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Homes with a family history

Living in an ancestor's house provides a memory-filled existence

Saturday, September 16, 2000

By Mackenzie Carpenter, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

When Bob Holder starts waxing nostalgic while driving around old Pittsburgh-area neighborhoods, his wife, Maggie, can only shake her head.

Jody Jackson places a banner on the Ohio Township house she grew up in.The farmhouse is named Pepper Hill after the red gelding Jackson's mother was riding when she discovered the house in the late 1940s. (Joyce Mendelsohn, Post-Gazette) 

"He'll be going down some street in Shaler and say, 'Oh, that's where I used to ride my bike,' or 'That's the house my aunt used to live in.' And I'll think, well, gee, I don't really know what that feels like, because I don't have a house that I used to live in."

That's because the 43-year-old schoolteacher still lives in the house she used to live in.

It's the same home in West Homestead where, as a child in the early 1960s, she watched her grandmother washing down the walls to rid them of the grime that floated up from Mesta Machine Co. down the hill. The same home where she and her sister wrote "playhouse" in a childish scrawl on an inside closet wall where she now keeps her winter coats and porch chairs.

In an increasingly transient society, where moving "up" often means moving somewhere else, the notion of living in one's childhood home seems almost quaint, if not impossible. But in Pittsburgh, Holder isn't that rare a specimen. In a town known for its tight-knit neighborhoods, even the most modest homes are closely held treasures, rarely put up for sale to outsiders but, rather, handed down from grandfather to mother to son.

While hardly the norm, "I would say it [living in a childhood home] is probably more typical in Pittsburgh than in other major cities," says Tom Yargo, a Shadyside-based real estate broker.

If anything, he adds, more and more home buyers seem attracted to the idea, if not the reality, of returning to the old homestead, especially upper-middle-class to high-income empty nesters.

"I'll show them houses in the Mexican War Streets or Shadyside, and they seem very enamored about coming back to an older home that reminds them of their grandmother's house," Yargo says.

"Grandmother's house" means different things to different people, and the three houses profiled here all reflect different strains of Pittsburgh life over the past century. Besides Holder's cozy, simple frame structure, there's Roberta Horwitz's spacious Squirrel Hill home, built, it was rumored, for a "poor relation" of the Mellon family but today more reflective of her family's eclectic interests in music, politics and art.

And there's Jody Jackson's farmhouse in Ohio Township, just 11 miles from Downtown, but as rural as anything in Laura Ingalls Wilder.

  This photo of Jody Jackson's home shows a previous owner's family -- the Gillelands -- at the farmhouse around the end of the 1800s.

The rigid class divisions of the Mon Valley's industrial past can be easily traced along the street where Maggie Holder lives. At the bottom of the hill, there are stately, ornate Victorian-era homes. Higher up the hill, they shrink into classic mill housing.

Known by the neighbors as the "Mesta mansions," the bigger houses were built for the superintendents, or top managers, of the Mesta Machine Co., at one point the world's largest manufacturer of rolling equipment. Some now sport new paint jobs or rebuilt roofs, others have declined over the years to almost Tennessee Williams-esque faded grandeur, begging for a renovator's touch.

Further up the lushly wooded hillside is Holder's little house -- as neat as a pin, covered in simple vinyl siding, with a green turf-type rug on the front porch.

Though still unpretentious, inside it's a far cry from the house Holder knew growing up. The dark green wall-to-wall carpets have been ripped up to reveal gleaming hardwood floors. In her modern kitchen, bright red countertop has replaced the first-generation white-and-gold Formica.

Not everything is new; old family pieces, like the oak dining room table Holder rescued from the attic, have been lovingly restored. The home's interior possesses a quirky layout that reflects different generations of Pittsburghers responding to the different demands of family life over the years.

It was a simple, one-story square, 25 by 25 feet, when Holder's grandmother Mary moved in in 1903, shortly after her marriage to Mike Lis at the age of 15. Part of what is today's living room was once a bedroom. The dining room was where it is now, "although people slept in there, too. There were daybeds everywhere. After all, my grandmother had 11 children," Holder says.

Behind the dining room is a tiny wooden stair that had originally been built of old mill scrap wood. The Holders replaced the steps with oak when they remodeled the house in 1993.

