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House tour displays Manchester's complex architectural history

Saturday, August 14, 1999

By Patricia Lowry, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

In his influential and oft-consulted 1842 book, "Cottage Residences," Andrew Jackson Downing gave plans for many kinds of houses and gardens, including "An Irregular Villa in the Italian style, bracketed."

The great square tower of the Balderose home on Pennsylvania Avenue serves as a neighborhood landmark in Manchester. Also known as the Calliope House, the home was built in late 1875 and early 1876. In top photo,Isabella Bedard, 4, peers from the window of the Liverpool Street home of her aunt, Christine Wovchko. Both houses are included in tomorrow's Manchester House Tour. (John Beale, Post-Gazette) 

While many would prefer a simple, symmetrical plan, Downing writes, others "who have cultivated an architectural taste" are more likely to appreciate "the beautiful or picturesque," just as people who know music will prefer "the more intricate beauties of harmony" over "simple airs."

Small wonder, then, that 1414 Pennsylvania Ave. landed in the hands of George Balderose, the Highland piper who makes even the most intricate airs seem effortless.

The house pictured in Downing's book is smaller and done in wood, not brick, but it looks a lot like the Balderose house, with its great square tower rising above Manchester. Built in late 1875 and early 1876 for William and Mary Lea Frazier, it's one of 14 historic homes and three gardens on this year's Manchester House Tour, to be held tomorrow from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

A house history researched by architectural historian Carol Peterson revealed Frazier was a partner in a Manchester lumber firm that also built homes and speculated on land. The building retains its original sculpted ceilings, Italian marble and wood mantels, and interior shutters. Balderose, who has lived there since 1974, has restored the faux graining on the woodwork. But it is still a work in progress, with projects completed as the money is found. Last week, as sprucing up for the house tour continued, the front porch was painted (again) and the entrance hall papered (again).

By necessity, the two front parlors have been given over to the running of George's several businesses related to traditional music. The dining room is converted to a living room, and Balderose, his wife, Nancy, and their two boys take their meals in the large kitchen, which is outfitted with custom-built, step-back cupboards. One of Nancy's watercolors, a cabbage flanked by green peppers, hangs over the new stove, not far from the immense, ornate, cast-iron beauty original to the house.

Many know 1414 as Calliope House, and will remember its large parlor as the site of lively concerts in the 1970s and '80s. It's a bit of a shock to see it outfitted as a home-based business, but its interior architecture is well-preserved and worth seeing, as is the rest of the first floor.

Ron Coleman stands at the edge of the garden of his house on Liverpool Street in Manchester. Coleman's historic home is one of 14 featured on the house tour. (John Beale, Post-Gazette) 

You can see the house's tower, a neighborhood landmark, from the third floor of Brian Schwadron and Christine Wovchko's house at 1330 Liverpool St. They moved in a year ago, smitten by one of Pittsburgh's most intact 19th-century blocks. Wovchko said she half expected to see Mary Poppins floating down past the distinctive roofs and chimneys.

"I always thought old houses were for rich people, expensive to buy and expensive to fix up," she said, sitting in a chair by the fireplace in one of two downstairs parlors. But their five-bedroom, 3 1/2 bath house, built in 1882, cost a reasonable $82,900, and Wovchko, an operating room nurse, has done a lot with boldly colored paint and shabby chic decorating.

A second-floor bedroom is the "little girl's room," used on visits by her 4-year-old niece Isabella, who sleeps in Wovchko's childhood iron bed. An antique hand-painted dresser that wears its original pink roses is covered with her collection of Victorian hair receivers -- small porcelain bowls in which women stored hair pulled from their brushes.

A few doors away, Ron Coleman showcases his fine collections of antique glass and black memorabilia in a home he has been crafting since 1978.

The identical porches of Liverpool Street, which echo down the 1300 block, are its most famous and photographed feature. Early on, Coleman had to replace his, faithfully recreating the columns and brackets to conform with the others.

The Balderose home on Pennsylvania Avenue, Manchester, contains the ornate cast-iron stove original to the house. (John Beale, Post-Gazette) 

In the vestibule is a portrait of Coleman's Aunt Bess, who collected carnival glass and antique photographs. She left her things to Coleman, a court reporter, who has created elaborate displays of the glass and other objects in antique cupboards, including the dining room's built-in, floor-to-ceiling china cupboard. It was salvaged years ago from a house a few blocks away that was being turned into apartments. The entrance hall, lined with photographs collected by Coleman and his aunt, is an informal study in black history.

Out back, Coleman's year-old garden, where an artfully shaped smoke bush (Cotinus) hangs over the pond, is a quiet refuge.

The tour also presents the opportunity to visit the former home of Col. James Anderson, whose library fed the mind of young Andrew Carnegie and was the inspiration for Carnegie Libraries around the world. Built in 1830, the house has been a care home for the elderly since 1880, but some of the historic fabric has been retained. No one is quite sure which room housed Anderson's library; nevertheless, Carnegie Library docents will be on hand to give guided tours.

In addition to Pennsylvania Avenue and Liverpool Street, houses on West North, Page Street and Sheffield Street also are on the tour. They are all in a walkable four-by-three-block area, but two shuttle buses will help with getting around. There will be food booths throughout. Tickets, which cost $12, will be sold at 1214 W. North Ave.

And on the Balderose front porch, musicians will play Irish and old-time tunes.

"Most of them have lived here," Nancy Balderose said, "so that makes it even better."

For more information, call 412-321-7760.

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