Passion for Bauhaus design leads to a stunning home preservation
A bit of ingenuity, artistic expression, skilled masonry and a thousand hours of muscle was all it took to update a beloved Bauhaus designed home in the heart of Pittsburgh. Owners John and Deanna took to heart the classic modernism of the home, yet they stepped out of the box and infused their own personalities into the renovation.
The Bauhaus movement was characterized by minimalism with an emphasis on glass, light, horizontal design, and built-in furniture. The original homeowner, Mrs. Berlin, grew up a privileged Squirrel Hill sophisticate who would later study at the New Bauhaus School in Illinois. The original schools, of which there were three in Germany, closed in 1933 under Nazi pressure to eliminate freedom of expression. In 1947, Mrs. Berlin fulfilled her own dream of building a Bauhaus design home. She retained Mitchell and Ritchey, a well-known Pittsburgh architecture firm that had comprehensive knowledge of classic modernism. Mitchell and Ritchey would go on to design Pittsburgh’s former Civic Arena.
John is the third owner of the home, which is located in Squirrel Hill and overlooks Fernwald Road and the Parkway. He landed here accidentally while hunting for a home that was artistically and architecturally interesting, and one that would support his desire to have a recording studio. The modern exterior is limestone, which was unusual for homes built at that time. “Reception to the structure would have probably been mixed, with detractors easily outnumbering fans,” points out John. “In the 1940s, our home would have been grasped by the Pittsburgher who was European-traveled or liberal in their scope of what constituted art.” In either case, the home became notorious to the community, and was a familiar stop for sightseers.
The homeowners were initially concerned about the adjoined, city owned, land behind them that had become an unmaintained dumping ground. John and Deanna teamed up with their neighbors to clear the lot, restore it and plant 150 trees. “With finance and with our own muscle we turned this dump area into a park,” says John. “We were pulling out car seats, engine blocks and debris like that.” Their project was later celebrated in The New York Times.
An intriguing interior
The internal facelift required everything from refinishing surfaces to a full gut of a room, and John took ownership while living elsewhere for over a year. He contracted architectural firm Davis Gannon Pope to help with the redesign of rooms, but John participated in much of the physical part of the renovation. Always mindful of the integrity of the home, he retained features that he liked and eliminated others to open the space. “The largest project that I did myself was leveling the floors, which was a difficult task that took hundreds of hours,” he explains. “Typical of what I’ve done most in my life is to take on things that I’m unfamiliar with; I’m a good researcher in that regard.”
The dining area remains faithful to the site lines and shapes of the original Bauhaus blueprint. “Mrs. Berlin wanted to have an observatory or transparent ceiling but her husband was practical so they compromised on this adaptation,” says John. “I think it’s no accident that the same architect that did the Civic Arena would come up with this dome design.” John designed the circular dining table, and the room preserves its built-in furniture, including a service port that was originally used for servants to bring meals.
A large open living room is a seamless extension with emphasis on glass, light, and the park view below. Deanna is an accomplished photographer, whose work lines the walls throughout the home. Exhibited in museum-like fashion, her art is strategically positioned to loan color, warmth, and movement to every room.
Light engulfs the guest bathroom with its minimalistic appeal. The unpretentious room flaunts magnificent Brazilian granite with hints of blue. “The things of greatest interest to me are the materials,” says John. “I’m a sucker for natural resources and unusual stones.”
Atypical of modern day suites, the master bedroom is characteristic of the era from which it came. The space and light from a window-wall are what define this glorious room. “Just the proportions of what was done in 1947 are totally different than what they do now,” points out John. “The world was different then, and people were less entitled.”
The circular kitchen booth remains intact from the original design, with only the finish being new. A whimsical mural, painted by John during the restoration, resides behind the booth. The flooring is comprised of unusual African and Brazilian hardwoods, which are natural and un-dyed.
Affinity for hobbies
The lower level is dedicated to another one of John’s hobbies. He co-writes, arranges, and produces music. “We make records here,” he says. “I’m able to turn it into a decently intensive recording studio.”
The set-up has mobile, acoustic absorption panels (gobos), which can be moved and stowed away, to convert the studio back to a moderately livable room. Vintage instruments, including a 1950’s Hammond B3 Organ, add color and flavor to this avant-garde home studio.
Two jumbo-sized, Leonberger dogs, Medley and Anchor, have full reign of the house. “We don’t have children, so they are our children,” John says with a big smile. “Before the dogs, we wouldn’t have allowed dirt and scratches, but now we’re enjoying the house being less of a museum and more lived in.”
Original designer and architect: Mitchell & Ritchey; Architect, interior renovation: Davis Gannon Pope; Architect, exterior renovation: Cleland Dowler; Contractor, interior renovation: Cummings Construction; Landscape renovation: Eichenlaub, Inc.; Hardscape renovation: DiBucci Masonry; Outdoor staircase: Zottola Fabrication; Flooring: Birdseye maple; Purpleheart; Padauk; Wenge, supplied by Sutherland Hardwoods; Carpet and rugs: Weisshouse; Bathroom cabinetry: Curved birdseye maple, Louis Anania; Bathroom countertop: Granite, Columbia Marble; Bathroom tile: Columbia Marble; Tile & Designs; Ceramiche Tile; Bathroom sinks: Ceramiche Tile; Crescent Supply; Faucets: Kohler, Crescent Supply; Bathroom fixtures: Kevin Gannon, John Caldwell (designers); Hall Industries (fabricator); Lighting: Louis Arraujo Electric