January 1, 2012
10 years of TLC bring condemned Manchester beauty back to life
Abandoned, boarded up and stripped clean of its original architectural details, the 150-year-old townhouse in Manchester wasn’t long for this Earth when David McAnallen decided to rescue it from the wrecking ball.
The city had already condemned the once-gracious Second Empire property on Sheffield Street, built sometime in the 1860s, when the city of Allegheny on the bank of the Ohio River vied with the South Side as an industrial center specializing in ships and locomotives. Yet plenty of other homes in similarly bad straits had successfully been renovated, and so Mr. McAnallen, who at the time was living nearby, was pretty sure this sad old lady could be coaxed back to life, too.
Ten years in the making, Mr. McAnallen’s home renovation project is arguably among the North Side neighborhood’s finest, from the meticulously restored cornice brackets and window surrounds brightening the red brick exterior, to the exquisite caramel-colored heart pine floors that greet you at the top of the stairs, to the second-floor deck that’s decked out with a gas brick fireplace and provides a bird’s-eye view of the courtyard.
The home is so welcoming and lovely to look at that it narrowly missed winning the 2010-11 Renovation Inspiration Contest sponsored by the Post-Gazette and Community Design Center of Pittsburgh. (It was a runner-up.)
Now in its sixth year, the contest judges home renovation projects on a variety of criteria, including functionality and appropriateness of construction and materials. It’s also a nod to homeowners’/designers’ creativity, which with each successive year of the competition has only gotten better. The top dogs in last year’s large category, for example, turned a dilapidated commercial building in Garfield into a envelope-pushing, contemporary “green” home.
The deadline for entries in this year’s contest is Tuesday, which means you still have the weekend to pull your entry together in one of two categories: small (projects costing $50,000 or less) or large (more than $50,000). It’s open to both homeowners and home professionals; for details, go to www.post-gazette.com/homes.
Mr. McAnallen’s house is too big to be considered an actual diamond in the rough, but even boarded up, there was no mistaking its potential. Blessed with beautiful arching windows, high ceilings and elaborate moldings and brackets, the three-story house reflected Manchester’s wave of prosperity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Still, it took some cajoling from his good friend Jim Spiegel, a real estate broker and developer in Erie, for the psychologist to make that leap of faith.
“He was always pestering me, asking, ‘Did you buy it yet? Did you buy it?’ ”
The red tape hassles that come with buying a condemned property were just the first of many headaches. Given the size and scope of the project, Mr. McAnallen would also need to find a capable, not to mention versatile and collaborative, general contractor who would turn his vision into something concrete.
He found all that, and then some, in Eddie Pinto of Bellevue.
With the hint of a smile, Mr. McAnallen recalls being told he was “nuts” when he offered Mr. Pinto the job. But three weeks later the contractor was at his door, negotiating his fee.
Kudos also go to plasterer Roger Eades, heating guy Randy Kaczor of New Kensington and Mount Washington electrician Ron “Sparky” Matthews, who didn’t flinch when an appeal for blueprints elicited the response, “They’re in your head.”
The bulk of the work, which included turning the first floor into an apartment for rent, took the better part of two years. Floors had to be sanded and varnished; walls required patching and painting; new windows had to be installed; and, of course, the house needed all new plumbing, heating and electric. There also was the matter of a leaking roof, and the (very) slow process of acquiring the eight lots next door from the city so he could create a side courtyard.
Mr. McAnallen admits that during those first intense months, there were moments of “sheer panic” when he was sure he’d taken on more than he could handle.
“It was mammoth,” he said, “and I didn’t always have a sense of what was involved.”
Somehow, though, he never lost hope.
“I could always see the end result.”
Many of the home’s “new” 19th-century architectural details came from antique shops and salvage yards. He found one of a pair of slate mantels for the living room in a Verona basement and its sister on the back of a truck outside Construction Junction. The staircase to the second floor came from an antique shop in New Castle.
Other design elements only look old but are actually brand-spanking new. Stephen Schuler of Emerald Glass in Washington, Pa., did all of the colorful custom stained glass and also created the etched glass in the double entry.
The classic mural in the vaulted kitchen, inspired by a Gustav Dore engraving, is the work of Fombell-native-turned Hollywood photographer Ken Heusey. He’d just finished painting a mural decorating a terrace overlooking the beer garden at Hofbrauhaus Pittsburgh on the South Side when Mr. McAnallen met him, rather serendipitously, at the North Side YMCA.
Then there’s Mr. Pinto, whose capable hands free-formed the high-relief plaster trim seen throughout much of the house. He also crafted the focal point in the main living space, a curvy walnut electronics cabinet that sits between the living and dining room mantels.
The elegant oxbow is a recurring shape inside and outside the house, turning up in the kitchen breakfast nook and window sills, under the stained-glass window in the living room, and the pass-through to the kitchen. It’s also in the courtyard in the form of a gently meandering brick patio.
Equal parts taskmaster and perfectionist, Mr. Pinto was adamant things be done to his standards. Mr. McAnallen was given one week to sand and patch the windows in the living room. No more, no less.
A much longer project was a rear addition that removed a slanted roof that rendered much of the space on the third floor unusable. Graced with three sun-welcoming dormers, it’s now a spacious TV room that opens through glass French doors onto an open-air deck.
Mr. McAnallen is still working on a second-floor guest room and the spiral staircase off its small covered porch that takes visitors down into the backyard (he found it on Craigslist). But the master bedroom is a finished gem with its matching window seats, skylights, built-in dressers and rustic exposed-brick walls.
The courtyard, anchored by a large oval koi pond with an “eclipse” of bright-white rock, also is very much a work in progress. Yet even in these early stages, you can tell it’s going to be nothing short of an urban oasis, and not just because it measures a whopping third of an acre.
Landscaped with honey locust, Japanese maple and climbing and regular hydrangeas, it’s a tranquil and unexpected slice of green amid a sea of brick and asphalt. Eventually, Mr. McAnallen said, the space will include a pergola, and the arborvitae and holly bushes running along the sidewalk will grow tall enough to completely contain it.
Until then, there’s always the view from the roof.
“I love it from here,” he said.