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Homes lost, damaged in city fires

'Terrible Streaker's' photos, journals go up in smoke

Tuesday, February 26, 2002

M. Ferguson Tinsley, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Two fires yesterday damaged several homes and wiped out a man's records of his exploits as Pittsburgh's "Terrible Streaker," and a blaze Sunday destroyed a historic mansion.

Pittsburgh paramedic Matt Kurlfink talks to Calin Gurley, 2, after she was rescued from her burning home on Duff Street in the Hill District. Holding Calin is her aunt, Veronica Gurley. The girl was rescued from the fire by her grandmother, Fletcher Gurley. (John Beale, Post-Gazette)

At 11:18 a.m. yesterday, city firefighters battled a three-alarm blaze at 636-638 Duff St. in the Hill District that left two families homeless. City Fire Chief Peter J. Micheli said the fire started in a first-floor bedroom at 638 and quickly spread to the duplex apartment next door.

Everyone escaped, but two children, ages 2 and 4, were taken to a local hospital for observation, said an American Red Cross spokeswoman. The children's grandmother rescued them by breaking a window and pulling them through.

Two other residents of the buildings, Deandre Gurley, 5, and Fletcher Gurley, 41, were slightly injured, and Firefighter Timothy Yakich suffered a minor neck injury. Micheli said the fire caused $65,000 in damage.

Earlier yesterday, a fire destroyed Hilary C. "Larry" Opperman's home at 1316 Lowrie St., Troy Hill, along with journals and photos recounting his reign as the "Terrible Streaker" at Steerlers games during the 1979-80 season.

The four-alarm fire also damaged two adjacent houses, 1318 Lowrie, owned by Leanne Rosenberger, Opperman's niece, and 1314 Lowrie.

Opperman said the fire started in a crawl space in his basement. The blaze caused an estimated $85,000 in damage.

Opperman, 63, the last in a family of eight, also lost at least 20 journals, dozens of letters beginning in 1920 and 50 videotapes documenting the Opperman family's life on the North Side.

A fire on Sunday at 1318 Western Ave. destroyed the historic Buhl House. The fire in the 31/2-story brick structure may have erupted after a kerosene heater ignited items in the vacant building. No one was found in the house and no injuries were reported.

Ruth Prementine, left, and Leanne Rosenberger, neighbors on Lowrie Street in Troy Hill, wait while investigators work at the scene of yesterday's early morning fire in the home of their uncle, Hilary C. "Larry" Opperman, 63, at 1316 Lowrie St. The fire destroyed Opperman's house and damaged the home of each woman. It was one of three fires in the city in the past two days. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette)

Micheli said investigators found remnants of kerosene and space heaters on the second and third floor where flames and smoke were the heaviest. Damage was estimated at $100,000.

John DeSantis, chairman of the Pittsburgh Historic Review Commission, said the house was a great loss.

"The house was built in the mid-1880s by Henry Buhl Jr. We know that name because of the Buhl Planetarium and the Buhl Foundation, but he was of the Buhls who owned a famous, high-end department store, Boggs and Buhl. It was where the Allegheny Center is now."

During its heyday, the Buhl House was surrounded by the homes of other wealthy families. The building had been empty after having housed three roadhouse bars in the last 50 years. Jazi's, the last of them, closed in 1998, DeSantis said.

Mark Fatla, a member of the Allegheny West Civic Council, said 10 years ago his organization had proposed moving the Buhl House out of its warehouse wilderness closer to the Allegheny Center area, but a buyer for the lot where it sat withdrew from the deal.

Had it been moved just two blocks in, anyone would have scrambled to restore it, DeSantis said.

"It is so sad to watch it end in this way," he added. "The only fortunate thing about it is that no one was hurt. That's the only thing that would've made it worse."

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