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Osterling Flats combines architect's classic style, loft space

Saturday, May 03, 2003

By Gretchen McKay, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Like many of the street car communities that sprang up around Pittsburgh in the early 20th century, Brighton Heights is full of sturdy brick homes with charming front porches.

A front view of the Osterling Flats on California Avenue in Brighton Heights. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

But the three connected buildings at 3603-3607 California Ave. were far from sturdy and charming when the Brighton Heights Citizens Federation bought them in the fall of 2000. What could they do with burned-out eyesores?

"Our goal was to do something a little different that would energize the neighborhood," says federation President Pete Bellisario. "We have a lot of wonderful homes up here, but we were looking for something a little more pizzazzy, if you will."

The stakes rose a little higher when historian John Canning discovered the Eclectic-style buildings with Dutch and Flemish elements had been designed by prominent Pittsburgh architect Frederick Osterling (1865-1934), the creative mind behind several of the city's most architecturally significant buildings, including the Union Trust Building, Arrott Building and Clayton, the Point Breeze museum that was once the home of Henry Clay Frick.

With the help of the North Side Leadership Conference and no wall productions, the citizens group ultimately decided to turn the nine apartments into eight sophisticated loft-style condominiums. Completed just last month, Osterling Flats has units ranging in size from 1,090 to 2,000 square feet and selling for $125,900 to $135,900.

EDGE studio, the architects responsible for the Brake House Lofts in the Strip and Liberty Lofts on Penn Avenue, Downtown, created condos that blend old and new.

"Our philosophy when we go into a building is to try to live with the ghosts," says firm principal Dutch MacDonald.

The "guts" of the individual residences are largely new, with contemporary kitchens and bathrooms as well as air conditioning, modern lighting, a neutral color scheme and an intercom system to the front door. But they also retain many of their original mantels and other architectural details, giving the spaces a distinctive, traditional-meets-funky feel.

"We keep as much as we can and try not to take the character out of it," says MacDonald.

The buildings, which were constructed sometime in the early 1900s as an investment property for Osterling, have units named for some of the architect's most significant accomplishments in Pittsburgh.

The living room/dining areas of the second-floor condos of Osterling Flats, designed by the late architect Frederick J. Osterling. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

The 16- by 13-foot dining room in the first-floor "Arrott" unit at 3605 California Ave. boasts turn-of-the-century hardwood floors, built-in bookcases and a 100-year-old carved wooden mantel topped by a mirror. Working pocket doors open to reveal a 15- by 12-foot living room with another original mantel. The kitchen, in contrast, has sleek maple cabinets, marble-looking laminate countertops, ceramic tile floors and a small covered deck overlooking the common back yard.

While the condos aren't lofts in the traditional sense of the word, they do feature the large, open spaces and airy feel associated with them. The arrangement of rooms, too, with the bedrooms in the back, is different from what you'd find in a more traditional apartment, says Eve Picker, head of no wall productions.

Ernie Hogan, who is marketing the units for Coldwell Banker and no wall, concedes the condos are a bit unusual for Brighton Heights, a tight-knit, family-oriented middle-class neighborhood.

"We're kind of testing the market," he says.

And they seem to be passing the test. The two largest units at 3607 California Ave. have already been sold, and Hogan says interest in the other two buildings has been strong.

One of Osterling Flats' attractive features is the availability of deferred second mortgages from the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh. Depending on family size and income, buyers can be forgiven up $40,000 until the property is resold.

"You get a lot for your money," Hogan says.

In addition to one bedroom and 10 1/2-foot-high ceilings, the $125,900 first-floor units feature a small sun room with ceramic tile floors, brick walls and original bead board ceiling. French doors with transoms open into the living room. One of the more charming, Old World touches is a small coat closet tucked under the staircase.

The second-floor "Iroquois" units, priced at $135,900, include a 14- by 11-foot master bedroom with deck, a smaller second bedroom or office and a 32- by 16-foot living room/dining room with two bay windows. The kitchen, 11 by 8 feet, is off to the side, behind an island.

At 1,150 square feet of living space, the third-floor "Clayton" units are the largest. The 15- by 8-foot kitchen is in the middle of the condo, separated from the open staircase by a wall of waist-high cabinets. A small "window" cut-out above the sink allows easy pass through to the 18- by 9-foot dining room. At the front of the third-floor units is the 22- by 16-foot living room, the condo's brightest and airiest space.

The fact that these are condominiums is another drawing card for people who want to own a home, not a mower. The condo association is responsible for all grass mowing, snow removal and any exterior maintenance.

For those who like to spend time outdoors, Brighton Heights is bordered by Riverview Park. Along with biking and horseback riding trails and tennis and basketball courts, the 245-acre park offers a pool, picnic shelters and the Allegheny Observatory. Neighborhood activities include an annual spring festival, Halloween parade and a Christmas tree lighting during the holiday season.

"It's really an amazing little community," says Hogan. "It offers so many different things to so many people."

Osterling Flats, 3603-3605 California Ave., Brighton Heights, will have an open house from 1 to 3 p.m. today. For more information, call no wall productions at 412-345-5006 or Coldwell Banker at 412-363-4000. You can also visit no wall's Web site at www.nowall.com

Gretchen McKay can be reached at 412-761-4670 orgmckay@post-gazette.com .

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