ndustrial magic artists transform machine shop into modern living space
Garry Pyles and Atticus Adams, both conceptual sculptors, are two very creative souls. So you’d expect the home they share in Lawrenceville and use as studio space to also be a bona fide original.
There’s the dramatic display of their whimsical artwork, which features everyday materials such as wire, plastic and metal mesh in nontraditional applications. Greeting visitors at the front door is a hanging sculptural form Mr. Pyles created out of wax and wire. A climbing tangle of twigs that looks as if it is growing out of an exposed stackpipe in the living room, for example, is actually mounted on tiny magnets. Mr. Adams calls the piece “Winter Landscape.”
It’s not only their art that intrigues. Only when you’re inside do you realize that their home actually spans two adjoining buildings. They live mostly on the upper floors and rent out a one-bedroom, 2,000-square-foot space on the first.
The exterior is so unusual that judges for this year’s fifth annual Renovation Inspiration contest, co-sponsored by the Post-Gazette and Community Design Center of Pittsburgh, quickly dubbed it a must-see. The former machine shop on the left still wears its original 1954 brick, while the balloon-frame 1890s grocery on the right, in a playful nod to Lawrenceville’s industrial past, is faced in corrugated galvanized steel. But what really earned the home the title of runner-up, large project category (more than $50,000), is the 6,000-square-foot interior.
A celebration of light and air, with long, exposed beams and ductwork, the loft-style home is a modern artist’s dream: big, but not gigantic, with lovely bones just aching to be revealed.
The work it took to get there? Well, not so dreamy.
When the artists purchased the two buildings four years ago for $150,000, they were jam-packed with so much … stuff that the pair had a winding path of only about 18 inches to get around. Scrap metal, old store fixtures, work benches, framing lumber, metal shelving, machinery — you name it, the former owner had collected it and stacked it from floor to the ceiling.
“I was a bit traumatized, and overwhelmed,” admits Mr. Adams, 49, a pharmacist with Medco in North Versailles. “I’d never even heard about hoarding.”
It took the men a year and a half to empty the space. More than 100,000 pounds of scrap metal went to a recycling facility, and they also filled an entire Dumpster with screws and bolts. Other items ended up on Craigslist.
“It was very much one day at a time, one room at a time and connecting with the people who wanted this stuff,” says Mr. Adams. “Luckily, Garry always had a vision.”
Some improvements, including the rubber roof, are brand-new or second-hand discoveries from Construction Junction (doors and windows) or Craigslist (the mid-century cherry-red fireplace in the corner). Many more are creative repurposings of items and materials they uncovered during the clean-up. A 20-foot-long work bench, for instance, was refashioned into kitchen cabinets; metal shelving they discovered in the rafters was turned into open storage units with all-thread bolts and washers hung from the joists; teak paneling from a steel company’s boardroom decorates a wall in the foyer and was used to build a small deck off the kitchen.
They also built a pavilion in the living room from old 2-by-4s and laid a floor of 2-by-6-foot pieces of hickory that came out of a steel mill in Follansbee, W.Va.
“The hard part was going through everything and figuring out what to keep. It was mind numbing,” says Mr. Pyles, 47.
One no-brainer was the 31/2-by-9-foot kitchen island, which the previous owner made from maple salvaged from a bowling alley. You can still see the pin holes in the corners. Another was the six-burner Imperial commercial range hidden under piles of junk.
There were other issues, too: When Mr. Pyles put the house he owned on Butler Street on the market, it sold in just six days, leaving him and his three sons with no place to live during the renovation. They ended up renting a house with only a basement toilet and no central heat during the five months of construction.
“We were really roughing it,” he says.
An interior designer who’s a vice president at Franklin Interiors in the Strip District, Mr. Pyles is an old hand at ambitious renovations, having transformed five buildings into homes over the past 25 years. This would be a bit more challenging in that they were determined to keep costs around $50 per square foot, which also explains why the men were so eager to reuse as much of the buildings’ booty. They even sweet-talked sculptor Dee Briggs, who works in bronze and steel, into bartering her services.
“We really love her work, so we traded it for materials,” Mr. Pyles explains. Her suspended metal sculpture hangs next to one of Mr. Adam’s 3-D metal fiber creations in the kitchen.
Financing proved to be a bit of problem, as it was tough to get lenders to understand the project and how someone could live in an industrial space. Even today, says Mr. Adams, people want to put in applications for the restaurant they thought the men were going to build.
“We did a lot of explaining,” he says.
Visual artists need plenty of space to create, so when designing their studio in what had been the second floor of the grocery, they had Lawrenceville contractor The Christie Group remove a walled staircase to the attic and build a new one, without hand rails. The master bedroom, which adjoins a private bath with concrete floors, is on the first level, off the front door. A second bedroom at the rear of the house, used by Mr. Pyles’ youngest son, has a ladder to a sleeping loft.
The home is intentionally unpolished, with some of the repurposed materials begging for a good coat of decorative makeup or perhaps even a wall to keep things out of sight. The water heater, usually a hidden mechanical, stands out in the open in the pantry, and even the new ducting is exposed. But that suits its occupants just fine.
“Most people like things buttoned up,” says Mr. Pyles, “but I like things unfinished.”
“It’s so great being home now,” agrees Mr. Adams. “The light is fantastic, and it’s a great space to entertain. I just feel so satisfied, like I never need anything else.
“We both feel like this is the last place we’ll ever live.”