If you own an old house, the experts are coming

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Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette
Gary and Donna Otto spent years to restore this historic North Side landmark, which once belonged to the family of early 20th-century novelist Mary Roberts Rinehart.

By Kevin Kirkland, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

If you're an old house owner, you know that the hardest part of a renovation is often finding good craftspeople. Two events at next week's national preservation conference will allow you to not only meet such people but also see some of the finest examples of their work, in person.

The up-close look will come at a Candelight House Tour from 7 to 11 p.m. Thursday. Fourteen restored houses in the North Side's Allegheny West and Mexican War Streets neighborhoods will be open. One is the 1870s house of Gary and Donna Otto, who lived through (and paid for) a two-stage "restoration deluxe" of the Mary Roberts Rinehart house, named for the early 20th-century novelist.

Gary and Donna Otto in their historic North Side home.
Click photo for larger image.

"It's amazing what you have to go through to find talented craftsmen," said Mrs. Otto. "It's a lot of trial and error, sometimes fixing what someone else did."

"We knew what we wanted. We searched out these guys," Mr. Otto said.

Some of their "finds" are members of the Western Pennsylvania Craftsmen's Guild, who will take part in the 11th annual Old House Fair, beginning Wednesday at the Hilton Downtown.

The fair, organized by the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation to bring together providers and users of restoration products and services, has been held in years past at the former Victoria Hall in Bloomfield and at the Pittsburgh Home & Garden Show in the convention center. This time, it's part of the National Trust for Historic Preservation's National Preservation Conference, running Tuesday through next Sunday.

Unlike past fairs, this one aims to accommodate both the public and the 2,000 preservation experts who will come from across the country for the conference. As such, more than half of its 80 vendors will be national businesses, nonprofits, colleges and others.

Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette
The study has a portrait of Mrs. Otto above the fireplace.

Some provide highly specialized products or services used mostly in institutional restoration. Visitors may be surprised to find that a few have local addresses:

Church Restoration Group of Cranberry (www. churchrestoration.com) offers disaster response and restoration for historic and sacred sites.

Matco Associates in Robinson (www.matcoinc.com) treats historic buildings with corrosion damage.

Preserve Croatian Heritage Foundation (www.stnicholasns. org) sells items connected with the recently closed St. Nicholas Church on the North Side, the first Croatian Catholic church in North America.

But for homeowners, the real stars of the fair are the craftspeople. Eight local businesses at the fair belong to the Western Pennsylvania Craftsmen's Guild (www.westpenncraftguild.com), a nearly four-year-old group that includes artisans in carpentry, woodworking and refinishing, stained glass, plastering, tilework, ironwork, and more. Five of the eight worked on the Ottos' house. In fact, theirs was one of the jobs that drew them together.

Jerry Wilson and Vicki McCracken played the biggest role. Their woodworking firm Wilson & McCracken carved the imposing 51/2-foot-tall walnut newel post at the bottom of the central staircase and replaced pieces of the banister and paneled arch over it.

Over several years, they also constructed paneled doors and fireplace mantels to replace ones that were missing, built massive cherry and walnut burl bookcases for the library, and rebuilt an antique oak pharmacy cabinet for the upstairs study. For the cabinet's eight doors, John Kelly of Kelly Art Glass fashioned ornate stained-glass panels depicting family crests, four for Mr. Otto, four for his wife. Mr. Kelly also made the leaded glass doors in the foyer.

Master gilder Joseph Youss Kadri applied gold leaf on molding above and below a frieze in the center hall, French-polished its wainscoting and gilded a coffered ceiling and other items. George Starz of Starz Interior Restoration refinished the rest of the house's wainscoting and woodwork.

Plasterer Dan McClelland repaired and skimcoated walls and pieced together the coffered ceiling at the top of the three-story staircase, which Mr. Kadri then gilded.

Other key craftspeople included decorator Betty Larman, floor refinisher Bob Knaus and artists Celeste Parrendo, who painted a frieze in the front hall, Falk Kirschner and Dave VanDall, who faux-finished various rooms.

"Dave came in, did it and it was fabulous, exactly what I wanted. And he wasn't here for the rest of our lives," said Mrs. Otto.

The house had been turned into apartments, then left vacant for two years when Mr. Otto bought it in 1974 and began the first phase of renovation. He started the second, much more extensive phase when he married Mrs. Otto.

At times, the couple was "far apart" on how the rooms would look, they said. Mr. Otto said it took an entire summer to choose colors for the exterior. But they found that when they worked together, the results were impressive.

"When you can redo a house, it's such a blessing for the house and the neighborhood," Mrs. Otto said.

The Candlelight House Tour runs from 7 to 11 p.m. Thursday. Tickets, $20, are available in advance at www.mexicanwarstreets.org (click on "calendar of events") or on tour day at The Inn on the Mexican War Streets, 604 W. North Ave., or Jones Hall, 808 Ridge Ave. Shuttles will run and refreshments will be served at both locations. Information: 412-323-9030.

The Old House Fair will be held in the Hilton's Grand Ballroom. Hours are 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Wednesday; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday; noon to 6 p.m. Friday. Free admission but pick up a pass on the second floor of the Hilton. Information: www.phlf.org.

Kevin Kirkland can be reached at kkirkland@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1978.


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