The McCook Mansion on Fifth Avenue is being transformed into a hotel
May 8, 2010 8:00 AM
Richard Pearson is restoring the Willis McCook mansion on Fifth Avenue.
Light from stained glass windows casts a warm glow on the carved quartersawn oak wainscoting and staircase in the grand hall.
A first-floor parlor will become a breakfast room for guests.
The grand hall's huge fireplace features a scene with a castle and two knights, one of whom is on a rearing black horse. The mansion has 11 fireplaces.
The intricate woodwork and carving done by Wollaeger Manufacturing Co. of Milwaukee are evident in the grand staircase.
By Marylynne Pitz Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
When Willis McCook built his Fifth Avenue mansion in 1906, he wanted a great English manor house. The industrialist, personal lawyer of Henry Clay Frick and father of 10, got what he wanted for $300,000.
Highlights of the gray granite and limestone mansion at 5105 Fifth Ave. include intricate woodwork throughout, beamed ceilings, decorative plaster moldings, lancet-style stained-glass windows and a painted fireplace surround featuring medieval knights astride their horses.
One of the four remaining great houses on Shadyside's Millionaire's Row, the 20,000-square foot Jacobean mansion is being transformed into a luxury hotel that expects to welcome its first guests in October.
The imposing manor, plus an 8,000-square foot red brick Tudor-style house Mr. McCook built next door as a wedding gift for his eldest daughter, Bessie, will offer 23 suites or rooms. The Mansions on Fifth will offer butler service, spa treatments, a fitness facility, wine tastings and Wi-Fi.
Restoring both homes will cost more than $8 million. Most of the financing came from ERECT funds, a pension plan for construction trades, along with the city Urban Redevelopment Authority and private investors.
Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation provided a $1 million bridge loan. The foundation's president, Arthur Ziegler Jr., said that loan allowed Richard Pearson and his wife, Mary Del Brady to "buy out a partner and save the house and assemble a very complicated financing package and develop a plan. He had every possible impediment placed in his way."
Just off the grand hall is a large library with built-in bookcases. But guests who would rather sip wine than read Edith Wharton can visit the former billiard room, which will become a pub. In this space, with its long built-in window seats, leaded-glass windows, stained-glass medallions and golden quarter-sawn oak wainscoting, people can drink deeply of the Gilded Age, regardless of what's in their glass.
Mr. Pearson, who oversaw a Main Street program and restored 18th- and 19th-century buildings in Halifax after moving to the capital of Nova Scotia in 1972, is overseeing the project with his wife. The couple, both 59, grew up in McKeesport and made their First Holy Communion together.
Mr. Pearson is managing partner for all of the partnerships created to develop the property. His wife, Mary Del Brady is chief executive officer of Redpath Integrated Pathology in the Strip District.
In 2004, a fire damaged the mansion, sending Carnegie-Mellon University students living there running for safety.
"The roof was destroyed by the fire. We had to reconstruct a third of the roof," Mr. Pearson said.
Major repairs began on the home last January.
"The turret in the back of the building was sinking because the structural steel had rusted," Mr. Pearson said.
A stone terrace along the back of the building was unsafe and was removed while the turret was reinforced. The terrace must be rebuilt if the building is to receive National Register status.
Outside a side entrance is a porte-cochere that once welcomed carriages. It, too, will have to be rebuilt, Mr. Pearson said.
The mansion's 11 gas fireplaces will be back in operation when it opens to guests. The nearby McCook-Reed house at 925 Amberson Ave. has five fireplaces.
The home's 155 double-hung windows afford plenty of light. Off the first-floor grand hall is a neoclassical room that overlooks the front lawn and has woodwork that's been painted white. Originally called the ladies' parlor, it will be the breakfast room for guests.
The woodwork throughout the house is by Wollaeger Manufacturing Co. of Milwaukee. There are intriguing faces carved into the oak-paneled, formal dining room, which has a mirrored sideboard, built-in cabinetry, stone fireplace and pendant plaster ceiling with glittering crystal chandelier.
On the second floor, the hallways are 10 feet wide. Originally, there were nine bedrooms on this level, including a master suite with an adjoining bath.
A second-floor presidential suite will have 1,000 square feet of space. The McCook children's play room, which includes a white fireplace with pink flowers in the tile, will become a guest room, too.
The house will have 13 guest rooms, including two suites spread over two levels and a handicapped-accessible room that overlooks the front lawn. Guests who stay in the northwest corner of the mansion's third floor will have a cathedral ceiling and views of Shadyside Presbyterian Church and Children's Hospital. Jendoco Construction will build a loft above the second-floor chapel, which was used by Mrs. McCook, a devout Catholic, and her husband, who converted to Catholicism when they married.
A cavernous basement with 12-foot-high ceilings and exposed brick walls includes space for a fitness room, a wine cellar and tasting area, and space for spa treatments such as massages, manicures and pedicures. There will also be an 800-square-foot apartment for an innkeeper, an elevator and catering kitchen.
The son of Dr. George Latimer McCook, Willis Fisher McCook was born in 1851 in Lisbon, Ohio, but his family moved to Pittsburgh soon afterward. He studied law at Columbia University after graduating in 1873 from Yale, where he captained the first football team and participated in the first intercollegiate football contest ever held in this country. He also led Yale's varsity crew for two years.
A pioneer in the field of corporate law, Mr. McCook was president and director of Pittsburgh Steel Co. and the senior member of the law firm McCook and Jarrett. He died at age 72 in 1923.
The McCooks lived in the house until the late 1930s. The family fell on hard times after the Great Depression and the city took the house for back taxes of more than $65,000. Emil Bonavita Sr. and his wife, Margaret, bought it in 1949 for $28,000 in a delinquent tax sale, according to a Pittsburgh Press article published in January of that year.
For the next 50 years, CMU students studying architecture, engineering, painting, design or drama rented mansion rooms from the Bonavitas.
Once the properties receive National Register status, Landmarks will hold a preservation easement on the mansion's facade, giving it control over any changes proposed to the home's exterior. TriStar Hotel Group, based in Phoenix, will manage the property. Bob Sendall, of All in Good Taste Productions, will provide food, beverage and event planning.
Melanie Werner will relocate Galerie Werner from her current Ellsworth Avenue location in Shadyside and display art that is for sale throughout the mansion.