When Dr. Bruce Dixon bought the Charles Schwab mansion in 1984, he was 41 and full of ideas about how to restore the steel tycoon's palatial home on Jones Avenue in North Braddock.
Twenty-four years later, the man in charge of the Allegheny County Health Department is still restoring his dream house, and his enduring love affair with its baronial rooms and expansive grounds shows no sign of waning.
Slowly, Dr. Dixon has revived the splendor of the Richardsonian Romanesque home with a steely resolve, a passion for Victorian antiques and a taste for vivid Bradbury & Bradbury wallpapers.
AUDIO SLIDESHOW: Click the picture for a multimedia presentation on the Dr. Bruce Dixon's restoration of the Schwab mansion.
What possessed him to embark on such a daunting project?
"I have no idea. I was just plain crazy. I figured it would be a challenge. It's a diversion from work," said the physician, who lives in Forest Hills, just a few miles from North Braddock.
His maternal grandparents, Frank and Nellie Redman, were prominent residents of Braddock and friends of Charles Schwab, who started as a $1-a-day stake driver for Andrew Carnegie and wound up as president of Carnegie Steel Corp., which became U.S. Steel.
The Redmans' bed occupies an upstairs room, and their imposing, intricately carved oak sideboard stands out in the commodious dining room.
Now 69, Dr. Dixon sounds pleased with his progress, noting that WGBH, the Boston public broadcasting station, filmed scenes for a documentary about the life of Andrew Carnegie in the 16-room mansion, which was designed by Frederick Osterling, one of Pittsburgh's most prolific and versatile architects.
"It was rather destitute when I got the place," said Dr. Dixon, who paid $72,500 for the property.
By that time, two school districts -- North Braddock and Woodland Hills -- had altered the mansion, turning living space into offices and classrooms with fluorescent lights while building playgrounds and an asphalt access road. The silver maples that had shaded the 1 1/2-acre property had been cut down and a chain-link fence had replaced a decorative iron railing. When Woodland Hills no longer needed the house, it sat vacant for several years.
Mr. Osterling's design for the Schwab home's first-floor foyer is strikingly similar to that of Clayton, the Point Breeze residence of Henry Clay Frick. Massive arched fireplaces visible in the two homes' first floors are like mirror images. Mr. Osterling added a porte-cochere and a wide arcaded stone porch to Clayton, features that he included in the Schwab mansion.
The Schwab house, begun in 1890 and finished in 1893, showed what Mr. Osterling could do when he designed a home from the start, while his 1892 expansion of Mr. Frick's home was a substantial enlargement of an existing structure in the French chateau style, said Albert Tannler, historical collections director at Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation.
Mr. Schwab and Mr. Frick were lucky in their choice of architect, and Dr. Dixon was fortunate in his choice of friends. With the help of Richard Pelino, a gifted carpenter and trained machinist who died recently, he restored seven rooms on the first and second floors in the front half of the home. Workers he hired, plus countless hours of personal sweat equity and tens of thousands of dollars in expenses, have paid off.
Today, the oak, cherry and tiger's eye maple woodwork glistens in the grand foyer, front parlor, library and dining room as well as an upstairs living room and bedroom.
Outside, Dr. Dixon replanted the silver maples, which have grown to maturity. Graceful ostrich and cinnamon ferns fringe the home's exterior, while rows of elegant red and orange canna lilies wave in the summer heat. Creamy, fragrant magnolia blossoms unfurl in trees on the back lawn.
For Dr. Dixon, the greatest satisfaction of owning the mansion has been "seeing it come back. The biggest stuff is doing the interior -- the mechanical systems, the cosmetic things, the plumbing, heating and electricity. You learn it by common sense and by working with other people and seeing what they were doing."
One of the home's art history mysteries is a magnificent stained-glass window showcased on a staircase landing. Dr. Dixon still wonders if it is the work of Alfred Godwin, the famed stained glass designer from Philadelphia who trained Horace Rudy, William Willet and Frederick Wilson, all of whom created beautiful glass designs for Pittsburgh buildings. Dr. Dixon's demanding job and the home's pressing preservation needs have prevented him from doing the research necessary to answer that question.
Still, even a casual observer can see that major work remains. Time and the elements have eroded the pillars of a sweeping sandstone porch, and a closer look reveals a rusted I-beam beneath the front steps. Mortar is missing from large sections of brick on the home's third-story turret. The lathe and woodwork beneath the porte cochere hangs in strips.
Dr. Dixon is well aware of his endless to-do list.
"I've got to fix those steps. I've got to point the front of it," he acknowledged, pointing to a new iron gate that will enclose the driveway. Forged by Frank Caputo of North Versailles, the ironwork is a replica of the original and awaits installation.
Despite these obvious needs, Dr. Dixon has begun rebuilding two red brick greenhouses that sat side by side until U.S. Steel took them down in the 1940s. About two years ago, the physician discovered the buildings' original foundations while tearing out an asphalt access road. The greenhouses appear on Mr. Osterling's architectural blueprints, which the physician consults often. Dr. Dixon said he also might rebuild the carriage house that once stood at the back of the property.
Virginia Cook, an Edgewood lawyer who does estate law and is a longtime friend of Dr. Dixon, celebrated her birthday along with 60 guests at the house in 2005.
"It's utterly magnificent. We are so lucky that it has survived in the shape that it's in. Everyone was so impressed by the beauty of the interior and how excellent all of the architectural detailing was in it," Ms. Cook said.A circa 1940s photo of the Schwab mansion shows the greenhouses that were taken down by U.S. Steel. Dr. Dixon is rebuilding them. He also would like to rebuild the carriage house, which stood behind them.
Click photo for larger image.Bob Donaldson, Post-Gazette
The deteriorating wood ceiling of the porte cochere at the side entrance of the mansion is one job that awaits Dr. Dixon.
Click photo for larger image.
John Robert Axtell of Friendship, the grand-nephew of Mr. Osterling, and his wife, Diana Ames, attended the party, too. Ms. Ames has done extensive research on Mr. Osterling's work.
"It's great that he is so committed to his hometown. Dr. Dixon had the vision to see through all of the alterations and neglect," Mr. Axtell said.
In the spring of this year, members of the Society of Architectural Historians toured the home and marveled at the view from the servants' quarters on the third floor. In the distance, the sprawling Edgar Thomson Works operated at full blast.
Dr. Dixon has no timetable for completing restoration of the home and grounds. He stays overnight there sometimes when he's working, but his main residence will remain in Forest Hills. His friends marvel at his devotion to the project.
"This is a labor of love. He'd better plan on a long life," Ms. Cook said.
Correction/Clarification: (Published Aug. 7, 2007) Dr. Bruce Dixon, head of the Allegheny County Health Department, is 69. A wrong age was given in this story as originally published Aug. 4, 2007 about the Schwab mansion in North Braddock.
Marylynne Pitz can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1648. Correction/Clarification: (Published 8/6/07) Dr. Bruce Dixon is 69. An incorrect age was given.