Pittsburgh builder crafts custom bars for South Side homes

Welcome to the 'Upper Pius Men's Club'

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It's a Saturday night on the South Side Slopes, and the regulars are gathered at the Upper Pius Men's Club. Stevie Ray Vaughan's cover of "Blues at Sunrise" is on the satellite radio while an intense game of shuffleboard unfolds. The salty aroma of fresh popcorn bursts from a machine in the corner. The bartender, Brad, draws a round of hoppy Dale's Pale Ale pints from the tap and trades neighborhood gossip.

Meanwhile, just down the street at the Pius Street Pub, barkeep Mike serves up icy gin and tonics just as the puck is about to drop on the Penguins game on the wall-mounted flat screen. A loyal crowd squeezes around the bar, and if it gets too snug, there's room on the deck -- with a wintry vista of the Downtown skyline and the dotted lights of the street grid below.

But the proprietors at either place needn't worry about fire code capacity. These are not the hot new spots on the South Side. Nor are they subject to the weekend saturation patrol "blitz" enacted to rein in rowdy revelers.

These are custom-made home bars constructed by Mike Price -- one for his parents, Jim and Monica, and another for nearby neighbor Brad Palmisiano. These aren't pre-fab pieces installed and decorated with the perfunctory Pittsburgh sports memorabilia, but rather elaborately themed creations that could pass for a real pub anywhere from Carson to Bourbon streets. Mr. Price, who runs Collier-based Price Renovations, specializes in home remodeling but has carved out a small niche creating custom bars.

"Growing up, it seemed like everyone's parents or grandparents had some basement bar tucked away with the same three bottles of Canadian whiskey," he laughed. "I couldn't understand why you'd want to hide the place where you entertain your friends and family."

"I've been to houses in Fox Chapel and Shadyside with Formica countertops, and they think that's a bar. It looks like a kitchen. That's not a bar. That's something you bought off the shelf.

"This," he says, tapping the top of his handiwork in Mr. Palmisiano's home,"is a bar."

Indeed. The bar was part of a larger renovation of the 20- by 35-foot top floor of Mr. Palmisiano's four-story 1890s house that included a full bathroom, radiant-heated floor, two-level deck with postcard views of Downtown, and the centerpiece -- 13 feet long, handmade of stained birch with a two-tone inlay.

There's a wine fridge and a tap system that goes to a keg chiller in the basement, four floors below. Exposed-filament bulbs hang over the bar, a nice complement to the antique iron lighting fixtures around the room. A five-zone surround sound system supplies music -- or Mike Lange's play-by-play. The custom back bar includes a mirror set between a pair of wooden columns, with the bar's name hand-painted on the glass. Other flourishes -- the shuffleboard table, popcorn machine, antique gumball dispenser -- have been added.

An architectural engineer, Mr. Palmisiano got to know the Price family through South Side Slopes community involvement.

"I saw his parents' bar and how much fun they have with it. It's truly the bar where everybody knows your name. This originally was going to be my third-floor bedroom. But it was around the time I became friends with Mike's parents and I thought, I want a bar, too.

"I don't treat this room like a museum. It's a bar. I had 30 people up here for a happy hour the other night. That's part of enjoying it. If we screw something up on it, we'll refinish it. Or we'll leave it."

To that end, when the bar was still pristine, Mr. Palmisiano intentionally dinged it with a bottle to break it in, like a boat christening. He hosts friends monthly but uses the space almost daily. His entertainment budget increased initially, but he's built a collection of premium spirits via visitors' gifts.

"Everyone's good about bringing a bottle -- if they want invited back they will," he laughed.

He also took the Prices' advice and has begun decorating it slowly with items that have some type of meaning, from family history to personal travels.

"They told me to have some things that have a story," he said.

The Prices' Pius Street Pub has plenty. It's like a Pittsburgh history museum.

There's an old fire call box with a telegraph machine and a preserved snake in a jar that once belonged to the legendary Chiodo's in Homestead; an original print from local artist Johno Praczak; a century-old Pittsburgh police nightstick; a shadow box filled with old drink chips from bars and regional ethnic and social clubs of days gone by; and a large satellite photo print of the Golden Triangle and South Side circa 1982 during Pittsburgh's second renaissance.

When I asked 76-year-old Jim Price his favorite item in the bar, he said: "Her," pointing to his wife of 45 years. "I'm not dumb, you know," he said with a smile.

The bar itself has a similar look to Mr. Palimisano's -- dark, stained wood of a substantial weight; columns; a mirror with the name hand-painted. This was Price's first attempt at a bar, built in 2005.

"I just kind of figured it out. Dad said, 'Well, what if I don't like it?' I said 'Well, then you don't have to pay me anything.' "

Mr. Price built another bar -- Pappy's Pub -- in the Washington County home of retired city firefighter Ken Mary. He installed a section of the massive wooden bar from a place called "The Hut" -- owned by Mr. Mary's grandfather -- that once existed near the old Diamond Market, Downtown. He then built a tap system to run through a mini-fire hydrant Mr. Mary had acquired from the Wabash Tunnel.

A self-taught craftsman, Mr. Price graduated from Virginia Tech in 1992 with a business management degree and took an office job with a Downtown industrial firm that left him unfulfilled. Two years later, he'd quit and started doing home renovation work despite no formal trade school education.

"I make mistakes but try not to make them twice," he said.

Ironically, Mr. Price doesn't have one of these bars in his own home, but he is currently rehabbing an old church on Arlington Avenue to live in, and it'll have a bar.

Working title?

"The Tavern-acle."

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Price Renovations: 412-221-3316 or 412-445-8873; Dan Gigler: dgigler@post-gazette.com; Twitter @gigs412.


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