A Beautiful Recovery
Couple attacks neglected home and makes craftsmanship stand out once again
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By Kevin Kirkland
Having a nice house sometimes means making sacrifices. Donna and Jeff Martin remember having to choose between vacations and more work on their 1912 Craftsman-style home in North Point Breeze in Pittsburgh.
"Jeff would say, `Bahamas?'; I would say, `Bathroom,'" Donna recalled.
Apparently, she always won. The couple hasn't taken a big vacation since they were married 2 1/2 years ago, but they now live in a showpiece of turn-of-the-century craftsmanship with a few beautiful updates.
When they first saw the house two years ago, however, it was no work of art.
"To be honest, nothing interested me," said Jeff, remembering a dark, foreboding structure with rotten exterior trim and several layers of wallpaper covering nearly every wall and ceiling.
But Donna saw possibilities in its hardwood floors, dark oak woodwork, built-in leaded-glass cabinets and seven fireplaces. And she was enchanted by the wainscoted dining room and the cozy windowseat in the second-floor landing, surrounded by stained glass. They looked at other houses but returned to this one several months later, and found it was still for sale.
"I kept saying we're not going to get another house like that," said Donna.
They got the house for $86,000, knowing they would have to spend between $100,000 and $140,000 more to make it a home. They began with the exterior, having the rotted soffits and fascias replaced and all the trim painted creamy white. Luckily, all the original brackets, a signature of the Craftsman or Arts and Crafts style, were still solid and are now highlighted with a blue stripe. They also were able to save all 58 original windows with heavy wooden mullions, although restoration contractor John Hancock had to replace 37 panes. Replacement windows were not even considered.
"Show me what cruddy vinyl replacement window will be around for 80 years like these were," said Hancock, an old house expert recommended to the Martins by a friend.
Hancock has worked on many Craftsman homes. He said the Martins' house, which was supposedly the winter home of a steel mill executive, is one of the best.
"You don't find many that were this grand," he said.
Among the house's unique features are a roof with a gentle upsweep at the edges, glass-and-wood pocket doors that mimic the leaded-glass entry, and oak floors with a different inlaid border in every room. More typical Craftsman characteristics include 10-foot ceilings, seven different fireplace mantels, some original gas and electric sconces, a front sunroom/conservatory and stained or painted Tudor-style paneling in most of the rooms and hallways.
Hancock credited the Martins with recognizing the house's potential despite its general disrepair. But these weren't old house rookies. Before this, they had renovated seven homes as rental property. Besides being handy, Jeff, 33, is an expert at arranging financing through his employer, Allegiance Mortgage Group of Oakland, Pa. Donna, 32, a speech therapist at Pittsburgh Public Schools' Colfax Elementary, is as good at stripping wallpaper as she is at sewing cushions and drapes.
But even she admitted having some doubts, especially after a day of hacking away at the two to four layers of heavy old wallpaper that blanketed every plaster surface.
The couple is proudest of the open, woody and contemporary room they created where a dark, cramped 1950s kitchen had been. Removing a wall and hallway leading to a side door expanded the kitchen to 15 by 19 feet, room enough for a commercial-size Jenn-Air stove, large, stainless steel-fronted KitchenAid refrigerator and an L-shaped, granite counter with a dining island and stools. Rising high up most of the walls are stock cherry cabinets from Merillat Industries dressed up with a cornice of rope and crown molding. A hutch with built-in wine rack dominates the back wall.
As with any old house, this one isn't done. The Martins are still working on a large third-floor family room/home office they created by removing a wall between two bedrooms. To make it and the rest of the second and third floor more comfortable in summer, they're thinking about installing high-velocity air-conditioning, which uses 2-inch-wide piping instead of bulky ductwork.
Donna said she's never regretted choosing historic homework over foreign travel; she'll take her house over any vacation hideaway.
"We like our house so much, we don't like to go," she said, laughing.
A home office is transformed into a darling nursery for two baby girls.