and they follow him on his short but wild commute through dead-end streets.

But there's a big payoff. The tan brick-and-frame house is above the West End Bridge, giving a head-on view of the Point and sweeping panoramas of Mount Washington, South Side, North Side and beyond.

Not given to understatement, Niepp states, "This is the best view in the city of Pittsburgh. The best." It also makes a great view in reverse because every year Niepp puts up a 22-foot-high neon Christmas tree, a landmark from Downtown.

When Niepp bought the house 25 years ago, the killer view was practically the only thing that was intact.

"There was garbage everywhere. This thing was a disaster," he says, pulling out a photo album that shows a dingy little house with crumbling walls, lowered ceilings and a dilapidated porch.

People asked if he was crazy. After all, he was moving to a rundown 101-year-old house in the middle of nowhere and leaving a beautiful contemporary house in Ben Avon Heights designed by Peter Berndtson, a disciple of Frank Lloyd Wright.

But the second-generation neon-maker knew he could find a beautiful house somewhere in the mess. Niepp, 72, with a gravely voice and straightforward manner, is good with his hands. His wife, Sherry, an elementary school principal, has the artistic eye and likes to decorate.

Instead of building a modern house with huge windows that squeezed every inch out of the view, Niepp retained all the charm of a turn-of-the-century house while letting the view in.

Some restoration buffs talk about Georgian columns and Victorian bric-a-brac. Not Niepp. He tells offbeat stories about how he tracked down treasures for his house.

The Neipp residence in West End is a simple tan brick-and-frame house overlooking the West End. (Tony Tye, Post-Gazette) 

Like that delicate chandelier hanging over the kitchen table - it was a candelabrum he found in an antique shop for $40 and then rewired into an elegant lamp.

Or the white chairs in his third-floor family room. He scooped them up at the Gimbels' auction, one of many going-out-of-business sales that furnished his house.

Or the tiger oak floors in his study and the delicate cherub panels in his bedroom. In the early 1920s, his late father, Fred Sr., picked them up for a song at the demolition sale of the magnificent Highland Park mansion of Alexander Peacock, a partner of Andrew Carnegie.

And the funky walnut-rimmed tub that offers a great soak with a view? It was the original tub, but it had some holes, so Niepp patched it with dental enamel.

"Everything has a story," says Niepp, a master scavenger.

He also did a lot of heavy lifting during the past 25 years. He raised ceilings, added drywall, laid floor, stripped paint off beautiful old fireplace mantels, added windows, reconstructed a wraparound porch and put in a second-floor deck that leads from the master bedroom. He converted two of the three bedrooms into a big bathroom and study.

It didn't happen overnight. It took eight years just to renovate the first floor. The second-floor study was completed about 10 years ago, and the third-floor family room was completed about five years ago. And once they were finished, they started again. Sherry - whose name appears on a neon sign in the kitchen - just redecorated the first floor in a pale yellow scheme.

"It was a long, long, long drawn-out job," Fred Niepp says.

Restored fireplace and mantel is the centerpiece of the Niepp's sitting room. (Tony Tye, Post-Gazette) 

There were times when he agreed with his friends that maybe he was out of his mind to undertake such a massive renovation.

"I still wonder if I wasn't crazy. It probably should have been demolished. But we have a nice comfortable home we really like."

The house is filled with antiques and artwork and stained-glass windows, many of which point to the Point. The furniture is a mix of distinctive antiques, some new pieces from Linder's and even some Niepp creations - like the bar in the third floor that he cobbled together from wood he picked up at various sources.

"I wasn't made of money," he says. "But I have some fine pieces because I was able to do it myself."

Niepp calls his home a great party house.

"We have wonderful parties here. We had wonderful parties when it was under construction. If you spilled a drink, you didn't have to worry."

The one-bedroom house is small but has grandeur - something it lacked in its day. Railroader Edward Esplen, son of the riverboat captain who owned a bigger house behind it, bought it for $8,500, Niepp says.

"It was a standard old house. When they built it, they could care less about the view."

The out-of-the-way location has some disadvantages. There are no block parties, he says, or neighborhood spirit. But there are benefits to living in an address that no one can find.

"We live in the city and country," he says. "I counted 25 deer, wild turkey and rabbits galore."

But the biggest plus is the view. Fred Niepp has been looking down at the same view for 25 years and is still in awe.

"At night, you see lights moving, cars moving, emergency lights. In the day, you see people moving. Every time you look out, you see motion."

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