For 25 years, contractor Frank Quinn has been restoring old houses on the North Side and all over Western Pennsylvania. Now he is creating a place for himself in an 1865 row house in his favorite North Side neighborhood, the Mexican War Streets.
"I'm the new guy on the block. I love the people here, the energy, the attitude. I wanted to be a part of it," he said.
His work in progress on Monterey Street is one of more than a dozen stops on the 43rd annual Mexican War Streets House & Garden Tour Sept. 9. Mr. Quinn, a native of Sleepy Hollow, N.Y., paid $170,000 for this house in August 2011. Held by the same family for nearly 150 years, it was the worst-looking house on the block with ugly, jury-rigged bathrooms, a 1940s kitchen,'70s-vintage fake brick wall coverings and paneling, dropped ceilings, and several layers of linoleum and carpeting covering its original pine floors.
Luckily for Mr. Quinn, it also had four original slate fireplace mantels, plaster crown molding, four-panel doors, Lincrusta wall covering and built-in shutters on its original arched, double-hung windows. The horsehair plaster walls and crown molding hidden behind the suspended ceiling tiles needed major repairs.
"I love the cracks," he said. "A home is like a person -- it gets wrinkled."
A lifelong craftsman whose father was a plasterer and paint contractor, Mr. Quinn says this isn't a building, at least not to him.
"It's a work of art. It has a soul. I love that."
Mr. Quinn says he and his crew are just the latest in a long line of people who have left their mark on this house and neighborhood. He's particularly pleased that much of the work has been done by lifelong Pittsburghers Gary Welsh and brothers Brian and Tim Kottler, all of the South Side. All three have worked with him for 15 years or more and have learned restoration at his side. They've also learned not to throw anything away.
"I save everything," he said. "I'm a purist. If something was missing, we made it."
They had to replace many of the corbels at the roofline and worked hard on the front doorway. But they didn't strip it down to the bare wood. "The paint is holding it together," he joked.
Two men worked for two months on the front of the house, whose brick could not be painted under national historic district regulations because it had never been painted. Starting on the front gave Mr. Quinn a chance to meet his new neighbors -- and engage them in his project.
Unsure what colors to paint the restored or re-created trim, he and his workers tried more than a dozen shades on the doorway, cornices and window hoods and frames. When passers-by commented, he asked their opinion on which they liked best. Their votes selected five; a number that would have suited the middle-class Victorians who lived here.
Mr. Quinn hopes the color selections inside and out also suit the woman who sold him the house. She continued to live there for months after he bought it while his men worked on the front and back. Now living in Florida, she plans to return for a visit in October. He wants to surprise her with a tour.
"She trusted me not to modernize it, to keep it intact," he said.
When Mr. Quinn moved to the area in the late 1980s, he and his wife chose an 1890s farmhouse in Peters, Washington County. Now that their four children are grown, he decided he was ready for an urban lifestyle. After paying $170,000, he estimates he has put $60,000 into this house and will likely spend another $40,000 or $50,000 to finish it. He can't wait to move in.
"To bring in furniture and say 'We're home!' -- that's exciting. Everything you want you can walk to. This is exactly where I belong. I hope I can add something to this great city."
By almost anyone's estimation, he already has.
Tour tickets are $18 in advance, $20 on the day of the tour at the corner of Monterey Street and West North Avenue, North Side (15212). There will also be a midway with vendors, artists, restoration specialists and tastings provided by local restaurants.
Tickets are $75 each or two for $125 for the Preservation Gala from 7 to 11 p.m. Friday at the National Aviary. There will be cocktails, a 14-piece band and a DJ. There will also be a special VIP reception that night at the former Wickersham School of Music, now a private residence.
Proceeds benefit the Mexican War Streets Society's historic facade restoration program. Information, tickets: www.mexicanwarstreets.org.
Kevin Kirkland: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1978.