The house's first expansion came in the late 1930s, when it was bumped out the back to make room for a bathroom. During World War II, Holder's parents, Marge and Steve Chervenak, moved in with Holder's grandmother and her uncle Stan. In the 1960s, a second floor went on to better accommodate the Chervenaks and their two girls, Maggie and her sister Maryann. In 1974, Holder's immediate family moved five houses down the street.

"I guess at one point my dad wanted to be able to say he had his own house," she says.

In 1978, Holder married and lived with her husband in Squirrel Hill. But in December 1979, her uncle Stan died, and she and her husband decided to return to the little house to stay with her grandmother. It wasn't a tough decision.

"Granny didn't have great vision and she couldn't stay alone. It was just what my family did. There were some mixed feelings, but I was used to living that way, with Granny in the house, growing up."

Today, there are echoes of her grandmother and her mother everywhere.

In the back yard, where her grandmother once trudged up concrete steps that she built herself to her vegetable patch in the woods, there's a deck and perennial flower beds. The vegetable garden is gone but the steps remain, and so, too, the peonies and rosebushes that she planted.

Today, in the basement, there's a family room containing all of the necessary tools for modern living: a television, CD player and a NordicTrak. In 1970, Holder's uncles built the room by dynamiting the concrete foundation to make way for a staircase. Today, over the stair's landing hangs a superb collage, "Pittsburgh Baba," by Barbara Holt.

"It reminds me of all the old ladies I knew growing up, carrying their shopping bags and walking through the town," Holder says.

The house is not perfect. But then again, it never was.

"Would you believe that the bathroom, which we all shared, is situated at the point farthest from the master bedroom? Does that make sense?

"Sometimes, I think, wouldn't it be great to live somewhere else where everything was brand new. Plus, I have had to watch my neighbors grow old, and some of them die, and it's sad to see that."

But then, there was the time a friend came to the house for Holder's annual party to celebrate the halfway point in the school year.

"She had never visited the house before. She looked around and said, 'Now that I've seen the house, I feel like I know you so much better.'

"I feel really lucky. We have so many memories."

A mirrored alcove is featured in the hallway of the Squirrel Hill home of Roberta Horwitz, her husband and children, and her mother. Horwitz grew up in the house. (Joyce Mendelsohn, Post-Gazette) 

Roberta Horwitz's childhood home rears up from behind a stone wall on a shady street in Squirrel Hill. Built in the classic "cottage style" of the early 20th century, it has cedar shingles all along the top and a vast, deep front porch punctuated with classical columns. The leaded-glass front door opens onto a mahogany paneled hallway, which looks much the same as it did a century ago, dark, enveloping, with a wonderful woodsy smell sometimes found in old college libraries or churches.

Horwitz, an optometrist with practices in Swissvale and McKees Rocks, moved there with her family in 1968 when she was 13, in a sort of reverse "middle-class flight" away from a Monroeville subdivision and back to the city. Her parents were liberal, sophisticated people with a passionate interest in politics and the arts.

"Plus my husband hated the commute on the parkway," added her mother, Paula Horwitz.

But as a teen-ager moving in from the suburbs, Roberta Horwitz remembers being unimpressed by the creaky old house, despite its size.

"I didn't like it," she says. "The move was a big adjustment for me."

It must have grown on her, because, after years spent elsewhere, she willingly returned to the house four years ago, along with her husband and children.

"It was too big a place for my mother to live in by herself."

Today, it's a big enough house for three generations.

"It's easy to disappear into," says Paula Horwitz. "Everyone has a place they can go."

The front hall was built with an extra wide staircase because, it is rumored, one of the new owners wanted to be married there.

To the left of the stairway, built into the opposite wall, is a kind of open coat closet. Actually, it's a mirrored alcove, framed in a Gothic arch and lit by a small Art Deco pendant fixture. Coat hooks line its sides and a built-in bench opens for storage.

Far from being "decorated," the house is a study in cheerful clutter, of interesting objects ready to be admired. Paula Horwitz keeps her collection of candelabras and menorahs everywhere, although her favorite is one that belonged to her great grandmother.

There are modern touches everywhere -- a bright, white kitchen, contemporary furniture and, to lighten the wood's darkness, red carpeting and red felt lining the living room walls under the chair rail.

Instead of a coffee table, there are two large plexiglass boxes housing mementos from foreign travels and gifts from foreign visitors, who were always received with open arms by the Horwitz family, longtime members of the Pittsburgh International Visitors Association.

