Braddock mayor turns rehabbed warehouse into home

 

John Fetterman has never been what you’d consider a wallflower — 6-foot-8, with a shaved head and ginormous black tats running up and down his arms, Braddock’s mayor stands out in a crowd.

Nor is he afraid of a challenge. When he was elected by a single vote in 2005, this steel town lay nearly in ruins, a sad maze of boarded-up storefronts, vacant lots and decaying homes — hardly the most promising place for an out-of-towner to start a political career.

So it follows that the loft-style home he’s created with his wife, Gisele, in an abandoned warehouse on Library Street is as bold and colorful as the man himself.

A hip marriage of old and new, the three-story residence speaks to the town’s past while looking to its future. Much of it was refashioned with architectural goodies discovered at Construction Junction or originally found in the building, which dates to the 1950s and has large windows overlooking the historic Carnegie Library. But it’s modern, too, with a sweeping open floor plan, super-high ceilings and exposed ductwork that define today’s urban lifestyle.

Because he also wanted it to reflect the aesthetic of Braddock, he invited some of its youth to “tag the place up” by spray-painting graffiti on the cinderblock walls. Yet the most visually arresting detail is a narrow circular staircase fashioned by John Walter of Iron Eden. Situated dead-center in the main living space, it winds its way, rather precariously, to Mrs. Fetterman’s yoga studio on the roof — a visionary space Dutch MacDonald and Jen Bee of EDGE Studio created out of two empty cargo containers.

Post-Gazette photos

Like to see the space for yourself? On Dec. 8, the Fettermans will host to a pig roast/cocktail party fundraiser for 100 guests with chef Kevin Sousa of Salt of the Earth. Proceeds will be used to buy winter coats and Christmas gifts for Braddock’s youth through the nonprofit Braddock Redux, which the mayor created in 2006 to empower its young people through hands-on learning experiences. (Tickets cost $100; for reservations, call Salt at 412-441-7258 or email unionpgh@gmail.com.)

“It’s a great way to come out and experience the community,” he says.

A York native with a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard University, Mr. Fetterman came to Pittsburgh in 1995 to work as an AmeriCorps volunteer in the Young Fathers and Mothers program at Hill House Association in the Hill District. He moved to Braddock in 2001 and by the time he was elected mayor four years later, he had become one of its biggest cheerleaders.

“It’s the perfect combination of the people, history and the opportunity to be useful,” he says.

Mr. Fetterman paid just $2,000 for the 2,000-square-foot warehouse in October 2003, but it was hardly a bargain: full of debris and “all kinds of awful stuff,” it would take months to clear, clean and transform into livable space. Luckily, he’d found a brave contractor friend of a friend who agreed to take the project on.

By the time the mayor moved in the following March, Ron Sprow of Gibsonia had put on a new roof, replaced all of the wiring, installed windows, refinished original pine floors that could be saved and installed an HVAC system. Total cost of the renovation: about $42,000.

The funky (and sustainable) third floor came later after his marriage five years ago to Gisele, a holistic nutrition activist and third-generation vegetarian. She came to Braddock with hopes of starting a program for kids after reading a story about the town at a yoga retreat.

“I drove in and loved it. I felt an immediately connection,” she says. “Then I met John and never left.”

It took a guy with a crane and “ice in his veins” just six hours to hoist the water-tight containers onto the rooftop frame. One-half of the finished space is used as a yoga studio; the other serves as a giant walk-in closet.

Before the containers went on, Mr. Fetterman used to like to sit on the roof and watch the smoke rise from the Edgar Thomson Steel Works in the distance. Today, there’s a small vine-covered deck for sitting in the sun.

The first floor originally was an art gallery. After the arrival of the couple’s son, Karl, and daughter, Gracie — both born in the house with help from a midwife — they converted it into bedrooms and a play area.

Although it’s just 20 feet wide and 50 feet deep, the loft feels incredibly roomy, thanks to the 12-foot ceilings and a surfeit of sunshine. Its charm comes from the small details. One of Mr. Fetterman’s favorite design elements is a framed collection of old postcards of Braddock; also decorating the walls are a also dozen or so grainy black-and-white streetscene photographs Mr. Fetterman shot with a disposable camera.

From Construction Junction came the three metal cornices that dress up the windows, as well as an old confessional that serves as a headboard in the guest room. The kitchen has a modular center island with blackboard sides that shares the stage with an old gateway greeting sign spray-painted with the word “crips.”

Any coziness comes from a small fireplace nestled between two windows. If you’re standing in front of it, you’re apt to look out as Mr. Fetterman loves to do.

“The fact I live across the street from the first Carnegie Library is amazing,” he says. “Andrew Carnegie literally stood across the street on the steps.”

Cool digs, to be sure. But the mayor sees his home as a small metaphor for the Braddock itself: With equal measures hard work and creativity, anything is possible.

“It shows what the potential of the community is.”

 

 

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