1880 Deutschtown Treasure
Homeowner preserves a little piece of history
By Hilary Daninhirsch | Photos by George Thomas Mendel
The crumbling, 130-year-old Victorian row house had been unoccupied for over 20 years, was in disrepair, had three walls about to collapse and was totally unlivable. Which is why, after several years of mulling it over, Al DePasquale finally decided that he had to have it. So he bought the house and then brought the house down…literally.
Making a commitment
With only one original wall remaining to preserve its historic integrity, Al rebuilt the house in Historic Deutschtown from the ground up. But he didn’t enter into this decision lightly. Like many others who had seen the house, he debated whether it was worth the cost. “The first time I looked at it, I looked at it like everyone else—was it worth repairing?”
But Al, who at the time lived a few streets away, wanted the location. “The idea was, now I can put everything I want into a home,” he explains.
The project, from breaking ground to putting on the finishing touches, took about ten months. Al knows a thing or two about renovating older homes. As the co-owner of October Development, a Pittsburgh-based contractor, he has worked on projects that have helped revitalize other Pittsburgh neighborhoods.
Bob Baumbach was the architect involved with this project. Baumbach lives on the same street and had worked with Al on other restoration projects. Baumbach says that the crew made a commitment to preserve the redeeming qualities of the original facade, such as the door surround, which includes the original transom window and decorative brackets, and the box gutter, cornice and brackets. They also added a Victorian-like mansard roof. “You really get the details of the 1880s into a brand new house.” This, says Baumbach, allows the house to fit contextually into the neighborhood.
A personal side
The inside, though, is as modern as can be. The house has a clean and open-air feeling to it. The renovation brought the square footage up from 1,200 feet to a much more comfortable 3,000 feet. The three-story home now has four bathrooms, two bedrooms, two sitting areas and a kitchen and dining area.
Rather than being meticulously planned out, the interior design unfolded as the project was underway. “We didn’t know how it was going to look until it was done,” recalls Al.
One idea, though, that had always been in the forefront was the incorporation of water features. “I have a fondness for water features, for the sound and serenity they bring with it,” Al says.
The first water feature is in the downstairs crevice near the main entrance. Walk up the stairs and you will see a larger-than-life “77/54” streetcar mural, in homage to Al’s fond childhood memories of riding that streetcar through the Oakland neighborhood of Pittsburgh. The sepia tones and line drawings give the sense of an old newsprint with drops of coffee spilled throughout.
Continue on to the second floor to see the amazing “brick” grottoes hanging regally over the living area. Each grotto is a self-contained trough; a switch turns them into weeping walls.
Josh Parise, manager and head designer for Pittsburgh Pond and Stone Company, was instrumental in helping Al with much of the interior design, including all of the water features, the streetcar mural and the grottoes. Parise jokes that he was responsible for anything that was “overly artistic and bizarre.”
Over a period of months, Parise painstakingly hand-carved and hand-painted the faux bricks. “We wanted everything to look like it was 100 years old and to match the existing chimney and remaining brick wall. The bricks are all façade and cement overlay—but the closer you get to the ‘brick,’ the more real it looks,” says Parise.
Adorning the impressively high grottoes is a stained-glass window; look closely, and you will notice that it depicts an image of a streetcar; also Parise’s work. Inserted into the upper nooks of the grottoes are replicas of streetcar tokens, one from the 1920s and one from the 1950s.
In addition to the streetcar motif, Pittsburgh’s industrial history is reflected by the iron sculpture prominently hanging between floors, also designed by Parise and constructed entirely of locally milled steel. “It looks like a church in an underground trolley station,” Parise says of the space.
There are a lot of soft curves as opposed to sharp edges, in comparison to most homes. “Everything I could curve, I curved, including walls and the balcony,” says Al. “It adds softness to the place, along with the iron, steel and glass. It’s a way to contrast softness and harshness. It’s a look you don’t normally see in homes.”
Al’s fondness for water extends to the back yard, which has two self-contained fountains. Several gargoyles greet visitors (gargoyles are noticeable throughout the interior as well); in addition, planters made of unique found materials such as pickle jars and chimney caps are prominently displayed. “Al is very eclectic,” Parise says. “He’s really cool to work for. Once he trusts you, he trusts you completely.”
Lauren Cohen and Tom Taylor, owners of Farmhouse Design Studio, installed the plants and trees. “Al wanted us to create an Asian garden with a contemporary influence,” Cohen says. “Our goal was to make sure the garden looked as if it had been there forever.”
Cohen and Taylor installed a mixture of ornamental grasses, perennials and two large Japanese maples to complement the bubblers, statuary and raised flower beds that are lined with stones.
A changing city
The city-wide trend for renaissance is reaching some formerly blue collar neighborhoods, including Historic Deutschtown, also known as East Allegheny. The name is a nod to German settlers who came to the region in the 18th century. The neighborhood is home to about 700 households. Al says there are about a half dozen homes per year in the neighborhood that are renovated. Each renovation seems to maintain the old-world feeling of the community.
“I think Al’s house is very personalized. It was like his empty canvas and he put all the bells and whistles and whimsical details in it that he may have ever wanted,” says Baumbach.
“I’m not a homebody per se; I do very little entertaining, and I am out a whole lot more than I am in,” Al says. “A home is a place for me to be comfortable when I need to be comfortable, to relax when I need to relax, and to be spiritual when I need to be spiritual. When I’m here, I’m home. I’m comfortable. I don’t wish I were somewhere else.”
Contractor: Al DePasquale, October Development; Architect: Bob Baumbach; Master suite and garden designs, sculpture and water features: Josh Parise, Pittsburgh Pond and Stone Company; Stained glass: Michael Forest Bellinger, Alluvium Glassworks; Plants and perennials: Tom Taylor; Lauren Cohen, Farmhouse Design Studio
To see this Architecture / Design / Remodeling article as it appeared
in the Pittsburgh Housetrends magazine,
please visit our May 2012 Digital Edition, pages 32-40.