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A beautiful recovery

Couple attacks neglected home in Point Breeze and makes its craftsmanship stand out once again

Saturday, April 10, 1999

By Kevin Kirkland, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Having a nice house sometimes means making sacrifices. Donna and Jeff Martin remember having to choose between vacations and more work on their 1912 Craftsman-style home in North Point Breeze.

When Donna and Jeff Martin first saw their first 1912 Craftsman-style house, it was no work of art, with rotting woodwork and layers of wallpaper. After two years of thoughtful updating, the North Point Breeze couple has restored most of the house's charm. The Martin's chose Shaker-style cabinets and granite countertops for their kitchen. (Bob Donaldson, Post-Gazette) 

"Jeff would say, 'Bahamas?' I would say, 'Bathroom,' " Donna recalled.

Apparently, she always won. The couple hasn't taken a big vacation since they were married 21/2 years ago, but they now live in a showpiece of turn-of-the-century craftsmanship with a few beautiful updates.

When they first saw the house two years ago, however, it was no work of art.

"To be honest, nothing interested me," said Jeff, remembering a dark, foreboding structure with rotten exterior trim and several layers of wallpaper covering nearly every wall and ceiling.

But Donna saw possibilities in its hardwood floors, dark oak woodwork, built-in leaded-glass cabinets and seven fireplaces. And she was enchanted by the wainscoted dining room and the cozy windowseat in the second-floor landing, surrounded by stained glass. They looked at other houses in Point Breeze, Highland Park and the North Side but returned to this one several months later, and found it was still for sale.

"I kept saying we're not going to get another house like that," said Donna, who grew up in Homestead.

They got the house for $86,000, knowing they would have to spend between $100,000 and $140,000 more to make it a home. They began with the exterior, having the rotted soffits and fascias replaced and all the trim painted creamy white. Luckily, all the original brackets, a signature of the Craftsman or Arts and Crafts style, were still solid and are now highlighted with a blue stripe. They also were able to save all 58 original windows with heavy wooden mullions, although restoration contractor John Hancock had to replace 37 panes. Replacement windows were not even considered.

"Show me what cruddy vinyl replacement window will be around for 80 years like these were," said Hancock, an old house expert recommended to the Martins by a friend.

Hancock, whose company is based on the North Side, has worked on many Craftsman homes there and in other city neighborhoods. He said the Martins' house, which was supposedly the winter home of a steel mill executive, is one of the best.

  The hardwood floors (detail of living room corner) got a much needed refinishing. (Bob Donaldson, Post-Gazette)

"You don't find many that were this grand," he said.

Among the house's unique features are a roof with a gentle upsweep at the edges, glass-and-wood pocket doors that mimic the leaded-glass entry, and oak floors with a different inlaid border in every room. More typical Craftsman characteristics include 10-foot ceilings, seven different fireplace mantels, some original gas and electric sconces, a front sunroom/conservatory and stained or painted Tudor-style paneling in most of the rooms and hallways.

Hancock credited the Martins with recognizing the house's potential despite its general disrepair. But these weren't old house rookies. Before this, they had renovated seven homes in Homewood, Hazelwood, Wilkinsburg and other eastern towns as rental property. Besides being handy, Jeff, 33, is an expert at arranging financing through his employer, Allegiance Mortgage Group of Oakland. Donna, 32, is a speech therapist at Pittsburgh Public Schools' Colfax Elementary who is as good at stripping wallpaper as she is at sewing cushions and drapes.

But even she admitted having some doubts, especially after a day of hacking away at the 2-4 layers of heavy old wallpaper that blanketed every plaster surface.

"I kept saying 'We can do this.' But I looked at Jeff and said, 'I don't think we can do this,'" she said.

For a year after buying the house, the couple continued to live in a 1940s home in Polish Hill they had renovated years before. When they weren't stripping wallpaper or cleaning woodwork, they were watching as Hancock and his crew patched plaster, made repairs and replaced the furnace and all the plumbing and wiring. They had the most fun, they said, planning and watching unfold the two major updates - the kitchen and the master bathroom.

On the exterior, they replaced deteriorating soffits and fascias and gave the house a cheerful facelift with fresh creamy white paint, accenting the Craftsman-style brackets with contrasting blue stripes. (Bob Donaldson, Post-Gazette) 

The couple is proudest of the open, woody and contemporary room they created where a dark, cramped 1950s kitchen had been. Removing a wall and hallway leading to a side door expanded the kitchen to 15 by 19 feet, room enough for a commercial-size Jenn-Air stove, large, stainless steel-fronted KitchenAid refrigerator and an L-shaped, granite counter with a dining island and stools. Rising high up most of the walls are stock cherry cabinets from Merillat Industries dressed up with a cornice of rope and crown molding. A hutch with built-in wine rack dominates the back wall.

"Jeff loves to cook," his wife said of the Homewood native. "He cooks on holidays and special occasions. I cook day to day. He said, 'I need six burners,' 'I need a griddle' and 'I need this refrigerator.' I did the same thing with the bathroom."

Counting a primitive bath in the basement, the house had three small bathrooms when they bought it. For the new master bath, the Martins decided to use one of the four second-floor bedrooms. Only its gas fireplace - one of four working in the house - remains intact. The large room gained a two-person shower, double sinks and a spacious tub set in a base of off-white tile with a flowered tile border.

To blend it with the rest of the nearly century-old house, Jeff said they purposely chose a muted yellow paint and white tiles laid in traditional patterns on the floors and walls.

"We didn't have to talk them out of using rose tile," Hancock joked.

No, the rose tile - or rather a rose motif - was saved for the original master bath. Donna's sister, Pitt grad student Elaine Westbrooks of Polish Hill, spent an entire week of her last Christmas break using a razor blade to scrape black paint off the old white tile and floral border.

"I said, 'Why do you want to do this?' " Donna remembered. "She said, 'So you'll always owe me. You owe me your first-born. You'd better name that girl Elaine!"

Donna, who is now pregnant with the couple's first child, said she and her sister then spent four days highlighting the old grout lines by hand with latex paint. She and her husband hired Gnu Tub in Brentwood to resurface the original clawfoot tub and pedestal sink. Only the toilet is new, though Donna jokes:

"I might have kept the old one if it had had a pull-chain."

As with any old house, this one isn't done. The Martins are still working on a large third-floor family room/home office they created by removing a wall between two bedrooms. To make it and the rest of the second and third floor more comfortable in summer, they're thinking about installing high-velocity air-conditioning, which uses 2-inch-wide piping instead of bulky ductwork. And they plan to work on the yard, the domain of their two dogs, a boxer and a Yorkshire terrier, when they're not people-watching from the dining room window seat.

Donna said she's never regretted choosing historic homework over foreign travel; she'll take her house over any vacation hideaway.

"We like our house so much, we don't like to go," she said, laughing.

If you've recently completed an interesting remodeling or restoration project, we want to hear from you. Call Kevin Kirkland at 412-263-1978, or write to him at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 34 Blvd. of the Allies, Pittsburgh 15222. Include photographs if possible, with a self-addressed stamped envelope if you want them returned.

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