When the family first moved in, Paula Horwitz remembers a dining room with woodwork painted in a most hideous brownish-yellowish color and tan wallpaper, plus a large chandelier with shades on it. A friend told her to take down the chandelier and paint the wood white. The result is light and bright, enhanced by the blue-and-white Delft tiles around the dining room's fireplace.

The dining room is also a place for the family's collection of paintings by Pittsburgh artists -- Leonard Lieb, Julius Kahn and Victor Beltran.

And while the house displays the family's collections of art and objects beautifully, it's clear that their interests lie mainly in people. While Roberta Horwitz was growing up, her parents hosted fund-raisers for a number of political figures: Cesar Chavez, the migrant worker activist; Fred Harris, a one-time Democratic candidate for president, and a number of artists, writers and musicians.

In winter, the family hosts musicales in the front hallway, where friends bring instruments ranging from clarinet, dulcimer, recorder and flute to Polish bagpipes, Chinese violins and the charango, a string instrument native to the Andes.

"I learned a lot about the world growing up here," says Roberta.

At times, when Jody Jackson describes her childhood on a farm in Ohio Township, it sounds like something out of "Little House on the Prairie." Or make that "Oklahoma!," since her pale yellow clapboard house with white gingerbread front porch is a dead ringer for the one in the movie.

An enormous Mountain magnolia tree, planted early in the last century, graces the house's front lawn; in back, there are perennial gardens and lilac trees. Jackson remembers all of them being there when she moved in at the age of 8 in 1949, after her mother discovered the house while riding her horse down a country lane and insisted that Jackson's father, Thomas James, a prominent engineer, buy it for them.

"They worked for a year to fix it up," she says, cutting back all the shrubs, steaming off the old cracked wallpaper, building a barn. Owned for most of its life by the Gilleland family, it was abandoned for a time until the James family moved in.

There was the famous blizzard of 1950, when more than 3 feet of snow blanketed the area, snowing in her family for two weeks.

"My father ended up digging a tunnel in the snow from the house to the barn," she remembers.

Jackson even attended school in a one-room schoolhouse, the O'Neill School, one of three schoolhouses in the area. (The O'Neill school is gone, but another one of the schools now houses a jewelry store on Mt. Nebo Road.)

For a time, Jackson went out into the world to find her career, working as a flight attendant and living in New York and San Francisco. She returned to the farm after her first marriage to raise her children, and today she and her second husband Bill live there with their cat and their horse. The farm's original 100 acres have been compressed to just 3.

Today, modern life presses in everywhere. Interstate 79 is only a mile or two away, and a telecommunications tower hovers on a nearby neighbor's property.

Bill Jackson has worked hard to restore the house while making it comfortable and energy-efficient. The siding is vinyl, not wood; the pine floors, which were covered in a dark varnish during Jackson's childhood, have been stripped and polished to reveal their grain.

A new kitchen was put in several years ago, and in the place where there was once a "summer kitchen," there's now a breakfast nook. But despite the new kitchen's modern conveniences, it retains a sense of rural charm. The Jacksons put in an oak mantelpiece to frame the fireplace, which is lined in tile featuring delicate blackberry drawings.

Horses have always been an important part of the farm, which is called "Pepper Hill," after the beloved red gelding that Jackson's mother was riding when she discovered it. Today, an oil portrait of Pepper hangs in the front parlor and there are hunting prints everywhere, a reflection of Jackson's intense interest in the sport, which she inherited from her mother.

Upstairs, her mother's old maple four-poster bed is in one of the guest rooms. Downstairs, in the pretty dining room with its flowered wallpaper, Jackson still has her mother's old Duncan Phyfe-style table and chairs.

"My mother loved to cook, and we'd have formal dinners every Sunday, with standing roast and Yorkshire pudding," Jackson says.

Memories of her childhood -- and of her children's childhood -- are everywhere. Jackson remembers hiding in the steep, narrow back stairwell with her brother Philip when their parents had parties, listening to laughter and the clink of cocktail glasses.

Today, the farm is a place where her children love to bring their families and friends.

"It's a place where we all feel comfortable," she says.

And while she wouldn't ever consider moving, there are some things about this drafty old charmer she would change.

"It still gets very cold in the winter. I know all its flaws," she says, laughing.

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